Grads back for some football: 'Once you play, it's always there'
One can’t go back in time, but former football players at Highland and Triad are doing the next best thing.
The longtime rivals will relive their glory days when they butt heads in an alumni game at 7 p.m. Friday in Highland. Ninety-one players have registered: 50 from Triad, 41 from Highland. Graduating classes between 1986 and 2014 will be represented.
“It’s going to be a fun night. It’s going to be a good event,” said Lance Still, a former all-state running back and safety at Highland who helped organize the game along with a host of others. “People know about the rivalry on (Route) 40. Hopefully, we’ll draw people from other communities to come check it out.”
I’ve had guys call me up and tell me that tingling feeling they had in their stomach on a Monday, on a Tuesday and on a Wednesday has been there all week. They know Friday night at 7 is the kickoff and they haven’t had that feeling, some of them, in 30 years.
Former Highland star Lance Still
Still, a 2004 graduate of Highland, will coach the Bulldogs, although he will not play in the game. Hip and back issues will prevent him from participating. Triad will be coached by former lineman Joe Ephrem, a 2006 graduate who expects to play.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who are ready to chomp at the bit and knock each other out,” said Still, 30. “Ultimately, when it’s said and done, we’re going to play a football game and somebody’s pride is going to be hurt Friday night.
“I’ve had guys call me up and tell me that tingling feeling they had in their stomach on a Monday, on a Tuesday and on a Wednesday has been there all week. They know Friday night at 7 is the kickoff and they haven’t had that feeling, some of them, in 30 years.”
Ephrem, 27, predicts there will be different feelings the morning after the game.
“Saturday morning is probably going to be reality kicking back in,” Ephrem said, referring to aches, pains and other discomforts the players are likely to experience.
“I’m expecting an amazing event, really,” Ephrem said. “The turnout that we’ve had has just been huge. I was hoping for that, but I didn’t expect that this amount of guys from the local area would be willing to come back for this. I’m grateful for it.”
And if you believe emotions no longer run high for the former combatants, think again.
We used to get our butts whipped pretty good by Highland at the beginning of our program. I feel like since the early 2000s, we’ve taken over this rivalry. It’s important to all the alumni to beat Highland. Everybody really wanted to be a part of this first alumni game.
Triad graduate Joe Ephrem
“We used to get our butts whipped pretty good by Highland at the beginning of our program,” said Ephrem, noting that Triad is about to begin its 50th season of football. “I feel like since the early 2000s, we’ve taken over this rivalry. It’s important to all the alumni to beat Highland. Everybody really wanted to be a part of this first alumni game.
“I was a guy who didn’t like Highland, for whatever reason. We want to beat them again. I was part of a team that never lost to them. We never lost a (Mississippi Valley Conference) game from ’04 to ’06. I was part of that ’04 team with (Shane) McBride and Austin Wuebbels that beat (Highland) 62-0 on their field. We would like to replicate that again.”
Gates to the Highland stadium will open at 6 p.m. Players will be introduced at 6:30, followed by the kickoff about a half-hour later. More than 40 former cheerleaders at the schools also will be back on the sidelines.
Players from both teams have been practicing, without pads, twice a week since June.
Players paid Alumni Football USA, a California-based company that provided uniforms and equipment, $100 to participate in the game. Players had to sign waivers to participate, absolving Highland and Alumni Football USA of any liability for injuries.
The game, consisting of four 12-minute quarters, will follow high-school rules.
“The only difference we have, rules-wise, is there’s no blitzing and you can only rush four at a time,” Still said. “(Offensive) lineman is probably the hardest (position) to get down. We don’t want six guys coming on five linemen, to where the quarterback gets hung out to dry and gets blown up from the blind side.
“Other than that, it’s a full football game, full contact, and they encourage end-zone celebrations and having fun.”
Ephrem isn’t sure what to expect as far as the speed of the game.
“From a coaching perspective, I don’t know what it’s going to look like,” he said. “But I tell you what, it’s got the possibility to be some quick, hard-hitting football.”
