The concrete and grass that surround Memorial Stadium should be full of people on Friday and Saturday. After all, it's tradition.
Tents are set up, grills are fired up — perhaps even a few drinks are consumed by parents passing hours before the game — and high school football is celebrated one last time, on the biggest stage, before it's stowed away for the winter. This year that celebration would have been in Champaign, the site of this year's state title games and one that alternates with Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.
Illinois High School Association state championship games have a different feel. Entire towns gather to celebrate the community pride through the lens of high school sports. From town to town, traditions are built around one game.
This year, none of that will happen. There hasn't been a high school football game in the state of Illinois since Nov. 30, 2019, after the fall season was wiped out because of concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
The hope is games will start in the spring, though skepticism remains as the public showdown between the IHSA and the combination of Gov. J.B. Pritzker's office and the Illinois Department of Public Health continues.
That leaves us with a void around this Thanksgiving. In the sports world, football and Thanksgiving go hand-in-hand. The National Football League consumes Thanksgiving day and in Illinois, high school football is king on Friday and Saturday. The Big Ten wraps up the regular season on the Saturday following Thanksgiving and leads us into another NFL Sunday.
The NFL will still play on Thanksgiving and sports fans in Illinois will, at long last, get to see the No. 8 Illinois men's basketball team in a three-day multi-team event at the State Farm Center before the No. 3 Ohio State football team rolls into town on Saturday.
Champaign will still be busy, but not for the reasons we're used, leading to a pause on some of the traditions steeped into our holiday plans.
Maroa-Forsyth head coach Josh Jostes and his family have built their schedule around the Trojans' appearances in the state championship game. Makes sense given Maroa-Forsyth has played in eight championship games since 2006. He's got two scenarios: One for if he's coaching on Friday and one for if he's hunkered in the basement watching games and stealing ideas off of the television.
If Maroa isn't playing: Jostes hunts on Thanksgiving day with his grandpa, uncles, oldest son Reed and best friends from high school, with breakfast at his grandparents' house. The Jostes family goes to lunch at Josh's wife, Heidi's, parents, and he goes to bed upon arriving home. Heidi gets her Black Friday shopping done after that.
If Maroa is playing: Jostes, the team and the community have Thanksgiving breakfast at 7:30 a.m. on the turf of Walter Boyd Field before practice. That's followed by the trip to Heidi's parents for lunch and Josh heading to bed. Heidi still gets her Black Friday shopping done to ease her mind, he said.
With no games, this is a hunting year for Jostes.
For a week that's known for its build-up to the championship game, cold practices in the morning or as sun sets in the evening, things will continue to be eerily quiet on high school football fields around the state.
The grass and concrete around Memorial Staidum will remain empty. No tents, no grills, no flags and no community celebration before or after the game. There won't be police escorts back to the high school for teams that won or fireworks in town to celebrate the season.
But beyond all of the hype around the game itself — and justifiably so — the hardest thing to stomach is the pause of traditions, of camaraderie. Some people are choosing to isolate or pare down their Thanksgiving parties and some are continuing to go on, business as usual. Neither scenario involves IHSA football.
State championship football means something, not just as a game, but as a community-wide event. We'll just have to wait to celebrate.