Byron and Stillman Valley high schools are five miles apart. Tigers and Cardinals were teammates as kids in Rockford’s Blackhawk junior tackle program.
"They were the guys we grew up with," Stillman all-state offensive tackle Patrick "Bucky" Babcock said.
"Heck, my dad was the coach with Dave Babcock," Byron all-state running back Sean Considine said, referring to Bucky’s dad.
On game days, the two teams ate breakfast in the same Byron restaurant.
"We’d be on different sides, divided by a little partition wall, peeking over to see what’s going on," Matt Meline, a wingback on that 1999 Byron team that would set the state record by scoring 673 points.
Yet in the days when the Big Northern was divided into Red and White divisions, the two friendly rivals were on different sides of the conference. When they weren’t scheduled to play in one of the two crossover games each year, they made sure to play a nonconference game. That’s how the second-greatest football game in Rockford-area history came to be played on a humid, 85-degree August night.
"The only opening in our schedule would be on Week 1," Stillman Valley coach Mike Lalor said, "so we did that for several years. It was an incredible way to play our rival."
That was especially the case in a game that ended 44-42 with nine touchdowns longer than 25 yards. Both teams finished the season as dominant state champions. Stillman Valley won 28-0 in Class 2A for the first of Lalor’s five state titles with the Cardinals. Byron won 3A in historic fashion, winning every game by at least 36 points.
Stillman’s two-point loss to Byron on a short field goal by Mark Cotter — one of only two he made all year — with 1:02 remaining was the only game Byron won by fewer than 20 points in the Tigers’ only state-title season.
"It was so high scoring there were probably some questions after it was done whether either team was good enough defensively to make a run," Lalor said. "But as time went on, we saw it was just two outstanding teams."
There may never have been more talent on one Big Northern field at the same time, led by Considine, who would win a Super Bowl ring with the Baltimore Ravens after starring at Iowa, and Babcock, who would start for three years at Illinois.
Neither team had an answer for the other’s star.
"We would flip Bucky side to side and run behind him almost every down," Lalor said. "You were tipping your hat to where the play was going, but no one could do anything about it. No one could match up with him."
"I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way," Babcock said. "When the ball is coming behind you as an offensive lineman, that gives you as much control of the game as you will ever have. It was a cool thing to play on both the right and left side."
Byron didn’t rely on Considine nearly as much. The Tigers didn’t have to. Kicker/linebacker/fullback Mark Cotter was almost as big a star in high school as safety/halfback/kick returner Considine. Cotter (1,349 yards rushing, 214 points scored) and Considine (1,552 yards rushing, 10.9-yard average, 204 points) are the only teammates in state history to score 200 points each in a season.
The Tigers also had Jeff Boyer at quarterback. Today, Boyer is the Tigers’ head coach and has led the team to back-to-back state runner-up finishes.
"He was the best quarterback I ever coached," then-coach Everett Stine said. "He was very accurate. He never threw an interception until the second playoff game after he broke his thumb."
Boyer threw for 1,115 yards that year, the most of any QB in Stine’s 37 years at Byron. Boyer also ran for 442 yards. Wingback Matt Meline had 419 yards on the ground , averaging a spectacular 13.1 yards per carry.
But Considine was the one who was a threat to score every time he touched the ball. In this game, he had 122 yards on 10 carries and 165 yards on five pass receptions. He scored on pass plays of 70, 38, 41 and 15 yards.
He also spent parts of the game on the sideline.
"It was unbelievably hot and humid," Stillman’s Lalor said. "Sean was cramping a lot."
Those weren’t cramps.
"I was so out of shape," Considine said. "We went down to Pontiac for a 7-on-7 tournament every year and I hurt my back. I was only half-practicing during double days because I was hurt. I remember being on the sideline throwing up and coach Stine looking at me and saying, ‘Get your butt back in the game.’
"Thank God we won that game or it would have been a rough night in the Considine house if I was on the sideline puking half the night and we ended up losing," added Considine, the son of former NIU star safety Rick Considine. "My dad would have given me an earful."
Stine may have wanted Considine’s "butt back in the game," but now says Sean had an excuse.
"He also had three touchdowns called back by penalty," Stine said. "He got exhausted because of all the long runs he had. He hung it out because of his fortitude. It was hot for everybody, but nobody ran as much as he did."
There sure was a lot of running by everyone.
Brandt Bennett (138 yards on 12 carries) gave Stillman a 7-0 lead with a 1-yard run. Then it was off to the races with a series of quick TDs: Considine on a 70-yard screen pass. A 38-yard Considine reception. An 85-yard Bennett run. A 25-yard Boyer run. Stillman quarterback Brian Busser scored on a 40-yard run, then threw a 27-yard pass to A.J. Briarton for a 29-22 halftime lead.
Considine tied it with a 41-yard reception after Brett Johnson recovered a fumble caused by a big hit by Paul Sloan. Cotter’s 8-yard run made it 35-29. Busser scored on another long run, this one 65 yards, for a one-point lead before a 15-yard Considine reception made it 41-36. Karl Glendenning’s 74-yard pass from Busser on the very next play made it 42-41, but Byron stopped the two-point conversion and won it with a 22-yard Cotter field goal.
Yet the biggest play of all might not have been a scoring play. On one of those final drives, Boyer rolled out under pressure and hit Meline to convert a fourth-and-12.
"Jeff was looking at me," Considine said, "but Stillman overloaded my way and Matt Meline was about as talented a player as we had. Jeff Boyer was not very fast — he could probably get outrun by most of our linemen — but he had a unique way of making things happen."
Years later, Boyer told Lalor that he improvised during the play.
"It was hard enough they got that first down, and then I found out they just kind of winged it on the fly," Lalor said.
"We had different hand signals where we could call an audible," said Meline, who would go on to play at NCAA Division II Winona State with Cotter. "We had a unique chemistry. We could make things work that most other teams couldn’t."
Their defenses could also do things others couldn’t. Both teams quickly alleviated worries that they were only great on one side of the ball.
"The only offenses those two teams couldn’t stop was each other," said Mike DeDoncker, who covered Byron’s 44-42 win for the Rockford Register Star.
Stillman started slow, losing to Oregon and edging Taylor Ridge Rockridge 30-29 in overtime to begin 2-2, but won its next three games by a combined score of 127-6 and gave up only six points total in the 2A state semifinals and finals.
Byron never gave up even 20 points in any other game that season and had a running clock after taking a 40-point lead in four of its five playoff games. The only exception was a 49-13 semifinal win over Newton in which the Tigers lost four fumbles and threw two interceptions but still won easily because of their defense, which picked off four passes of their own.
"We had six turnovers and still won by 35; that never, never happens," Meline said.
"As many points as we scored, we had just as good as defense as we had an offense," said Cotter, who had 22 sacks after moving from middle linebacker to the outside early in the season. "We were stacked on every position on that side, too. Having 22 sacks is the stat I am most proud of."
Twenty-one years later, everyone on both sides of this intense rivalry is proud of their greatest matchup. It was a great game that became greater with each subsequent Byron and Stillman Valley triumph, ending with both teams looking at the scoreboard the day after Thanksgiving and seeing they had won their first state titles in dominant fashion.
"It was a special feeling," Stine said. "Even though they are an archrival, we were very happy for them, and I know they were happy for us."
That ending makes people also remember the beginning.
"It was magical from the first snap," Lalor said. "That was one of the games you just want to keep playing. You almost want it to go three or four overtimes. You knew you were seeing something special."
Matt Trowbridge: firstname.lastname@example.org; @matttrowbridge