Jacob Keller and his Fenwick High School teammates got to touch Johnny Lattner’s Heisman Trophy before Friday night’s season opener against Phillips.
A little of the old magic must have rubbed off.
Keller completed 21 of 39 passes for 319 yards and four touchdowns as the host Friars rallied from a 20-point deficit to stun the reigning Class 4A state champion Wildcats 34-26 at Triton College in River Grove.
It was only the second loss in the past 27 games for Phillips, which last year became the first Chicago Public League school to win a state title.
The result was Fenwick’s most high profile, if not the most important, victory of Gene Nudo’s five-year tenure as head coach. But he wasn’t surprised by the win, only by the method.
“I can’t say (the win) was the shocking part of it,” Nudo said. “We were feeling very good going into the game based on what we did during practice.
“But when you (trail big early), that can put you on your heels a little bit,” Nudo said. “But it didn’t affect the kids.
“We told them to keep your heads up and keep working until the game was over. The boys really did a great job.”
Phillips, which routed the Friars 40-16 in last year’s season opener, used its great speed and athleticism to grab a 20-0 lead.
“The biggest thing was there was no way in practice to replicate the speed Phillips had,” Nudo said. “It took us a while to get up to their speed because they have a lot of great athletes over there.”
But the Friars have more than a few of their own and they made their mark in this game, none more so than Keller, who took some big hits early but stayed tough, spreading the ball to five different receivers.
“Jacob really had a great game,” Nudo said. “He showed me an awful lot.
“He didn’t go untouched. He was getting banged around a little bit in the first half but he fought through it.”
Phillips sold out to stop the run and was successful in doing so. Conner Lillig had 14 carries for 50 yards but the Friars netted only 39 yards on the ground in 26 attempts.
“They were loading the box against Jacob,” Nudo said. “He spread the ball around and the offensive line stepped up the protection, especially the right side of our line in right tackle Sean Heslin, right guard Joe Calcagno and our center, Danny Kannin.”
Keller tossed two touchdown passes to junior Mike O’Laughlin, including a 62-yarder in the third quarter that put the Friars ahead 27-26. The other scoring strikes went to Lillig and Jack Henige.
O’Laughlin finished with eight catches for 183 yards and also threw a 15-yard TD pass to Sherman Martin. Lillig made five receptions, while Martin, Henige and Alex Polston had three apiece.
“I didn’t think I had that good of a game,” Keller said. “I didn’t know my stats until after the game. I thought I threw a lot of incompletions.”
But Keller felt pretty confident going into the game. That didn’t change even after the Wildcats’ fast start.
“The sideline got a little quiet but the offense made some slight adjustments and we knew we’d come through,” Keller said. “We changed our protection and the big boys stuck with it.
“I was trying to get everybody the ball, but basically I was just making the reads and the receivers did a great job of going up and beating the DBs and coming down with the ball.”
After getting toasted early, Fenwick’s defense rose to the occasion in the second half. Lorenzano Blakeney and Ryan Chapman had momentum-changing interceptions and linebacker Brett Moorman had a team-leading nine solo tackles.
Employing a swarming style of defense, the Friars also racked up eight assisted tackles, including two each by Ellis Taylor and Dan Stein. Moorman, Chapman, Blakeney and Joe Rafferty had the others.
The win was a fitting start to what Fenwick hopes is a new tradition. It was the Friars’ first home game at Triton, which will be the school’s home field for the next 10 years.
But Nudo said the team will take the triumph in stride.
“We didn’t get all panicky after we lost to Phillips last year,” Nudo said. “We didn’t win the Super Bowl after (Friday) night, but now we know what we have to work on.”
“We’re all pretty excited but we know we have a lot of work to do come Monday,” Keller said. “We’re taking it one game at a time.”
But this one was special for a number of reasons. It was the first time Fenwick took the field since Lattner, a 1950 alum who won the Heisman while playing for Notre Dame, passed away February 13 at age 83.
The Lattner family has donated the trophy to the school, which intends to display it during home football games. Every player touched it before Friday’s game.
“That was really exciting being able to touch the trophy and being able to dedicate the game and the season to him and his family,” Keller said. “They are a big part of our program.”
So, too, was the late Don Heldmann, who also died recently. Heldmann was the defensive coordinator on all three of Fenwick’s state semifinalist teams and a Korean War veteran.
Nudo said the Friars will wear American flag stickers on their helmets in honor of Heldmann, who is a member of the Catholic League and East Suburban Catholic Conference halls of fame.
Fenwick’s helmets also are adorned with a shamrock and the letters JL in memory of Lattner.
“The Lattners are gracious enough to let us have the trophy,” Nudo said. “Two of his grandsons who played for me, Ryan Smith and Danny Lattner, wrote us letters explaining what Fenwick meant to their grandfather.
“We had Johnny kind of looking over us.”