An early Ivy League football game.
“Vanbriesen pops through the left side of the AC line and he’s loose in the secondary. It’s a footrace for the end zone.”
For unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given . . . Isaiah 9:6
Founded in 1636, Harvard stands as the oldest school in the conference. When I say Harvard, I am mean the institution of higher education out east rather than the community on the other side of the Big Northern Conference where they hold the milk festival. Though, for the record the Harvard Illinois Hornets enjoyed a good 2013 football season.
Most people now think that “Stillman’s Run” references the football team getting hot in the playoffs, but a few historians remember that “Stillman’s Run” is the name of an 1832 battle fought on our ground during the Blackhawk war though it was also called the battle of Old Man’s Creek or the Battle of Sycamore Creek. Which is to say, I’m not sure of how old our high school is but Harvard University started signing diplomas not quite two years hundred years before Blackhawk and his warriors crossed the creek and chased off Major Isaiah Stillman and the Illinois militia.
Yale’s Handsome Dan
Yale University, in the same conference as Harvard, came along in 1701. Yale’s original mascot was a bulldog named “Handsome Dan” – - The story goes that one of the Yale offensive tackles bought the bulldog Handsome Dan from a local blacksmith and the Yale mascot was born.
A few decades after Yale, Dartmouth was founded in December of 1769. Dartmouth began as a congregational university and their motto, “A voice crying out in the wilderness,” recalls the role of John the Baptist in announcing Christ. The motto was was favored by Dartmouth because at that time New Hampshire was in the wilderness. Dartmouth’s mascots have changed over the years and have variously included an Indian, who much like Chief Illini and the Marquette Warrior, was dropped in the name of political correctness. The Dartmouth student body campaigned for a mascot named Keggy the Keg but this was resisted by the administration who was doubtless looking for something with a bit more Ivy league dignity. Someone proposed the Dartmouth moose - – but this mascot has never quite taken over – - and so Dartmouth athletics are often known as the Big Green.
Harvard, Yale, and Darmouth do not enjoy membership in the Illinois High School Big Northern Conference or even the Big Ten. These universities are all members of the Ivy League, which as you know, is the grand group of colleges: the loftiest echelon of higher education. Without reviewing all their mascots, the Internet succinctly summarizes that the Ivy League is:
“a group of long-established colleges and universities in the eastern US having high academic and social prestige. It includes Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Dartmouth, Cornell, Brown, and the University of Pennsylvania. . . The term Ivy League also has connotations of academic excellence, selectivity in admissions, and social elitism.”
Once, when I was in Boston, I drove past Harvard, but I was mostly trying to find my way around and, if you’ve ever been in Boston, you know what a challenge that is – - so, other than a quick glance out the window, I have never been near an Ivy League campus.
Growing up, I knew of only one person who went to the Ivy League. He was from Southeast Iowa and though I didn’t know him personally my friends and I heard that he was so committed to learning that he taped vocabulary words to his bathroom mirror and studied when he was shaving. My friends and I didn’t shave very often in high school, so we resented him on that basis alone. We also knew that stretching one’s vocabulary apart from high school requirements was not normal. And we understood that we would not be joining kids with big vocabularies in the Ivy League.
Instead, I went to college in Pella, Iowa, which was 90 long miles from home, closer to the Iowa metropolis of Des Moines, and so, I reasoned, a bit like going out east. In Pella, we had tulips in May but very little ivy. We weren’t sure of how to distinguish college ivy from poison ivy so the crew who mowed the grass put Roundup on anything that started to grow on the sides of the buildings.
Our college football field was on was on the edge of a cornfield.
Which is to say that it’s hard for me to picture the Ivy League. All these years later, and though I now know a handful of people who went out east, I am only slightly less informed then I was as a farm kid in Southeast Iowa.
But after the Fall of 2013, there is one vivid “Ivy League image” burned in my mind, a picture I can see very clearly. It has to do with the Stillman Valley – Aurora Christian 2013 class 3A State Semi-Final football game.
SV’s Seth Vanbriesen carries the ball in a Thanksgiving 2013 practice
High school playoff football, of course, is far more familiar to us in the Midwest than the Ivy League. Many of us were at the state semi-final game; and most who weren’t present at the game can picture it. We drove down across already harvested cornfields for the Saturday evening game in the suburbs. And, though the calendar may have said, fall, the forecast read like the evening news for Gnome, Alaska. Global warming notwithstanding, the predictions were so arctic that we rented torpedo heaters like those we used to heat our barns in Iowa when I was growing up.
