What a long, strange trip it's been
To set the record straight ...
I still don't own cowboy boots -- or a pickup truck -- and no southern accent to report.
I do have a new appreciation for Du Quoin football, the rich tradition of Illinois high school basketball, and country music.
I've been covering prep sports for the Daily Herald since 1995, and I've never had a fall like this.
While the rest of my Daily Herald colleagues were gearing up for the 2016-17 school year with their fall sports previews, I was on assignment in southern Illinois.
This summer, the Daily Herald bought 11 newspapers from GateHouse Media in the far southern part of our state. Five of those are daily papers, and in Benton and DuQuoin, both papers were operating without sports reporters.
So that's how on the opening day of high school football practice on Aug. 8, I found myself at VanMetre Field in DuQuoin. It literally felt like a world away from Burgess Field or Norris Stadium.
Until August, the only time I had spent time in that part of the state came driving south on the way to Nashville, Memphis or New Orleans.
I don't think I fully realized just how far south I was until stopping at a rest stop and looking at the big "you are here" pointer on the state of Illinois map. Much further south than St. Louis or Evansville -- basically a stone's throw from Kentucky.
Always up for a road trip, I really enjoyed my time down there. In this day and age when all you hear about is the decline of newspaper readership, it was a joy working on a project to invest in the community newspaper.
After that first practice in DuQuoin, I found myself at Christopher High School -- with all of 222 students -- and new defensive coordinator Anthony Hargrove.
If that name rings a bell, Hargrove played eight years in the NFL. He won a Super Bowl as a defensive lineman on the New Orleans Saints. He also was involved in the Bounty Gate scandal and suspended for drugs. Hargrove used his own struggles to teach the Christopher kids about taking a better path, and it was inspiring to see his enthusiasm for coaching football.
At Benton football practice I met the Rangers' standout quarterback Hamilton Page, who greets you with a "Howdy." That was the first of one friendly, polite encounter after another.
The first night of the football season took me to a town called Red Bud covering Pinckneyville's season-opener. From my hotel in Marion to Red Bud, my phone routed me from one back road to another, to the point I literally felt like I was in the middle of nowhere. My radio choices were basically Cardinals baseball on sports talk, or country music.
It was in Red Bud, a town of 3,698 that felt like a million compared to what I drove through to get there, where I have never felt more in the minority. While grabbing a bite to eat off the downtown square, I counted a stretch of 50 cars that passed through, and 41 of them were pickup trucks. My Toyota Solara might as well been from another planet.
I figured Friday night football is Friday night football. For the most part it was -- the band, big crowds -- though I was struck by the Confederate flag in a parking lot tailgate. I became a big fan of the 7 p.m. kickoffs and no sophomore game, which made deadline much less stressful.
From football, I moved on to cross country, volleyball and golf. If you are wondering about soccer, swimming and tennis, the schools didn't field teams.
That was just one of many differences between the world of high school sports I'm used to in the Chicago suburbs. I always kept a mental note of differences, and seeing how economically depressed many of the areas are certainly was striking. There's a lot we take for granted with facilities and opportunities here.
On the other hand, the history and uniqueness of the basketball gyms were a treat compared to some of the new cookie-cutter gyms in the suburbs. Benton, with Doug Collins among the greats whose photo hangs on the wall, was a personal favorite.
Last month we hired a sports reporter in DuQuoin, and a few weeks ago we hired a sports reporter in Benton. My work in southern Illinois is finished, and I'm back to an exciting close to our fall sports season.
In the last three weeks I've covered the Geneva girls and boys cross country teams running away with Upstate Eight championships, saw the Hampshire soccer team go to penalty kicks for a regional title, got a first-hand look at Geneva and Huntley's No. 1 seeded sectional volleyball squads, and enjoyed every second of Batavia's rally from 21 down to tie St. Charles North only for the North Stars to pull out a 42-35 win in the final minute.
Just a typical fall for me in the Fox Valley.
Now excuse me while I find some Zac Brown Band.