Still and Ephrem said they anticipate a crowd as large as 2,000. As of Wednesday afternoon, there had been 1,300 tickets sold. Tickets are priced at $10 and are available at local businesses like Main Street Barber Shop in Troy, Time Out Bar and Grill in Troy, CrossFit 557 in Collinsville, Phoenix Physical Therapy in Highland and Sam’s Pizza in Highland.
The athletic departments at Highland and Triad received 50 percent of the advance ticket sales, with the remaining funds going to Alumni Football USA. Money raised at the game for concessions and a 50-50 drawing will benefit the schools. Alumni Football USA will receive 100 percent of the money for tickets sold at the entrance to the game.
Still said one of the best things about the program is the ability to provide necessary funds for all the sports programs at the schools, not just football. The game is open to all former athletes, and Still said Highland will even have a couple of soccer players on its team.
Still said proceeds for the game go into a non-profit fund that will be available whenever needed. Highland, he said, would eventually like to build an indoor activities building for sports teams. Triad might be interested in an artificial surface for its football field.
Both teams have plenty of familiar on their roster.
Highland will have one of most prolific players in its history in running back Billy Greenwald, 44, from the Class of 1990. As a senior in 1989, Greenwald scored 45 touchdowns, a state record at the time. Nicknamed “Touchdown,” Greenwald played for Northwestern.
“He’s ready to play some football,” Still said. “He’s still in shape and can still move.”
Younger players like cousins Logan and Gage Geiger, Blake Swearingen and Brendan Sands also will be on the field for Highland. Former Bulldogs quarterback Dusty Keeven, injured in a car accident in 2008, will be honored.
Current college players are not eligible to participate.
“Tanner Farmer (Nebraska) wanted to play. Nick Czar (Navy) wanted to play,” Still said. “I would love to have Farmer and Czar play and that would be amazing, but ... for now, we can’t let them do it.”
Triad players include Ephrem, former Missouri lineman Wuebbels, McBride, Craig Dupont, J.J. Jones, Jake Oros, Mike Sampson and Kristian Moon.
Triad’s Tom King, 49, is the oldest player in the game.
“Highland has some younger guys, they have some speed guys,” Ephrem said. “Their quarterback is Logan Geiger and they’re really going to lean on him. We’ve got a Big 12 player in Austin Wuebbels, we’ve got a Black College All-American athlete in me, we’ve got powerlifters on the offensive line. You’re going to see almost a pro-type offensive line that walks on that field the first time.”
Ephrem starred at Albany State before transferring to McKendree.
Injury, health risk
Football requires maximum conditioning. While the Highland and Triad players have been preparing for the event for about two months, they’re not as young as they used to be.
In a 2011 alumni football game, a 36-year-old player from Pennsylvania, suffered a heart attack after two plays at defensive end. He collapsed on the field, but was revived by emergency medical technicians, one of whom was a cheerleader at the game.
There’s risk to this. I believe there’s risk to anything. Guys know that when they go onto that football field. This isn’t flag football. You’re taking a risk when you’re playing a high-impact sport like this.
Joe Ephrem on the injury and health risk for players in the alumni game
“There’s risk to this,” Ephrem said. “I believe there’s risk to anything. Guys know that when they go onto that football field. This isn’t flag football. You’re taking a risk when you’re playing a high-impact sport like this.
“We’ve preached heads-up (tackling) in practices. We’ve practiced in extreme heat and have taken precautions. I feel like everybody who’s been showing up is going to be able to handle this physically. We hope and pray for the best.”
Trainers and EMT personnel will be present at the game, as is the case for all high-school games.
“We’ve taken every precaution and we’re going to try to make sure everybody’s safe while participating in this,” Ephrem said. “We know how hard-core football is. This game is not for everyone. You’ve got to be a special individual to be a part of this. I think that’s why it’s so important for these men to be back together.”
Still said a handful of players are fully aware of their shortcomings and “just want to get five plays in and be on the team.”
Ephrem might be one of those players. He’s had two ACL tears in his right knee, one just eight months ago. Earlier this week, he had a painful episode with gallstones.
“I’m feeling better,” Ephrem said Thursday. “I’m strapping up the pads and the knee brace and getting out there (Friday). I’ve been cleared and I’ve been training harder than ever. If I can get one play in, that would be fantastic. If I can get a quarter in, that would be even better.”