Speaking from the heart allows Steve Ebner to reveal a secret.|
"I probably would have coached football for free," said Ebner, Rock Island's defensive coordinator.
A paycheck provided a living, but what truly makes Ebner's nearly four-decade run as a football coach are the relationships and moments he forever treasures.
"I'm really lucky that I've gotten to do something I like," Ebner said. "I feel really, really fortunate."
The ultimate payoff comes Saturday in Champaign when he is inducted into the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Adding to the honor is the fact Ebner has never been a head football coach.
Since joining the Alleman staff in 1974, he has been a career football assistant.
"It's a really neat honor," said Ebner. "It's almost overwhelming."
The numbers justify the induction. During stints at Alleman and Rocky, he has been part of 303 victories against 115 losses. Ebner coached in three state championship games and appeared in the playoffs 27 times.
Twenty of the 42 Western Big 6 Conference seasons featured an Ebner-coached team winning or sharing the league title.
"He made me a better coach," said former Alleman and United Township coach Mike Tracey, who had Ebner on his staff from 1981 through 1990. "He made all of the assistants he worked with better. That's a great quality. He was top of the shelf for me."
Once he left Alleman for Rocky to become Vic Boblett's defensive coordinator prior to the 1991 season, Ebner continued his role as a pivotal part of the coaching staff. With Ebner running the defense, the Rocks developed into a consistent power that continues to this day.
"If we hadn't been able to find guys like Steve, getting Rock Island turned around may not have happened," Boblett said. "We were very fortunate to get some very classy, knowledgeable guys."
Ebner also assisted former Alleman coaches Jim Jorgensen and Wayne DeSutter early in his tenure. Last season had him working under first-year Rocky head coach Bryan Stortz, who won the 2007 Class 7A state title at Lake Zurich.
All those aforementioned coaches shaped Ebner both personally and professionally.
"There's somebody looking out for me to put me with those guys," said Ebner, a Rocky driver's education instructor and also the school's head softball coach. "The good thing about all those guys is they really treat kids the right way. That's the biggest thing I learned."
Years around football have taught Ebner everything he needs to know about the game. Wins, knowledge and accomplishments are cherished, but the greatest memory is working with the players.
No accolade or honor trumps that.
"The longer you coach, the more you realize it comes down to the kids," Ebner said. "Alleman and Rock Island have great kids and players who bought into the program. Obviously, the coaches have to be organized, but it comes down to the players."
The players admire Ebner.
"It was obvious when I was with him that he got along great with the kids. They trusted him," Tracey said. "He gave them a lot of responsibility and a lot of them thrived in that situation."
Asked why his coaching run is nearing its fourth decade, he said the kids play a major part. However, the ambiance surrounding the game is a factor as well.
"Friday under the lights, there's nothing like that," Ebner said. "That's pretty neat. Nothing compares."
The same could be said about Ebner's tenure.
"It seemed like I started coaching a couple years ago," Ebner said.
Times goes quickly when it is spent toward something you love. No wonder Ebner would do this for free.
"I feel fortunate," Ebner said. "I did it for a long time, but I got to do it with great people. It's a neat thing."