Seniors Kyle Zelinsky of Bartlett, left, and Jordan Neukirch of Huntley are the honorary captains of the Daily Herald's 2008 All-Area football team.
Mary Beth Nolan | Staff Photographer
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It turned out the grass was greenest in Huntley for senior Jordan Neukirch, who chose to stay put and enjoyed a dream season in 2008 as a result.
The 6-foot-2, 220-pound senior led the defense as a middle linebacker with 40 solo tackles and 55 assists, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery and 1 interception.
As the team's featured ball carrier, Neukirch (pronounced Newkirk) gained 1,730 yards (8.5 avg.) and ran for 22 touchdowns. He also finished with 20 receptions, including 3 for scores.
His efforts helped Huntley enjoy the second-best season in school history. The Red Raiders opened with 8 straight victories and reached the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2001 in only the school's second playoff appearance.
Neukirch's remarkable senior season resulted in his selection to the all-Fox Valley Conference first team, the Class 6A all-state team and the co-captaincy of the 2008 Daily Herald Fox Valley All-Area football team.
Neukirch, co-captain Kyle Zelinsky of Bartlett, the rest of the all-area team and the players of the week will be honored at the Daily Herald recognition banquet at Stonegate Conference & Banquet Centre in Hoffman Estates on Dec. 14 at 6 p.m.
"I guess things couldn't have gone any better unless we'd won a state title," Neukirch said this week through his ever-present smile.
Ironically, all of it - the yards, the touchdowns, the tackles, the playoff berth - nearly didn't happen. At least not at Huntley.
After the Red Raiders finished with a 4-5 record in 2007, the team's leading tackler and second-leading rusher did more than just contemplate a transfer to traditional football power Marian Central Catholic High School in Woodstock - he enrolled last spring.
Neukirch dreamed of playing college football and his family originally thought he could gain increased exposure at Marian Central, Jordan's father Adam Neukirch said.
But Jordan and younger brother Dylan, a sophomore on the varsity basketball team this season, ended up staying at Huntley when the family reversed course and chose not to send the boys to private school.
Huntley coach Steve Graves said he and his staff took a hands-off approach to both decisions by the Neukirch family, feeling it wasn't his place to influence the decision one way or the other.
"That's hard for some people to believe," Graves said. "Many people would have believed that there were a lot of promises to get him to come back, but the first time I knew Jordan was coming back was when he talked to us about it. And the first time I knew he was going to leave was when he talked to us about it.
"Both times we said the same thing: 'We respect your decision whatever it is.'"
Of course, Neukirch stayed, which turned out exceptionally well for the player, his teammates, his coaches and the entire Huntley community.
Marian Central lost Wisconsin-bound quarterback Jon Budmayr to injury in Week 1, finished 4-5 and missed the playoffs.
"I really do believe everything happens for a reason," Neukirch said. "Especially after everything that happened over the spring and summer and this season. I'm real happy that everything worked out the way it did."
Rather than wait for college recruiters to find him, Neukirch found them.
First he improved his speed to a high 4.6 in the 40-yard dash by working with Rocky Scalise of Going Vertical in Huntley, whom Neukirch credits for his improved stamina and foot speed.
Last summer he participated in 10 one-day camps that helped him get stronger while increasing his exposure to college coaches, which paid dividends when he committed to play at Illinois State before school started.
Once the season began Neukirch played nearly every down on offense and defense and never wilted. He credits offensive linemen Jason Adams, Brandon McDaniel, Michael Zermeno, Kyle Hartline, J.J. McDougall, Kevin Doran and tight end Marcus Popenfoose for opening holes that helped him post such audacious rushing statistics.
Perhaps the most memorable play Neukirch made all season was a fluky one. In Week 8 Huntley rallied for 2 touchdowns but still trailed its showdown for the Fox Division title with Prairie Ridge by 7 points late in the fourth quarter.
Huntley quarterback Brandon Luczak's pass to Neukirch at the goal line was nearly intercepted, but the ball slipped through the defender's hands and into the arms of the alert senior, who made a juggling catch to tie the game. Huntley went on to win in overtime 31-28.
"I just put my hands down, concentrated on it and it ended up in my hands," Neukirch said. "That was one of those games where it was just an act of God that we were supposed to win that game. For us to be down that much and have a miracle play like that... It was just our night that night, I guess."
The play represented Neukirch's season in microcosm: in the right place at the right time.
Bringing football glory back to the pastoral town along Il. Route 47 is the cherished memory Neukirch will take with him to college in Normal and beyond.
"A lot people don't know much about Huntley because we haven't been very good and haven't made the playoffs," Neukirch said. "But I think we made a bit of a name for ourselves this year.
"I thank the rest of the guys who did it with me because making Huntley more well-known was one of the things we wanted to do. Now people know about Huntley. Hopefully, they'll carry on the tradition now that the program has turned around."
The Neukirch File
Honors: Class 6A All-State
Captain's honor roll
1995 - Eric Miquelon (Larkin)
1996 - Vince Webber (Larkin)
1997 - Vince Webber (Larkin)
1998 - Matt Schabert (Larkin) and Kevin Kaplan (Cary-Grove)
1999 - Matt Schabert (Larkin), Travann Hayes (Larkin) and Clint Reames (Jacobs)
2000 - Dan Sheldon (Burlington Central) and Colin Williams (Elgin)
2001 - Brett Borchart (Huntley) and Eric Kramer (Bartlett)
2002 - Brad Podge (Bartlett) and Trent Steckel (Crystal Lake South)
2003 - Doug Sanders (St. Edward) and Averill Sutchar (Bartlett)
2004 - Kent Martin (Bartlett) and Brian Mitz (Cary-Grove)
2005 - Jake Goebbert (Hampshire) and Alex Kube (Cary-Grove)
2006 - Andrew Lorman (Cary-Grove) and Paul Duyckinck (Burlington Central)
2007 - Sam Campbell (Prairie Ridge) and Cam Kinley (Larkin)
2008 - Jordan Neukirch (Huntley) and Kyle Zelinsky (Bartlett)