Rochelle football and a mythical state championship

Tom McDermott

I remember the day I won the world championship in marbles. Four of us from the neighborhood had gathered with our cat’s eyes, ades and clearies. Steelies were banned as they chipped the glass marbles. A circle was drawn in the dirt, we selected our favorite shooters and knuckled down. At the end of the match I had collected a handful of new marbles, yes it was keepsies, and declared myself the worlds champion. Now, if you have never counted down the final seconds as you shot for a championship winning basket or goal while playing alone, you can question the validity of my claim. 

Now let’s talk football. It was 1899 when the first Rochelle High School football team took to the field. William Healy was fullback and captain. Charles Unger was the quarterback. There was no coach. The captain was in charge of practices and formulating a game plan. The quarterback called the plays during the game. 

Rochelle High School was located on the corner of 8th Street and 5th Avenue, there was no football field so all home games were played at the fairgrounds in the southern portion of the community. 

Each player purchased their own canvas uniform. Everyday street shoes were taken to the shoemaker to have spikes added. There was no padding or helmets. The only protection for the players were stocking caps and a specialized nose guard. As quarterback Charles Unger stated, ”We didn’t worry about hips, knees, shoulders or heads. Our noses were of the most concern to us.” The nose guard was formed of hardened leather which was strapped behind the head and clinched by a bit in the mouth. 

The team manager was required to organize games, transportation, referees and scheduling. Transportation included wagons and railroads. The team traveled by train and when they arrived had to walk to the field. This explains why all football games were played near rail lines. 

Rochelle’s first season saw only one loss. The defeat was at the hands of Dixon, and of course there was controversy. Although the game had been scheduled as a high school contest, rumor has it that about mid-way through the game players from the Dixon Business College were snuck onto the field as high school players. When the final whistle blew, Rochelle was handed its first ever football loss. 

Football has always been a dangerous sport. In 1904, 18 players died playing football in college or high school, the majority in high school. 1905 saw 19 fatalities and 159 serious injuries. Many colleges were debating whether to continue football programs or move to the safer sport of rugby. Theodore Roosevelt, known for saying, “I believe in rough games and in rough, manly sports. I do not feel any particular sympathy for the person who gets battered about a good deal so long as it is not fatal,” joined the fight to make football safer. 

New rules were created for the 1906 season to protect the players; the flying wedge was banned, offense and defense would line up two to three feet apart, first downs were extended from five yards to 10 yards, and the forward pass. 

The forward pass would propel Rochelle High School to its only state championship. Remember, I was a world champion. The forward pass of 1909 was not the forward pass of today. In 1909 anyone in the backfield could pass the ball, only the two ends could receive. If the pass went out of bounds the defense received the ball at the point it went out of bounds. If the receiver failed to touch the pass the defense took possession. If the pass was incomplete but the receiver touched the ball it was a 15-yard penalty. Not many were willing to risk the pass.

Rochelle’s first foe of the 1909 season was Sycamore. It was a hard-fought battle with Rochelle ahead at the final whistle 6-5. 

After the first game Rochelle High acquired a coach, Fred Gardner. Fred brought college experience and a knowledge of the newest plays in the college football arena. 

Rochelle defeated Crane 10-6, tied East Aurora 0-0, and edged out Sterling High 14-12. Rochelle traveled to Clinton, Iowa for their only loss 12-25. 

It was through these four weeks that Rochelle worked to perfect their passing game. The second month of the season placed Rochelle on the field against Batavia. Rochelle used the pass to spread the defense and walked away with a 48-0 victory. The next two weeks saw a football panic amongst the Rochelle opponents. Dixon refused to play and Rochelle received their first forfeit. The next week DeKalb forfeited. Princeton was the final opponent of the 1909 season. Rochelle completed 18 passes and amassed 37 points to Princeton’s 0.

Once the forward pass became part of the Rochelle football offense, the team scored 85 points in two games and the opposition scored a total of 0. 

In the 1909 football season, the Rochelle team played a total of nine games in which they won five, lost one, tied one, and received two forfeits. The regional newspapers declared Rochelle the best team in Northern Illinois. From this ranking Rochelle was declared the state champion. The State of Illinois did not have a state championship playoff system for football until 1974, so the trend was for there to be several state champions. Each major regional newspaper could declare a champion and there was no means to disprove the claim. 

In 1974, Illinois established five classes for football, each with a champion. Today there are eight classes with 32 teams per class qualifying. There has never been a verifiable, single state football champion in Illinois. 

Much like my world championship in marbles has to be referred to as mythical, Illinois football championships pre-1974 are referred to as mythical. But as my father always said, “You only have to beat the one that enters the ring against you.”

Tom McDermott is a Flagg Township Museum historian and Rochelle city councilman.