Big games don’t always live up to their billing. The losing team in the first dozen Super Bowls never scored more than 17 points.
But the magic of great games works the other way, too. Almost any game has the potential to turn into a classic. For instance, one of the most fabled college basketball games was a 77-72 upset of No. 1-ranked Virginia and three-time NCAA Player of the Year Ralph Sampson by the Chaminade Silverswords in front of a half-full gym during a Christmas tournament in Honolulu.
Likewise, Christian Life’s 44-38 six-overtime victory over Chicago Luther North in 2004 ranks as the most unlikely great high school football game in Rockford history. No. 10 on our list of greatest games of the last 75 years involved two teams from the defunct Private School League that finished a combined 5-13 but tied the record for the longest game in state history. Chicago St. Rita also needed six OTs to beat Brother Rice 51-48 in 2002.
“This game is unique because it’s record-setting, relatively recent and yet at risk of being forgotten,” said Dan Streed, who scored the two-point conversion in the second overtime — the first of three straight times Christian Life needed to score two just to stay in the game.
Heck, the game drew little notice even when it happened. Christian Life was in only its fifth year of football, had never finished above .500 and didn’t have lights, so it played on Saturday afternoon.
“I think it was a secret,” said Chuck Leonard Sr., Christian Life’s coach its first 13 years. “In Sunday’s paper there was no story, just a boxscore. There was too much college ball and previews from the NFL.”
“Even video of the game’s final moments might be hard to come by,” Streed said. “The game went on for so long that our VHS camcorder ran out of tape in overtime.”
Christian Life left that game with high hopes at 3-1, including a 21-18 season-opening victory over Winnebago of the Big Northern Conference. But the Eagles, who had several players get hurt the week before and would finish the season with only 15 players, would never win again against a back-loaded schedule. They dropped their final five games against teams that finished the season 35-16.
But they had their Super Bowl in six overtimes against Luther North.
“It’s cool that all of our boys are part of a state record,” Leonard said. “Those young men will never forget that Saturday afternoon. The boys who scored can tell you every second of the play they scored on.”
Luther North (2-7) scored on a 10-yard run and led 8-0 in the first quarter until Christian Life tied it on a 10-yard pass from Brendan Neid to Josh McDermott (now a police officer in Arizona) and a McDermott 2-point conversion run.
That was it. A game that finished with 82 points had only 16 in regulation.
In overtime, with both teams starting at the 10, Luther North went first every time and scored TDs in each of the first four overtimes.
Christian Life had a chance to win in the first OT but missed on the 2-point conversion. Then the Eagles stayed in the game with a 4-yard pass from Neid to Caleb Cash, a 10-yard pass from Ben Johnson (now a police officer in Loves Park) to J.T. Wheeler and a 1-yard run by McDermott in the next three overtimes, plus a 2-point conversion each time.
The two passing TDs came on fourth down. The one to Cash “came out of Vern’s playbook,” said Leonard, who used to coach under legendary Belvidere coach Vern Pottinger.
“It was Texas 63; all your motion looks like you are running wishbone to the right. The linebackers leave and the safety is still 5 yards off. The tight end comes out and sits down where the linebacker used to be. Caleb was our second-string tight end who almost never caught a pass, but I said, ‘let’s just have faith.’ I don’t know how nervous he was there, but he caught it with two hands and tucked it to his chest.”
After three straight perfect scores of 8 by both teams, Christian Life blanked Luther North in the final two OTs. Christian Life failed to score in the fifth OT but won on a 1-yard run by Neid in the sixth, ending the game while the Eagles could still walk.
“Nine or 10 of us played both ways and didn’t get a single break,” Streed said. “When the game finally ended, we were almost too exhausted to celebrate.”
“When the coaches from both teams came together in the middle of the field,” Leonard said, “we all just started laughing. There was a smile on everybody’s face. They knew they were part of something special, whether they were on the winning team or losing team.”
Matt Trowbridge: 815-987-1383; email@example.com; @matttrowbridge