Cary-Grove fullback Eric Chandler wore No. 25 throughout his three-year career, but those digits were virtually unreadable from the front when he carried the football.
"You can barely see the 25 because it's kind of scrunched," Trojans coach Bruce Kay said. "Between his low pads and high knees there's not much to grab."
Tacklers had a tough time getting hold of the hard-running Chandler this season, and no teams were able to get hold of undefeated Class 6A champion Cary-Grove.
Chandler, running back Alex Hembrey and quarterback Tyler Krebs led one of the most dominant offenses in the state. The Trojans scored 618 points in 14 games, more than any of the other 15 teams that played for state titles in Champaign last weekend.
Cary-Grove's three main ball carriers were prolific individually. Hembrey - Chandler's close friend since they were first-grade classmates at Briargate Elementary school in Cary - finished as the team's leading rusher with 1,291 yards and 23 touchdowns in 135 attempts (9.6 avg.). Chandler finished 9 yards behind him with 1,282 yards and 20 touchdowns in 171 attempts (7.5 avg.), and Krebs had 806 yards and 13 touchdowns in 150 rushing attempts (5.4 avg.).
However, over the course of his three years as fullback in the triple option, Chandler was a consistent force. He rushed for 980 yards and 9 touchdowns as a sophomore and 1,217 yards and 17 touchdowns as a junior. His successful senior season elevated his career totals to 3,483 yards and 46 touchdowns, more than enough to break what was believed to be the school rushing record of 3,076 yards, held by 1999 graduate Kevin Kaplan.
"There are single-back sets where you'll have a guy who runs for 2,000 yards and 40 touchdowns or something crazy, but we took pride in playing as a unit in the backfield and really didn't care about statistics," Chandler said. "We just did the best we could."
For his accomplishments this season and over the course of his three-year varsity career, Cary-Grove fullback Eric Chandler has been named honorary co-captain of the 2009 Daily Herald All-Area football team in the Fox Valley. He shares the award with Class 7A all-state running back Jalen Williams of Larkin.
Chandler is an exceptional athlete. A talented baseball player, last spring he hit .423 for the Cary-Grove baseball team, which finished fourth in the state in Class 4A. He has the prototype physique for a workmanlike fullback in the triple option offense.
"He has 190-some pounds packed on that 5-foot-8-inch frame," Kay said. "In my mind he's really the perfect-sized high school option fullback because it's real tough to get a shot on him. He has great vision, balance and he runs with low pads. And his legs do not stop. He accelerates on contact.
"He also has great insight, intelligence and character. You mix that with a ton of common sense and he's got the whole package."
Opponents were wary of Chandler's ability to grind them to death until he broke the big play.
"When you played against Cary-Grove, you knew you had to stop their fullback," Crystal Lake South coach Jim Stuglis said. "That's the first person we wanted to stop in that offense for the last three years, and he proved teams couldn't do it very often. From what I understand he's a very classy kid. He was one of those selfless players that did his job every day and did it very well."
Cary-Grove's 14-7 overtime loss last season to Crystal Lake South in a Class 7A quarterfinal prompted Chandler and the rest of the Trojans to train relentlessly in order to avoid a similar playoff exit in 2009.
"We were pretty gung-ho right away to get going," he said. "After a week off a lot of us started lifting four days a week. Some years a few people would do that, but we really had everybody on board from the beginning of December last year."
Summer turned to fall and the Trojans turned into monsters. They crushed their first six opponents by an aggregate score of 238-6, survived close games against McHenry and Crystal Lake South and polished off their sixth straight undefeated title in the Fox Valley Conference.
They ran roughshod through the playoffs, beating their five opponents by a combined score of 221-73. Chandler played a major role. He rushed for 162 yards and a career-high 5 touchdowns against St. Viator, 98 yards and a touchdown against Highland Park, 181 yards and a touchdown against De La Salle, 112 yards and 2 touchdowns against Prairie Ridge and 31 yards and a touchdown in the 6A championship game against Providence.
Chandler said he'll never forget the moment when the clock ran out in Champaign with his team on the winning side of a 34-17 score.
"My initial feeling was complete euphoria," he said. "It was really overwhelming just the response we got from our community and everything that happened that day. After the game was over we had this feeling of who's next? We went out on top and we would have loved to actually play a few more weeks."
Another memory will forever stick with Chandler. When the Cary-Grove team bus returned to school on Saturday night from Champaign, he was expecting a few parents to greet them. That was far from the case in football-frenzied Cary that night.
"So, we pull into the high school and we see the whole school and even some of the soccer fields are packed with cars," Chandler said. "The bus drove down to the tennis courts to drop us off and, as a senior, I was the first one to walk off the bus. There had to be 1,000-plus people there to congratulate us at 10 o'clock at night, and fireworks started going off from a few houses down. Then another house must have picked up on it and started doing it too. It was just something out of a movie. It was just really special."
Chandler said he is considering playing football and baseball at a Division-III school, though he concedes a high-level baseball scholarship could sway that decision. He has been invited to a baseball combine in a few weeks, where several Division-I coaches will be interested in evaluating his ability.
No matter what the future holds for the 17-year-old Cary resident with a 3.662 grade-point average, he'll always be able to look back and smile when he remembers the fairy tale football season of 2009.
"We were told by our coaches that hard work will get you somewhere," Chandler said. "This year we were just lucky to have the chance to win a state championship and come through. They say dreams come true, and our dreams came true like Disneyland."
Past Fox Valley all-area captains
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)