The news came suddenly to Althoff High linebacker Bryson Strong early Monday morning, just two days after he and his teammates celebrated a Class 4A semifinal win that sent the Crusaders to the state championship game.
His father, Glenn Strong, had been found shot to death Sunday night in St. Louis. Bryson Strong’s parents had been divorced for several years and he had not had much contact with his father since. That didn’t make it any easier, especially as he prepares for the 4A state football championship game Friday in DeKalb.
Althoff (13-0) will play Chicago Phillips (13-0) for the title at 7 p.m.
“It’s tragic. No man should pass away the way he did,” Strong said. “I stay really focused, make sure my mom’s OK and my little brother’s OK. I’m going to go out there and do whatever I can to get a win.
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“I’m sure that’s what he would want. He’d want me to go out and get the ‘W.’
While Strong said he hadn’t spoken with his dad much in recent years, that didn’t mean Glenn Strong hadn’t tried to reach out to his son.
Glenn Strong made a Facebook post following Althoff’s semifinal win over Mater Dei on Saturday that included a link to the Belleville News-Democrat game story.
Amy Strong, Bryson’s mother, received a screenshot of the Facebook post from a friend. She showed it to her son when he got home from practice on Monday.
Here is an excerpt from that post: “I want you to know that I’m always watching and I love you very very much Bryson ... you mean so much to me and I couldn’t be more proud of you so go out and do your best. Let’s make it happen champ.”
That’s a lot to take in for anyone, much less a high school junior just four days away from playing in the biggest game of his life. Strong’s younger brother, sophomore Justin Strong, also plays for Althoff.
“We haven’t spoken in a while and just seeing that...I don’t know,” Bryson Strong said of what turned out to be his father’s last message to his son. “It shows that he cares for sure. It’s just a lot to take; it’s been four or five years.
“I didn’t know that he was even paying attention to me or anything like that. He put football in my life and even after we stopped talking it was a motivation for me to do well.”
I want you to know that I’m always watching and I love you very very much Bryson ... you mean so much to me and I couldn’t be more proud of you so go out and do your best. Let’s make it happen champ.
Glenn Strong, in his last message to is son, Bryson, before being killed Saturday, hours after Althoff clinched a berth to the state championship football game
Strong is one of the team’s most vocal leaders and his teammates and the Althoff coaching staff rallied to support him throughout the week. They were there when he needed them — and now they need him to bring his defensive intensity to a game featuring one of the state’s top rushing offenses in Phillips.
“He’s just tenacious,” Althoff coach Ken Turner said. “I’ve coached some good (linebackers) and we’ve got some good ones here, now, but his level of tenacity and aggressiveness ... I’ve got to stop him in walk-throughs. He just wants to hit people and no matter what size the kid is. There’s no obstacle that he doesn’t feel like he can go through.
“You want kids to play like that and as a coach those are the type of kids that you want.”
Like DJs cranking out hits
Strong (5-foot-11, 203 pounds) leads the Althoff defense with 148 tackles, 10 sacks and an interception. Fellow junior linebacker Chris Branson (5-11, 230) adds another 117 tackles and three sacks while safety C.J. Coldon has 64 tackles and two interceptions.
Playmaking cornerback Edwyn Brown has six interceptions, including one in the end zone that saved the quarterfinal victory that ended Rochester’s run of five straight state championships. Another was a diving pick in the end zone that snagged a potential go-ahead touchdown away from Triad to nail down another win.
“Edwyn’s been one of our late clutch players the whole season,” Branson said of Brown, who also had the game-winning TD catch in the season-opening win over Collinsville. “That’s crazy, he always comes big for us when we need him.”
A strong defensive line and pass rush is led by Christian Wills (73 tackles, eight sacks, one interception).
Those are impressive statistics, but all people want to talk about is an Althoff offense averaging nearly 48 points per game with more than 6,000 yards of offense. The offensive circus includes a quarterback with more than 3,000 yards, two 1,000-yard running backs and two 1,000-yard receivers.
“When you have great athletes like we do, that happens,” Strong said. “We know in our group and on our team we have a great defense as well, but our offense is amazing, as everybody else knows. Sometimes the defense is overshadowed, but that’s not that big of a deal to us as long as it ends up in ‘W’s.”
Does Coldon, the only two-way starter on the team who is also a standout receiver, help tip the balance to the defensive side?
“C.J. will say whatever side he’s playing on at the moment is the best,” joked Strong.
Branson enjoys being in the heart of an aggressive defense.
I didn’t know that he was even paying attention to me or anything like that. He put football in my life and even after we stopped talking it was a motivation for me to do well.
Bryson Strong, Althoff linebacker on the estrangement from his father
“This year’s been a heck of a ride,” he said. “Me and my defensive boys were trying to do our job and take us to state and we did it. We don’t let them score that much, but it’s basketball numbers (by the offense) to be honest. It’s crazy what they can do.”
Strong follows a string of elite middle linebackers at Althoff under Turner that include Ed Fink, Carson Sonnenberg, Erik Furmanek and Bret Silvestri.
“Chris and I are both following a really great linebacker and a really great leader and general in Bret Silvestri,” Strong said. “We learned so much from him about getting the players upbeat, always following our keys and making sure everybody’s on the same page.
“We play fast and get to the ball.”
Flying to the ball
Turner said there’s a reason Strong and Branson each have more than 100 tackles.
“They’re tough to block, they’re both physical and Chris is strong for a guy his size,” Turner said. “They’re both ferocious and they love to hit people.”
Turner said Strong could be a 1,000-yard rusher at running back, but loves having him on defense where his sideline-to-sideline pursuit is relentless.
“I love contact and middle linebacker,” Strong said. “That’s the most contact you can get so that’s where I ended up. I’m a physical player and I think middle linebacker suits me.”
With only two seniors on the defense, expect as much or even more next season. Many of them have been on the varsity since they were freshmen.
“They’re like seniors because they play so much,” Turner said. “They’re veterans, but a lot of these of these guys have another year.”
Strong was also on the Althoff basketball team that lost in the Class 3A state basketball championship game last spring to Westchester St. Joseph.
“I didn’t play in the state game at all, but I still felt it,” Strong said. “I practiced with them, every day and it hurt. The seniors lost (the football state title game) their freshman year, too, and I just don’t want that to happen again.”