Bears

Remember those amazing Appleknockers?

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Remember those amazing Appleknockers?

Since I retired as a sportswriter and high school sports editor of the Chicago Sun-Times in 2001, I have written four books, two of them on high school basketball in Illinois.

In retrospect, I regret that I didn't write at least three others--on Hebron's 1952 team, the smallest school ever to win a state championship, Thornridge's 1972 team, the best in state history, and the 1964 Cobden Appleknockers, perhaps the best Cinderella story of all.

Fortunately, someone else was enterprising enough to do it. Scott Johnson, an assistant executive director of the Illinois High School Association, and his wife Julie Kistler co-authored "Once There Were Giants." Scott Lynn, a former basketball player at Lincoln, authored and self-published "Thornridge." And Teri Campbell and Anne Ryman co-authored "The Amazing Appleknockers" for Lusk Creek Publishing.

In my first book, "Sweet Charlie, Dike, Cazzie, and Bobby Joe: High School Basketball In Illinois," published by University of Illinois Press in 2004, I wrote chapters on all three subjects.

During one of my research trips to southern Illinois, I visited Cobden High School and interviewed Cobden star Chuck Neal at his home in nearby Anna. I also interviewed several other players by telephone and visited coach Dick Ruggles at his home in Nashville.

It was a magical story. Aside from Hebron in 1952, the state tournament hasn't seen anything like it. Cobden was the school of 147 students that could and almost did. The Appleknockers lost to Pekin 50-45 in the state championship game, but they captured the hearts of everyone outside of Pekin.

Campbell and Ryman never saw the 1964 Cobden team play--they are 1986 graduates of the school. But they heard all the of stories and decided they should put them into print. They spent four years researching the subject and two years trying to find someone to publish their manuscript.

"Being from Cobden, you always hear the story of the amazing Appleknockers. We wanted to preserve it. It if wasn't written down, we thought it wouldn't be remembered accurately or perhaps not at all," said Campbell, now a basic skills specialist and assistant coordinator for public and sport information at John A. Logan College in Carterville, Illinois.

"That's Cobden's claim to fame. The 1964 team's picture is in the gym. They are our local heroes. I didn't know the details of the story. I just knew they went to state and lost to Pekin. A lot of people think they won. When I was a student, marching in a high school parade in West Frankfort and in the State Fair parade in Springfield, people said we won state in 1964. We wouldn't correct them."

But Campbell and Ryman, very close friends who have known each other since third grade, decided to set the record straight. Their first interview was star player Kenny Flick, who still lives in Cobden. Flick's decision to quit the team during his junior season because his girlfriend got pregnant, and his return to the team as a senior is only one of the most interesting stories in the book.

"He had a reputation of not being real talkative but he talked to us for three hours," Campbell said. "He told us a lot of stories that weren't basketball-related. We knew it would be a book. We were committed. It wasn't all that hard to get interviews. Bob Smith (who died in 2008) is the only one who isn't alive. But we had interviewed him. Our only regret is he didn't see the finished product."

Ryman, who lives in Phoenix, Arizona, and is a reporter for the Arizona Republic, said she was impressed with how the coaches and players were able to recollect things. Ruggles, for example, had total recall of his two-year hiatus in Cobden, a word-for-word account, a virtual play-by-play.

"We were fascinated by the level of detail," Ryman said. "We never went away from an interview without learning something. It was so rewarding to talk to them about what they went through. They weren't out for personal glory. There was no star. It was just a case of who was hot that night. There were so many good stories, like a soap opera."

Theirs is a fascinating tale. It's all there...how 27-year-old Dick Ruggles was recruited from Hurst-Bush High School to become the coach at Cobden, the tragic death of starting guard Tom Crowell, star player Kenny Flick's decision to quit the team after his girlfriend got pregnant, the school board's decision to change a rule prohibiting married students from competing in sports, thus allowing Flick to return to school and play on the team as a senior, the one-point victory over Egyptian in the regional, the triple overtime victory over Pinckneyville in the supersectional, almost play-by-play accounts of the important games, mascot Roger Burnett placing five apples on the floor of Assembly Hall while 16,000 fans cheered, the fanatical support by students, parents and fans.

Perhaps most intriguing is Ruggles total recall of the events, from his decision to take the job before the 1962-63 season to leaving Cobden after the 1963-64 season to become coach at Nashville. The book is laced with his recollections of plays and games, pregame speeches, halftime speeches, postgame speeches, quote by quote. It is as if it all happened last week, not nearly 50 years ago.

When I interviewed Chuck Neal at his home in Anna in 2002, nearly 40 years after teammate Tom Crowell had drowned in a swimming accident a few months before the 1963-64 season, he still had to wipe away tears when recalling the tragedy.

