Organizing material for a book on a subject, like high school basketball in Illinois, that has been done before is difficult enough. Obviously, you are anxious to research new historical data and produce fresh storylines that will intrigue readers.
But what about a book on a subject that hasn’t been done before, like high school football in Illinois? That was my challenge after University of Illinois Press approved what turned out to be Dusty, Deek, and Mr. Do-Right: High School Football In Illinois.
Football long has taken a backseat to basketball in Illinois. But its history, in small towns from Galena to Du Quoin to Aledo to Carthage to Stockton to Metamora to larger communities from Bloomington to East St. Louis to Peoria to Decatur to Springfield and on to Chicago and its suburbs, is no less exciting to the thousands of people who have followed the sport for decades.
As in basketball, I felt it was most important to profile the great players, coaches, teams and games that have given high school football in Illinois its own identity, even before the introduction of the state playoff series in 1974.
In the end, I interviewed more than 350 people. Who was the first? Dick Butkus. How could I write a book about football in Illinois without a chapter on one of the two greatest players in state history, the other being Red Grange. I interviewed him via telephone for nearly three hours from his home in Malibu, Calif., on Dec. 22, 2007. He couldn’t have been more accommodating.
One irony about all of this: When I interviewed players and coaches for my first book for University of Illinois Press, Sweet Charlie, Dike, Cazzie, and Bobby Joe: High School Basketball in Illinois, I discovered that many of the players still lived close to their old hometowns, even 60 years later. But few football players remain close to their roots.
Maybe you have to be an historian or a traditionalist to appreciate what these coaches and players have accomplished over the years, how they built successful programs and produced championship teams. But it is so rewarding to explain how they did it.
Taylor Bell has covered high school and professional sports in Illinois for more than forty years, mostly for the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Sun-Times. He is author of the new book Dusty, Deek, and Mr. Do-Right: High School Football In Illinois.