As time grew short in the University of Illinois’ football loss at Iowa on Saturday, Illini radio play by play man Brian Barnhart worked in a high school playoff score.
Barnhart shared that his alma mater, Tolono Unity, had defeated Mount Carmel, 28-21, in the Class 3A semifinals.
Normally, that wouldn’t trigger a reaction an hour’s drive from Tolono, located nine miles south of Champaign. This time it did, and while steering the car toward home after running an errand, a smile crept across the face in my rearview mirror.
“Jordan Reinhart,” the mind whispered. “Imagine how he would feel about this.”
A Tolono Unity grad and former star linebacker, Reinhart — a former assistant football coach at Argenta-Oreana — was coaching and living in LeRoy when he died tragically in February. Traveling from LeRoy to his full-time job as Tolono Unity’s assistant maintenance director, Reinhart was killed Feb. 19 in a car accident on an icy patch of Interstate 74.
Like Tolono, LeRoy mourned his loss, considered the 28-year-old assistant football and track coach to be family. Yet, as much as he loved LeRoy, where he lived with his wife, Ana, and their three young children, Reinhart was “a Unity kid through and through,” said LeRoy football coach and athletic director B.J. Zeleznik.
Monday, asked what Unity’s berth in the state championship game would mean to Reinhart, Zeleznik replied, “Oh man, he would have been ecstatic.”
“He was one of the greats to go through that program,” Zeleznik said. “I know the coaches there loved him. He reminded me a lot of kids who grow up in a program and can tell you everything about it, from past victories and players and games.
“He was a Unity history buff. He would have been fired up for Coach (Scott) Hamilton and his staff and for the communities.”
Unity is home to students from Tolono, Philo, Sidney, Pesotum and Sadorus. No one embraced the mix more than Reinhart, who could have identified with this year’s Rockets. As a senior captain and middle linebacker in 2009, he was a leader on the third of Hamilton’s five state runner-up teams.
The hope is this will be the year to secure the title for Hamilton and the Rockets, who face Byron on Friday at DeKalb in a matchup of 13-0 teams. Zeleznik is confident Reinhart will have a presence at the 4 p.m. game … not in the No. 33 jersey he wore in high school, but in a larger sense.
“He’ll be there in spirit, no doubt,” Zeleznik said. “I’m sure he’s smiling down. To see that tradition continue, he’d be very happy for everybody.”
Reinhart did his best to bring home the championship in 2009. He accounted for a game-high 16 tackles — nine solos, seven assists — in a 52-22 loss to Stillman Valley.
The day after Reinhart died, Hamilton told me his former standout “truly defined what a captain and what a leader was.” A few minutes prior to that, Zeleznik described Reinhart as “just a well-loved guy … a good, good dude” who was “wonderful at creating relationships.”
He packed a lot of impact into 28 years and now, for the first time, will watch his beloved Rockets play for a state championship from heaven’s skybox. He’ll be rooting hard for a Unity victory, as will folks in LeRoy and Argenta.
Randy Kindred is a columnist and retired sports editor at The Pantagraph. Follow Randy Kindred on Twitter: pg_kindred