Two weeks ago, Chicago Curie basketball player Cliff Alexander set off yet another high school sports debate.
In making his college decision at a nationally televised news conference, Alexander acted like he would choose the University of Illinois from a series of hats on the table in front of him. But at the last second Alexander put the Illini hat back down on the table and picked up a University of Kansas cap instead.
The innocent pumpfake caused a number of people to opine about the state of high school sports. They said today’s kids were only concerned with recruiting stars, individual glory and what college coach was coming to practice the next day.
But although the outside attention to recruiting and internal pressure of generating college interest has increased tenfold over the past decade, the ultimate goal for the vast majority of high school athletes never has changed. They want to win a state championship. They want to make history.
Northern Illinois receiver Jacob Brinlee went to the state championship game with Lake Zurich in 2011. What’s his best memory of the trip to Champaign?
“It was pretty special just because of all the guys (on the team) you grew up with ever since our freshman year,” Brinlee said. “It was special just being with guys you grew up with in your life.”
When each of the eight championship games end, neither team’s athletes will be overwhelmed with emotion because of recruiting rankings, official visits or national letters of intent. Often, the toughest of football players will become speechless and reduced to tears solely because the quest for a trophy and a title finally has ended, either successfully or a few plays short.
We often focus on the negatives associated with high school sports, but too many times we neglect to see the larger positive themes – hard work, sportsmanship, perseverance and camaraderie among others – present in every game.
Watch any of this weekend’s eight games and you’ll see the same thing: A roster full of high school student-athletes who have spent the past four months – and often four years – playing and working together toward this moment. It shows when almost every play ends with one teammate helping pick another off the ground and when every scoring play finishes with a group hug in the end zone.
High school football isn’t perfect, but this weekend will beautifully showcase that the reasons we love the game – passion, emotion, determination, a sense of team over self – still very much are ingrained in the sport at the prep level.
Sometimes the most obvious things are the hardest to see. Don’t miss another chance this weekend.
• Ross Jacobson is the sports editor of the Daily Chronicle. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @RossJacobson.