John Newton wasn`t exactly having the time of his life.
Going into the final minutes of last Friday's Class 4A title game between No. 1 Richards and No. 3 Morris in Normal, Newton, the two-way star for the Bulldogs had dropped a touchdown pass in traffic in the end zone; mishandled two punts, both of which he recovered; and got beat by Morris' receiver Eric Evenson on a 35-yard pass for the Redskins only score.
Newton made up for it somewhat by catching a touchdown pass of his own to tie the game two minutes before the end of the first half. But for Newton, that wasn`t enough. Not by a long shot.
So, with less than 40 seconds left and Morris driving with the wind and into Richards territory, with a chance to get into position for a last-second, game-winning field goal, Newton made his move. The next play, a pass up the middle, was tipped into the air, and Newton found himself in position to make his tenth pickoff of the year to stop the Redkins` final drive of regulation. Clutch play.
Last year, on the very same field, Newton intercepted a pass in the third quarter of Richards' championship game with Peoria and ran it back 85-yards for a touchdown that broke the game open in the Bulldogs` 40-6 win.
Newton, a 5-foot-11-inch, 186-pound safety, who hasn`t played on a losing team since his freshman year at Richards and has picked off three passes in two title games, heads up The Tribune's 1989 all-state defense.
The rest of the all-state defensive unit, a 4-4-3 alignment, is loaded with bone-crunching hitters whose collective motto would seem to be: "If it moves, knock it down."
The linebacking crew on defense features Romeoville's
, Joliet Catholic's Steve Ostrowski, Providence's Pete Bercich, the Bermuda Triangle of the Southwest suburbs. Ball-carriers who find themselves wandering into their territory know that they soon could disappear under a pile of opposing players, with one of the aforementioned linebackers acting as the first layer of the sandwich.
The other LB spot belongs to East St. Louis' Dana Howard, whose interception and fumble recovery in the Class 6A title game helped turn a comfortable lead into a full-fledged trouncing of Thornton.
The beefy line features St. Patrick's Mike Balog, Maine South's Doug Winter and Bloom's
and is headed up by St. Rita's Brian Hamilton, a two-time all-stater for the 9-1 Mustangs.
Joining Newton in the secondary are Barrington's Matt Kraus, the best in the Mid-Suburban League, and Morris DB
, who broke a school record in the 4A title game with his 14th and 15th interceptions of the year. The second one came on the final play of regulation, and Wright nearly scored the winning touchdown before being hauled down by Richards quarterback John Rutkowski 82-yards later after time had expired.
While that ultimately proved to be the game-saving play for Richards, it doesn`t diminish the importance of Newton`s pickoff a half-minute earlier.
"John may not be a blue chip, Division I prospect," said Richards coach Gary Korhonen. "His size may work against him. But he`s a complete football player."
Newton, who lives in Chicago Ridge, didn't play organized football until his freshman year at Richards, but he had an age-old excuse with which thousands can empathize.
"My mother didn`t want me to play tackle," he said. "I sort of gave in immediately. My parents were divorced since I was born, so we lived with my grandparents. I have kind of a strict grandfather, so if I rebelled against my mother, well, let`s just say he`s not a small guy."
Newton eventually was granted his wish to play football after older brothers Mark and Scott both played under Korhonen at Richards. In grade school, John and his pal, Rutkowski, used to go to Bulldogs games and day-dream about themselves wearing Richards' uniforms.
"It seemed like the ultimate," he said. "When Johnny and I went to the games every week, it seemed like such a big thing."
It was a much bigger thing, however, when Newton, Rutkowski and the rest of the Bulldog seniors left the field of Hancock Stadium Friday with their second straight title and 28th consecutive win.
"I was scared to death," Newton admitted moments after the 12-6 overtime victory. "I was more scared than I`d ever been in my life."
That fight is over now, and scared or not, Newton walked off the field as a two-time champion.