The few bleachers they had along the north side of the Madison High School football field were dotted with a handful of fans when the game kicked off at 11 a.m. Saturday.
By the time the home-team Trojans had built a 22-point lead midway through the second quarter, they were lined up two or three deep against the orange, temporary fence stretched along the sideline.
A huge crowd by metro-east high school football standards? No. But it was good for this metro-east city 3,800 residents and it was everything District 12 Superintendent Warletta Brookins envisioned when her school board voted in the spring to bring football back to Madison for the first time in at least 25 years.
“It’s just great to see all of these kids out here with a chance to participate and to see the community coming out to support them,” she said. “It’s what we’re trying to do here.”
First-year coach Mike Hill got what he wanted too — a victory in the first Madison-only varsity home game going back to at least 1992. The Trojans’ defense forced six turnovers in a 56-0 win over Metro-East Lutheran, the team with which Madison co-oped last season.
The Trojans are now 2-0, having knocked off Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Academy in Rockford, 64-0, in their season opener last week. Madison has outscored its two opponents 120-0.
“For my home town, it felt really good crossing the goal line the first time,” said senior quarterback Rhyheem Samuels, who scored the first touchdown on the restored field. “We’ve been waiting on this day since May.”
Many other Trojans players got in on the action, too.
Senior Artavius Stepney scored two touchdowns, one on a 36-yard run and another on a 70-yard interception return as time expired in the first half. Malcom Conway had his own pick-6, a 48-yard interception return early in the second quarter.
Junior Carl Moore snagged a 65-yard touchdown pass from Samuels and Deangelo Briggs caught another from 65 yards out.
The Madison defense dominated Metro-East Lutheran, but Hill says there’s still plenty of work to be done.
“I’m happy with these guys for their win,” Hill said. “But we’ve got to keep going, got to keep getting better and creating some confidence. It’s not over yet.”
Hill has been working with his 21-player roster through summer camps and seven-on-seven tournaments to prepare the Trojans for interscholastic play. But he said he assigned no added importance to Saturday’s benchmark game for the program.
The players knew what the game really meant to the coach, though. They gave him an ice water bath when the final whistle blew “and it’s cold too, man,” Hill said.
“It means a lot to come out and have the support of the community,” said junior running back Alphonso Rice III, who rushed for 44 yards, two touchdowns and even kicked a pair of extra points. “When you see them and hear them cheering for you, you want to play a little harder for them.”
According to the Illinois High School Association, Madison’s last season was in 1988. Some insist they were on the last team that took the field in 1992. School records are inconclusive, but it doesn’t really matter. Saturday’s game was a long time coming.
“It’s our goal to be recognized as a Blue Ribbon School by 2020,” said Brookins, in her second year as the district’s top administrator. “We want to foster a total experience for our students that includes extracurriculars, the arts and athletics. But academics come first. You have to make grades to participate, then hopefully athletics and academics provide opportunities for college scholarships.
“This (game) is just a the start. We’ll have cheerleaders by the next home game and maybe a tailgate, too.”
Brookins said the district prepared to spend $23,000 to get the football program off the ground, but benefited from state grant money, corporate sponsorship pledges, cooperation from the city of Madison and countless volunteer hours.
The effort to bring football back to Madison actually started under Erwin “Pee Wee” Baker who helped organize the Madison Eagles junior football program. It was his group that restored the unused field adjacent to the high school gym.
“We started six years ago,” said Baker, the younger brother of former professional basketball player and new Madison basketball coach Maurice Baker. “The field was full of sticker bugs and overgrown with weeds.”
He also helped the district purchase a used Trojan-green scoreboard, which was restored and installed at back of the end zone last fall.
“When I heard Madison High School would have football again, I cried,” said Baker, a 2001 graduate of MHS. “It was a happy day for me.”