Pat Richter didn’t interfere. He stepped in front of the Lexington receiver and made a clean, one-handed interception. Rich Chang shares the photo from his Aquin high school year book to prove it.
But he doesn’t want to talk about it.
“The wounds are still fresh,” he said.
Forty years later.
The 1980 team was on the ground floor of Aquin football greatness. They were only the second Bulldogs team to make the playoffs, and the first in six years. A year later, they would complete the only undefeated season in school history and win the first of their three state titles. They have now made the playoffs 27 times. And they reached the Class 1A state semifinals that year. But losing 15-14 to Lexington — despite holding the lead and intercepting two passes in the final two minutes— still hurts, 40 years later.
Of course, the first interception didn’t count in a game we have picked as the fourth-greatest in Freeport-area history.
“That was heartbreaking,” said Chang, one of nine two-way starters on that team. “But that was the start of Aquin’s football runs.”
Richter’s pick came on what Chang described as a “long, Hail Mary-type pass.”
“There’s a famous picture showing Richter jumping up and intercepting the pass. He was nowhere near the Lexington receiver, but they threw a flag for interference,” Chang said.
“That was a tough game. We had a couple of bad breaks, but the whole season was a great season, a very special season,” said Jim Hauser -- now a judge in Freeport -- who was a 120-pound running back used mostly for blocking.
The second bad break was on a play that should have clinched an Aquin victory. Bill Hoffman intercepted a third-down pass in the final minute but had the ball stripped away. Lexington recovered the fumble for a first down at the 15. Aquin’s defense held, but Lexington kicked a game-winning 24-yard field goal on the final play.
“Everybody was trying to get him to fall on the ground, but instead they punched it loose,” said Chang, a senior split end/safety who later coached Aquin’s boys basketball team to five 20-win seasons. “It was a bang-bang play. He only took a few steps before it got punched out.”
It was a sudden end for a team that sensed greatness even before the season began.
Tailback Matt DiMarco, a state qualifier in the 100 and 200 meters in track, had driven to Rockford to buy a new pair of cleats before the season began, already thinking about the state title game at Illinois State.
“I need a pair of cleats,” DiMarco told the clerk, “that will last me 12 games because the 13th will be on Astroturf and I will need new shoes.”
“We played the 12 games,” he said, “but not the 13th.”
Aquin began the playoffs with a memorable 19-6 win at Walnut and then clobbered Annawan 54-14 in the quarterfinals. The Walnut game, though, was more explosive. Literally.
“There was a fire at a farm implement dealership,” Hauser said. “There were explosions going on during the game. The whole town was blowing up for that one. That’s how we started the playoffs.”
The Bulldogs’ success started with team speed and smarts. Their entire backfield was made up of A students. The next year, when they went undefeated, every player except one was on the honor roll. They also had a great quarterback. Richter would throw for 3,654 yards and 37 TDs during his Aquin career and earned two letters playing at Illinois State.
“We were great on screen passes,” Hauser said. ”Richter would throw to our fullback and Bret Jenkins would run 80 yards. Richter would just come into the huddle laughing. That’s what propelled us all season.”
Lexington, though, was ready for those screen passes.
“We tried that a couple of times early in the game and they were in our back pocket,” DiMarco said.
So Aquin basically stopped throwing. The Bulldogs led 14-0 at halftime, but thought they could have led by more if their spread offense, one of the earliest in the area, would have been more aggressive.
“We’ve talked about that many times,” Chang said. “I think I caught three passes that game and I felt I could have caught seven or eight. Other guys were open, too. Their defensive backs weren’t used to seeing a team like ours.”
“Those were some questions we had for the coach, but we never talked about it,” DiMarco said. “Some of it is we didn’t have the ball a whole lot.”
Lexington ran 22 offensive plays in the fourth quarter to only five for Aquin.
“We were conservative in the second half,” DiMarco said. “You can argue a couple of calls got taken away from us, but I don’t think we played well enough in the second half to win. We might have had the two interceptions, but we also had two fumbles in the second half we gave them.”
The next year, when Aquin did win state, DiMarco was there to see it, keeping stats for the Bulldogs.
“That was pretty cool,” DiMarco said. “But it should have been two in a row.”
Matt Trowbridge: firstname.lastname@example.org; @matttrowbridge