The weathermen were right. There was no gentle fall breeze. Instead, an icy winter wind howled out of Canada and right into Aurora. We were shivering before the game even started. No one tailgated. People sat in their cars with the motors running or built igloos out of blankets in both rows of the visiting bleachers. A cheerleader’s feet got so cold that she melted her tennis shoes holding her feet up to the heater. I know of three different people who melted gloves in the same way. (My son, Ben, and I were two of them).
Predictions for the outcome of the game weren’t any warmer than the weather. AC came in with an all-state running back with the first name of (I am not making this up) “Legend” – - they had a monster quarterback the size of our linemen – - and the threat of passing attack that made us feel like we would be watching the Blue Angels at the Oshkosh Air Show.
The game started like we expected. Aurora Christian grabbed an early lead. We managed to keep it close the first half, but it felt like the game could get away from us at any moment.
When AC scored on a pick-six early in the 3rd quarter our hopes were on ice, which was true both figuratively and literally. It kept getting colder. For a witness, I appeal to my son Ben who said it was the coldest he has ever been in his life. He steadfastly maintained this claim for four days until a practice the following Wednesday that he claims was colder.
Anyway, Stillman answered AC’s pic-six score by stalling and in short order AC blew into our red zone, with the possibility of the score going to 24-7. The outcome hung in the balance, but somehow Stillman stopped them on fourth down though even when we got the ball we were trapped inside our own fifteen.
I need to back up for a minute and point out that as a church and community, we are honored that one of our own is in the Ivy League. Derek Vanbriesen rolled a 36 on his ACT test and finished first in his class and his acceptance at Dartmouth speaks well not only for him and his family, which it does, but also for our schools and teachers. And, I want to say, in Derek’s defense that, so far as I am aware, Derek didn’t tape vocabulary words on his mirror in high school and he is far more normal than the guy I previously mentioned from Southeast Iowa who went to Harvard. Actually, I think that the guy from SE Iowa was fairly normal; it’s just that my friends and I resented him because he was smarter than we were and, like I said, had to shave every day.
In any case, Seth Vanbriesen, Derek’s younger brother, was playing in the Stillman Valley-AC game and, as it turns out, Seth ended up being part of the pivotal post-season play. The play itself resulted from a halftime adjustment.
In our locker room at half-time, while our team was attempting to get feeling back in their fingers, the Stillman Valley players told the coaches that any time our offense went into a particular set, Aurora Christian crammed defenders in the box and keyed on our fullback. The Aurora Christian defense made this adjustment by yelling a code word which sent the message, “We know what you’re going to do, and we are going to stop it.” Or, said another way, it was shorthand for, “We are going to win and you are going to lose.”
But Stillman’s coaches like adjustments and they were ready with a wrinkle of their own. In response – - and this is what Stillman did down 17-7 in the third quarter – - we decided to fake to our all state fullback Zac Hare- – and gave the ball to Seth. It worked perfectly and Seth was off to the races while the AC defenders piled onto our fake. Once Seth burst through a hole on the left side of the line, he had lots of space because the defense was flowing so hard to our fullback. It probably wasn’t very pleasant for our fullback – - what with everyone plowing into him – - but he was used to it and took one for the team.
For his part, Seth was an unlikely candidate to make the long run- – 73 of his 76 yards that night were on one play. But the play was enough to tip the balance of momentum in our direction and our fullback, Zac, plowed into the end zone in the last minute to win the game.
As long as I have my wits about me, I’ll picture that play from my place on the sidelines- – wind howling – - clouds of steam coming out of helmets – -reserves shivering on the sideline – - cheerleaders melting their shoes on torpedo heaters – - and the suburb superpower pounding us on the ropes.
And then Seth — with the ball – - dancing through the line; the crowd erupting from under their piles of blankets and sleeping bags – - and the sound of cowbells bouncing off the Aurora Christian turf.
But the actual game footage is not my favorite picture of the semi-final game. My favorite picture is from the Ivy League. Seth’s brother, Derek wasn’t able to be at the game. Dartmouth didn’t offer a pep bus going to the Illinois football playoffs. But the game was broadcast on the Internet and so Derek listened online. And the picture of Derek listening in the Ivy League to the news from home – - that is my favorite image from the state semi-final game.
