By James Kay
Before Gene Nudo took over the reins of Fenwick's football program in 2012, there was an argument to be made that he could have retired and marched gloriously into the sunset with his head and notorious mustache held high. After all, few football coaches have racked up the accolades that Nudo has during his career.
He's been inducted into the Hall of Fame in the Arena Football, Chicago Metropolitan, and Minor League Football leagues. He won a state championship with Driscoll Catholic High School in 1991, worked in the NFL during the 1987 strike, and recently recorded his 100th win at the high school level (for the entire overview of Nudo's career, check out Lauren Recchia's article "Coaching with the stars" on Wednesday Journal's website).
With all the success he has experienced, the question must be posed: What does Gene Nudo have left to prove? In his mind, it is abundantly clear.
"I want that state championship for Fenwick in the worst way," said Nudo. "The kids on that 2016 semifinalist team will never forget that call, and I sure won't forget it either. To have the opportunity to play for a state championship ripped away from us just kills you."
Given his track record at the professional and amateur levels, some might be tempted to dismiss Nudo's comment as typical coach speak. But he describes the heartbreaking 2016 semifinal loss with detail that confirms Nudo is haunted by it.
Fenwick had seemingly wrapped up their bid to go to the state championship game as they entered the finals seconds with a three-point lead. With the clock running and possession on their own 12 yard line, Fenwick's quarterback threw a pass high and deep in the air on fourth down. It landed after time expired and was a play that Nudo had run multiple times during his stints in the AFL when put in that position late in games.
However, one official ruled the play as intentional grounding and gave Plainfield North High School a shot at tying the game with a field goal. The game went into overtime after Tigers converted. Fenwick lost the overtime coin toss, and Plainfield ended up winning the game to go to the state championship.
"That is my toughest loss as a coach ever," said Nudo. "I've won a state championship at Driscoll; I was on staff for the state championship win in Phoenix; I've won a world championship with the Arizona Rattlers; I've won a national championship with my minor league team. When I look at [the 2016 loss], that is the defining game for me when I look back at my career."
The game garnered national attention and the intentional grounding ruling remains one of the most controversial calls in high school sports over the last two decades. Nudo is still getting calls from Mike Golic (a friend of Nudo) to discuss the loss.
"He wanted me to come on his radio show to talk about it, and I wouldn't do it," said Nudo. "Everyone wanted to talk about it because it was egregious. I didn't want to go into the media to air it out since that's not the way to handle business."
For now, it seems like a state championship is the only thing that could pry Nudo from the sideline on Friday nights. Even then, he's adamant that this is the level where he wants to coach and his passion for leading younger people keeps him motivated after all these years.
"This is what I do, man! This is what I do," said Nudo. "How can anyone not be motivated by being able to work with bright, ambitious, hard-working kids who look up to you and trust you? That's a lot of responsibility on a daily basis. I come to work every day to compete for my job."
After getting his 100th win and adding to his long list of achievements, Nudo won't have to worry about competing for his job any time soon. All that's on his mind is getting Fenwick its first state championship. Anything outside of that is a thought for another day.