MARION — It's time to take another trip into the Way Back Machine with Marion the destination on this particular journey.
The year is 1985.
One of the most phenomenal athletes in school history for MHS - Steve Lacy - was doing his part to propel the Wildcats to their very first state playoff appearance in football.
Whereas playoff football is commonplace today in Marion under current head coach Kerry Martin (16 straight appearances), success on the gridiron wasn't as easy to achieve a few decades ago.
Under the direction of then-head coach Mike Rude, Marion finished 7-2 during the '85 regular season and was runner-up to Mount Vernon for the South Seven Conference championship. The Wildcats proceeded to win their first two playoff games, defeating Olney and Murphysboro before getting ousted in the quarterfinals round by a strong Roxana ballclub and finishing 9-3 overall.
Lacy, listed at 6-foot-2 and weighing 190 pounds, was a senior halfback on the team, who was just about as dangerous receiving the football as he was rushing with it. He carried the rock 149 times his senior season for 1,432 yards from scrimmage, a 9.6 yards-per-carry average, including 119.3 per game. That ranked him No. 1 all-time at MHS at the time of his graduation in 1986 and is now fourth overall.
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For his career, Lacy accumulated 2,232 yards, which was also a school record at the time of his graduation. The total now ranks him fifth overall.
Additionally, Lacy caught 27 passes for 408 yards. The senior scored a Southern Illinois-best 23 touchdowns and was named SI Player of the Year for his efforts. He was also All-Conference, All-South and All-State.
"Steve was simply the best player I ever coached," said Rude, who has coached for well over 40 years that covers conference championships in Anna-Jonesboro, Johnston City and Marion. "I've had a lot of good players, believe me, but Steve could do it all. He was big and physical, yet quick. He didn't have blazing speed, but he was fast enough that nobody caught him from behind."
Rude said perhaps even more impressive than being named All-State was that he was voted to a Top 33 team in Illinois by the Champaign News Gazette.
"He's the only player I've had that ever made that team," Rude said. "Game after game, you could count on Steve to put up big numbers. And he easily could have rushed for well over 2,000 yards in '85 if it weren't for one of his teammates - fullback Mark Thompson - rushing for over 1,000 yards himself. It was the first time in school history that there had been two backs on the same team rush for over 1,000 yards."
And there was plenty of other talent surrounding Lacy and Thompson that year. The quarterback was Brad McGee. The center was Wade Reichert. Guards included Joe Wagner and Tom Perry. Tackles were Don Hill and James Pembrool. Todd DePauw was the tight end. Lonnie Barnes and Cayce Buckner were other halfbacks and receivers included Richard Allen and Andy Rude, the coach's son.
Lacy, whose great nephew, Jaden, was also a standout athlete for Marion just a few seasons ago, said the game he had against Harrisburg his senior year was probably his best from an individual standpoint.
"I remember scoring four touchdowns with one called back on a penalty," he said. "And we always had some battles with Herrin back in those days. They were our arch rival and one of the two teams that beat us during the regular season my senior year. They beat us and Mount Vernon beat us. Because of those losses, we had to beat Carmi in Week 9 in order to qualify for the playoffs, and fortunately, we were able to do so."
Lacy described the Wildcats as a "tight-knit group" in those days.
"We still are," he said.
Lacy said that while he preferred playing on the offensive side of the ball, he didn't mind playing defense either.
"I did OK at it. I hit pretty hard from my corner position and I remember an interception return for a touchdown I had against Benton where I zig-zagged my way to the endzone, but there was a lot I had to learn. I didn't play any organized football until my freshman year."
Rude said the Marion defense was sometimes overlooked that season.
"I thought our defense was outstanding," he said. "Monty Sullivan led us defensively from his left defensive tackle position. He was All-South for us. I think we only gave up like 60-something points all season. What made us so good was that we had a strong junior class pushing our seniors. That junior group went on to capture the South Seven title the next year."
Rude added that the '84 team got the winning tradition started with the school's first six-win season since 1967. The '85 team became Marion's first state playoff entry, and the '86 team won the conference championship.
But football wasn't Lacy's only sport. In fact, it wasn't even his favorite sport.
"Basketball was my main sport in junior high," Lacy said. "And it was always my favorite sport."
Rude said he was concerned that Lacy's love for hoops might keep him away from the football field. As it turns out, that was not the case.
"I'll tell you when I knew Steve would not give up on football was his freshman season. He got hurt in a game and had to be taken to the hospital to get checked out," Rude said. "Before the game was over, he was back. That's the kind of character Steve Lacy possessed. He was absolutely someone his teammates and I could count on day in and day out. Just a super classy kid. He never complained and never celebrated when he scored. He didn't show a lot of emotion. He just performed. He made things happen for us every game."
Lacy, who was also a state qualifier in the triple jump in track, said he misses the thrill of competition and the camaraderie that came with playing team sports.
"Whether it was playing in front of the home crowd during a football game or going up against guys like Stephen Bardo of Carbondale in basketball, I enjoyed the challenge," Lacy said. "Sports meant a lot to me and it meant a lot to the community of Marion. And winning always makes things more fun."
POST MHS: Despite his success in football, Lacy chose basketball at the collegiate level. After all, he did score 1,323 career points for the Wildcats in basketball, which ranked him sixth-best in school history at the time of his graduation.
Because basketball was foremost in his heart, he accepted a scholarship offer from Rend Lake College and was a two-year starter there before transferring to Missouri Baptist his junior season. He was a starter there, too.
"Looking back on it now, I wish I had picked football instead of basketball," Lacy said. "I had some pretty big schools like Illinois and Indiana offering me scholarships at the time, as well as local schools SIU and SEMO."
Lacy said he did not graduate from college.
"I could kick my butt for not finishing," he said. "It was a mistake. I decided to go to work instead. I also met a girl after college, who I later married and am now divorced from. I have two daughters - Tyra, who is a homecare worker, and Kam, who is a daycare worker."
Lacy moved back to Marion in 1996 and worked a variety of odd jobs before suffering a stroke in 2019. The stroke has affected his speech somewhat, but Lacy has made a great deal of improvement through therapy.
"I'm doing much better the last few months," he said. "And I have a lot of support from my family."
Now 53, Lacy said he tries to attend as many Wildcats football games as possible.
"I love watching them play. They are a talented team and I wish them all the best every year. Coach Martin has done a great job with the program."
As for Rude, he can't help but reflect back upon those early days of his coaching career and realize what the season of '85 meant to him, his players, and the community of Marion.
"It meant a lot to all of us. Winning was a step-by-step process and Steve was a huge factor in our success. He took us to the next level," Rude said.