BELLEVILLE — While the Belleville News-Democrat's Football Player of the Year award typically has gone to an offensive star, the rock-solid hits of Althoff High School all-state senior linebacker Erik Furmanek shifted the balance of power in 2012.
Furmanek rarely left the field as a linebacker, offensive tackle and special teams contributor, leaving a wide footprint on the metro-east football scene.
Area coaches responded by voting him the Belleville News-Democrat's Small-School Football (Class 1A-4A) Player of the Year. His credentials included 174 tackles, four interceptions, nine tackles for loss and a fumble recovery along with being one of the area's top offensive tackles.
"It means a lot because offensive guys always get the publicity for scoring points and everything," Furmanek said. "I thought our defense was just as important as our offense, if not more."
That defense -- which included Furmanek and Illinois defensive line recruit Merrick Jackson --helped Althoff come painfully close to winning a Class 2A state title. The Crusaders lost 14-7 to (Aledo) Mercer County in the championship game.
"I really couldn't have asked for a better senior year," said Furmanek, who had 15 tackles and a fumble recovery in the championship game. "Even though we lost, we still had a great year and had a lot of great things happen. We made a lot of great memories that will last forever."
Althoff coach Ken Turner --named News-Democrat Co-Coach of the Year along with Columbia's Scott Horner -- agreed.
"We expected to win that game until it was 0:00 on the clock." Turner said. "These seniors had one goal and that was to win that championship. It was a really good senior class and he was the leader of it. They put everything into it.
"After a few years go by they'll realize they did some special things this year."
The 6-foot-4, 240-pound Furmanek is leaving quite a legacy behind at Althoff.
He finished his career as a three-year starter with a whopping 372 tackles. He was in double-digits nearly every game and registered a career-high 23 tackles Oct. 12 in a 7-6 win over Cahokia.
Furmanek's career totals also include 21 tackles for loss, six interceptions and three fumble recoveries.
"I'd like to thank my dad for really making football happen for me," Furmanek said of his father, Phil Furmanek. "He's the one that signed me up in eighth grade and hasn't missed a game since. He's always been there to pick me up from practice, take me to a camp five hours away or just empty his wallet for a new pair of cleats."
Turner said Furmanek's confidence and intensity rubbed off on everyone around him.
"I feel like he's well-deserving of it," Turner said of the Player of the Year honor. "For us, he dominated football games and he never came off the field. When you left our football games, you definitely knew who No. 50 was."
Turner said Furmanek's leadership abilities meshed well with the on-field destruction he carried out on a regular basis.
"His strong will and his ability to be a leader helped carry our team even further this year," Turner said. "He had 100 tackles as a sophomore, but his speed and knowledge of the game just continued to grow each year. His confidence grew more and more and that came with him being bigger, faster and stronger."
Furmanek is on the recruiting radar of several Division I schools, but so far the lone scholarship offer he has is from Western Illinois.
"I've heard from a lot more schools," said Furmanek, mentioning Indiana State, Missouri State, Tennessee-Martin, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Illinois State, Southeast Missouri and Northern Iowa. "It's really frustrating, but it is what it is."
Part of the dilemma is Furmanek's size and growth potential Some schools like him at linebacker, while others believe he may outgrow the position and would be better suited as a defensive end.
"I really don't mind as long as I'm playing," Furmanek said. "If you would have told me a couple years ago that I'd be an all-state linebacker I'd have looked at you like you were crazy. I've got to give it to Coach 'T' and the program. They helped me grow.
"I'm actually excited to come in as a freshman and prove myself. Nobody knows who you are and you're trying to shock people."
Turner believes Furmanek has yet to realize his full potential.
"Whoever gets him is going to get one heck of a football player," Turner said. "He'd be perfectly fine if he has to go to defensive end. I think that he could play in the Big Ten or Big 12 because he's a kid that can adjust.
"He's just one of those hard-nosed kids that works hard and doesn't believe he should be stopped."
While Furmanek's physical nature and size are his main attributes, he is a well-rounded individual.
He ranks sixth in a class of 106, scored a 28 on his ACT exam and carries a 3.938 grade-point average (4.0 scale).
Furmanek said colleges have told him the strong academics are an obvious plus when it comes to recruiting.
"It definitely helps because it shows what kind of player I am, how hard I work in the classroom," said Furmanek, who hopes to major in physical therapy. "A lot of them are actually shocked when Coach 'T' hands them a transcript and they see how good my grades are."
Coach of the Year
Turner overcame the death of his mother early this season to guide the Crusaders to their first state title game appearance since 1990.
Horner, who helped get Columbia to a second-place finish in Class 3A in 2007, presided over a 9-2 Eagles squad this fall. Columbia won the Cahokia Conference title and lost 14-7 to eventual semifinalist Harrisburg in the 4A playoffs.
Contact reporter Norm Sanders at email@example.com or 239-2454.