Whoever said you can't go home again never played professional football.
Because in that case, it's most certainly worth the trip.
Tom McManus, a 1988 Wheeling High School graduate, walked the halls of his old school on St. Patrick's Day. Dressed in blue jeans and an Irish T-shirt, he towered over the students who curiously eyed him. His old football coach, Rick Benedetto, knocked him over with a bear hug, while the school's principal filled him on his old team's latest accomplishments.
"It's good to be back," McManus said.
After high school, McManus went on to start for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Recently he published "We'll Always be Pals: The Last Words of a Dying Father and True Hero" to honor his father, Gene. McManus is the only Wheeling High graduate play a professional sport.
McManus grew up in Buffalo Grove with his parents, two sisters and brother. Before high school, he played football at St. Mary's Catholic School in Buffalo Grove, where football was a little like a religion in its own right.
"It was like a ritual every Sunday in the fall to play football for our school and then all would go to a local eatery were the parents would drink and the kids would eat," McManus writes in his book.
When his father died from cancer in 1995, his ashes were buried just outside the St. Mary's cemetery near the football field. Tom McManus spoke to St. Mary's students earlier in March and also visited his dad's final resting place.
"I was the baby. My dad had me when he was 50 years old," he said. "Cancer took him in a month and he was gone."
While success came easily at St. Mary's and Wheeling, it didn't follow McManus immediately after his playing days at Boston College. After trying out and failing to make the NFL, he tended bar for two years in Chicago. Then an old college coach called him in 1995, and McManus became a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars, at the time a new professional team. A year later, he was a starter, playing at middle linebacker in 14 games, including the AFC Championship Game.
"I got lucky," he told Wheeling students. "That phone call came out of the blue and I got one more chance. You know, when I came out of college and didn't get drafted, my dream stopped. I was devastated. Playing football was my dream since I was 8 years old."
The message: Don't give up.
"You have your whole life ahead of you, and you'll have a lot of choices," he said. "It's all up to you."
Today, McManus is the owner and host of a sports talk radio show. He lives in Flordia with his wife and three daughters, ages 8, 5, and 6 months. Football isn't really an option for his daughters, but they're into soccer and dance, which will keep McManus busy - until they start to date, that is.
"Yeah," he said with a chuckle. "That should be real interesting."
• Gene McManus grew up during the Depression and was a football star, boxer and B-24 pilot who spent part of World War II as a prisoner of war. To buy the book, go to alwaysbepals.com.