I didn’t really talk to Derek about it, and I know he was listening on the Internet, but I like to picture Derek tuned in on a giant radio in some historic dorm.
I surfed the Internet to see if there was an archive of the game. I wanted to hear the call when Seth got loose for a 73 yard run that changed the momentum, not just of that one game, but of the whole post-season run. But I couldn’t find an archive of the broadcast. It’s just as well. I like to imagine the “staticy radio” play-by-play call Derek heard:
Stillman Valley trails 17-7 and they are backed up in their own territory – -McNames over center, a quick give over the right side to the fullback Hare and a pile of bodies- – check that – It’s a fake to Hare and Stillman is loose in the Aurora Christian secondary. It’s #40 – Seth Vanbriesen. He’s already across midfield: the 50, the 40, the 35 – - Aurora Christian giving chase – - Vanbriesen may score . . . he is tackled inside the Aurora Christian 10. No flags.
The Vanbriesen brothers are in red jerseys on either side of this 2005 pic
I love the picture of one of ours out east hearing that his brother, back home, made a big play back.
It encourages me as a pastor and dad to think, that as far as kids from Byron, Stillman, Rochelle, or Rockford may travel, they will dial into the news from home. Whether they go off to California, or Kentucky or Vanderbilt or Wisconsin, they’ll want the local news. And the reason is because the closer the winners are to home, the sweeter the sound. Had Derek been listening to an NFL team (does anyone really want to win the NFC North?), he would have been only moderately excited. But when he heard the news that his brother made the big play for his hometown he was thrilled. There is no news more local than the news that your own brother made a big play. Derek is not a real animated sort, but he must have at least smiled.
Now, whatever your high school allegiances, if you think about it, the image of an Ivy Leaguer tuned into local good news is a Christmas picture. It is a Christmas card. It is as much Christmas as any print from Currier and Ives because the idea of someone in an elite place, who is never the less, straining to hear the news from home reminds us that the best news is local news.
The first Christmas card was that kind of picture too. It was good news because it was local. Christ’s birth wasn’t someone else’s news in some distant place. It is our news. When Jesus arrived, he didn’t make his entrance in New York or Paris or Rome. He wasn’t even born in Jerusalem where he might have been expected. Mary gave birth and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in the manger because there was no room in the inn.
Christ the LORD was born locally in an obscure, small town, a lot like our towns – - the LORD was born in Payne’s Point, not Paris; Christ the King didn’t come for princes and prima donnas. He came for herdsmen and hired hands: people like us. And the Scriptures promises that for all who receive Christ and truly give their lives to him – - that the news of Christ’s birth is intimately local – - we are part of his family (John 1:12).
It is not lost on Christians today, of course, that in the hallowed halls of higher education, the miracle of Christmas is often viewed with academic disdain. There is little regard for the real Christmas story. The claim of a virgin birth is seen as so much sappy sentimentalism.
And yet, interestingly it is the local Christmas story that resonates with the soul of the world - – from one edge of the map to the other.
Christmas celebrations take places in local churches, not hallowed hallows. Tonight, on Christmas Eve, the cold blue flames of Bunsen burners in scientific laboratories will all be extinguished and the science centers will be dark. And, instead, the warm orange flame of midnight church candles will burn from one edge of the map to the other. Those who view Christianity with disdain are left to admit that they haven’t been able to create a celebration of their own, so they reluctantly join the local party in Bethlehem.
On Christmas, the actions of nearly everyone agree that the best news is not that of proud achievement, but the sort that is local and humble. So the celebration of the Christmas story should grab the attention of even the proudest minds, if we will think of it. Recalling something C.S. Lewis once wrote, The Christmas story – what some would regard as a made up story – - beats the so called real story hollow.
The best good news is local. News sounds the sweetest when it isn’t someone else’s story, but ours. And this is the Christmas message – - For unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given. And this is a true, local story.
Before we conclude, there is one more Christmas card to open. Rather than imagining Derek dialed in from Dartmouth, consider who is tuned in and listening to our local news tonight- – imagine the Risen Christ following our lives with the interest of a brother, for that is what the Scriptures tell us – - In all his omniscient, omnipotent glory – - He is dialed into our local lives – - For those who believe in Him, he listens with the interest and excitement of family. He celebrates our victories and is concerned for our pain. Because, after all, Chist came not for princes and prima donnas, but for herdsmen and hired hands – - local folks such as us. And the good news of Christmas is the best kind of good news, because it is local good news.