"What always has stuck with me is had I not lied to my father and gone where we were supposed to go, it may not have happened," he said. Neal, Ken Smith and Crowell planned to go swimming on a warm day in May. Chuck knew his father, a member of the school board who largely had been responsible for hiring Ruggles, didn't want him to go to Little Grassy Lake because it was known to have a big dropoff. So Chuck told him they would go to Lamer's Pond. Instead, they went to Little Grassy.

Crowell wasn't a very good swimmer. Smith and Neal decided to swim across the cove but told Crowell to stay behind in a shallow area. When they got halfway across, they turned around to see Crowell struggling in deep water. He apparently had tried to follow them. Neal went ahead to get help and Smith swam back and desperately tried to save Crowell's life.

"It was the most horrible experience I even had, even worse than Vietnam," Smith said. "He kept fighting me and he kept going under and he was gone. Hardly a day goes by that I don't think about it. I think about what Tom could have been."

The class of 1964 still gets together every five years and the graduates who still live in the Cobden area get together every month. The basketball team celebrated a 40th anniversary by serving as grand marshals of the Peach Festival parade. A 50th reunion is planned in 2014.

A story like this had to be told. So it's a good thing that Campbell and Ryman, after looking for a publisher for two years, finally ran into the owner of Lusk Creek Publishing of Makanda, Illinois, at a winery in southern Illinois.

"We had a lot of rejections," Campbell said. "University of Illinois Press and Southern Illinois Press turned it down. Some publishers wouldn't even accept a proposal. SIU thought it was too small of an audience."

It's a story that anyone would love to read.

J.P. Holtz provides spark Bears have been missing at tight end

J.P. Holtz provides spark Bears have been missing at tight end

Trey Burton's nagging injuries and Adam Shaheen's lack of development created a tight end crisis for the Bears through the first half of the 2019 season, but with Burton on injured reserve and Shaheen seemingly no longer in the team's plans, someone had to rise from the ashes and take over the starting job.

Enter J.P. Holtz, the 26-year-old unknown commodity whose under-the-radar signing with the Bears was hardly noticed by the fanbase. GM Ryan Pace claimed Holtz off waivers on Sept. 11 after a brief stint with the Washington Redskins, where he spent 2018 and the start of 2019 bouncing between the practice squad and active roster.

Holtz initially entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent out of Pittsburgh. He signed with the Browns in May 2016 and spent the end of that season on Cleveland's practice squad. 

Needless to say, Holtz's journey to the Bears' starting lineup has been anything but traditional. But in Week 14's game against the Dallas Cowboys, he provided the Bears' offense with its first legitimately productive game at tight end. Holtz finished Thursday's game with three catches for 56 yards and had the longest catch of any Bears receiver (30 yards). He was the highest-graded player on Chicago's offense, per Pro Football Focus. His 79.2 grade was better than Burton's top mark in 2019 (67.6) and would've qualified as Burton's third-best game of 2018, too. 

Holtz out-snapped fellow tight end Jesper Horsted, 37-31, and appears to have taken a slight lead over Horsted for reps moving forward. That said, both players have surprisingly looked like better fits for what Matt Nagy wants to do in his offense than either Burton or Shaheen. Horsted had four catches for 36 yards on Thursday.

Holtz and Horsted combined for seven catches and 92 yards. That's more yards in one game than Burton managed in the eight games he played, total.

It would be unfair to expect similar production from Holtz from here on out considering he was never a pass-catcher at any point in his career. In college, Holtz never topped more than 24 catches in a season and recorded a career-high 350 yards his senior year. But we've seen players' roles change once they get to the NFL before. Take 49ers superstar George Kittle, for example. His career-high in receiving yards at Iowa was just 314. We know what kind of weapon he's turned into as a pro.

No, Holtz isn't the next Kittle. But he doesn't have to be. He just has to be the guy we saw Thursday night who made plays for an offense desperate for a playmaking tight end.

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Blackhawks place Duncan Keith and Andrew Shaw on injured reserve

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USA Today

Blackhawks place Duncan Keith and Andrew Shaw on injured reserve

The Blackhawks placed defenseman Duncan Keith and forward Andrew Shaw on injured reserve Friday, retroactive to Nov. 29 and 30, respectively. The move opens up two spots on the 23-man roster, although the team did not make any corresponding transactions due to cap reasons.

Keith, who has missed the last three games with a groin injury, and Shaw, who is in the league's concussion protocol, will not play in Friday's game against the New Jersey Devils but they will both be eligible to return after that, whenever they're cleared to do so. Injured reserve requires a player to miss a minimum of seven days from their retroactive date.

The Blackhawks do not receive any cap relief by putting Keith and Shaw on regular injured reserve, but if their injuries continue to linger, the team could transfer one or both to long-term injured reserve (LTIR) for financial reasons, which would force them to miss a minimum of 10 games and 24 days from the time of their injury.

The Blackhawks do not have the cap space to make a call-up and with Drake Caggiula, who's on LTIR, inching closer to a return, that complicates things from a financial standpoint. They're currently sitting at 21 players and have $240,030 in projected cap space, according to Cap Friendly.

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