In 1959, Freeport had its greatest football team in more than three decades, led by quarterback Harry Kent and a passing attack that would set a touchdown record that would last 28 years.
The biggest obstacle to a perfect season was East Rockford High School and its quarterback, Ron Fearn, in week seven at Beyer Stadium.
Freeport entered that game having scored 188 points and given up just 15. Officially, East was just 3-3, but the E-Rabs were 5-1 on the field. After losing the season opener to Beloit, 12-6, East ran off wins over North Chicago, Joliet, West Aurora, East Aurora and Elgin. Unfortunately, one of its receivers had forged his teacher’s name on his grade sheets for Latin, and the E-Rabs had to forfeit the wins over East and West Aurora.
Fans were curious to see how good this Freeport team was. An estimated crowd of 4,000 people showed up and stayed throughout a cold drizzle in the showcase game that year in what was then the Big Eight Conference. The resulting 19-19 tie makes this our pick for the No. 7 high school football game in Freeport-area history.
For three quarters, it seemed as if the game was going to be little more than a coronation for the Pretzels. Freeport led 19-6 behind two Gary Stearns touchdown runs and a 21-yard touchdown pass from Kent to Tom Walz.
Fearn, who would go on to start for three years at the University of Illinois as a quarterback and running back on offense and defensive back on defense, gave the E-Rabs some hope early in the fourth. He led East on a nine-play, 75-yard drive and scored on a quarterback sneak to cut the lead to 19-13 with 7:59 to play.
On the following kickoff, the perfect season nearly came to a shocking end. Freeport failed to field the ball and East recovered on the Pretzels’ 6-yard line. Fearn scored from two yards out two plays later to tie the game. The perfect season was in jeopardy, but the undefeated one remained intact when East’s kicker missed the extra point.
"Our fullback was supposed to field the ball and he didn’t," Kent said in a telephone interview from Corvallis, Montana, where he retired after a long career as a city engineer and public works director in Phoenix and Mesa, Arizona. "It was just a bad break. Until you mentioned it, I hadn’t thought about that play in years."
Freeport would rebound to beat LaSalle-Peru, 7-0, and West Rockford, 59-0, to finish 8-0-1. Kent would finish the season with 20 touchdown passes. In the 1950s, the only stat, though, that any media outlets published was scoring. It wasn’t until 1962 that the Register Star began publishing rushing, passing and receiving leaders. No NIC-10 player would top Kent’s 20 TD passes until 1987.
Despite those gaudy numbers, Big Eight coaches picked Fearn, who led East with 10 touchdown runs and five TD passes, as first team all-conference quarterback. Kent settled for second team.
"That didn’t surprise me. We’d been playing against Ron since ninth grade," Kent said. "I was one of a lot of good players at Freeport. He was pretty much their whole team."
That season kicked off a second golden era for Freeport football. From 1960 to 1964, Freeport would go 30-9-5 and win the 1963 Big Eight title.
Alex Gary is a correspondent for The Journal-Standard.