Blasts from the past: Long-time Hobart assistants return to state 24 years after Brickies' last trip
HOBART -- It's been 41 years, almost half of his lifetime ago, but 81-year old Tom Kerr remembers Hobart's first trip to the state finals in football vividly.
"It was at North Central High School," he said. "It was cold as hell and there no hot water. The kids couldn't even shower." The defensive coordinator on the Don Howell-coached Brickies teams, Kerr made 10 more trips to Indianapolis, the next few at North Central and the remaining ones at the Hoosier Done, for championships between 1979 and 1996 during Hobart's golden era of football, which produced four titles ('87, '89, '91, '93).
"Most Hobart people thought Thanksgiving was a football holiday," said Don Rogers, who has been a volunteer assistant since coming to town in 1986. "Even the ones who were there don't know how special it was."
Twenty-four years after that last trip, Kerr, Rogers and Steve Balash, another Brickies lifer, are feeling like they've all gone back in time, as volunteer assistants for Hobart, which plays in Friday's Class 4A state championship at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"It's come a long way," Kerr said. "I can remember the first one and every one of them. It's been a great feeling of accomplishment. I know our winning percentage could be a little better down there, but people don't realize how hard it is to get there. I can remember Riley (Johnston), Tyler (Turley) and (Alex) Pickett when they were this high, they were our ball boys and they would just kill each other. I remember telling JJ Jr. (Riley's dad Jim Johnston Jr.) and coach (Ryan) Turley, I wanted to be around when these guys are seniors. This is where we're at right now. It's been a great group of young men. I told Tyler and Riley last week, don't stop now."
Hobart coach Craig Osika, left, has led the Brickies back to the football state finals for the first time since 1996, when he was a junior there. Tom Kerr, 81, a volunteer assistant who works with the defensive tackles, was the defensive coordinator during the program's golden era, when it went to state 11 times between 1979 and 1996, and won four titles.
Brickies coach Craig Osika was a junior on the '96 team that lost to Indianapolis Cathedral. He shakes his head and laughs at the thought of working with Kerr, Balash (his father-in-law) and Rogers.
"I never dreamed I would be the head coach coaching along side my coaches," he said. "It's surreal. It still doesn't completely make sense for me to be the head coach when they've been around a lot longer than I have. I told them I don't know how in the hell you did this 11 times. I'm sure times have changed, especially this year with the COVID stuff. Just to be able to bounce things off them, to gain from their knowledge, their experiences, they've been coaching longer than I've been alive. That's anybody on our staff." A 1957 Hobart graduate, Kerr started his career in 1962 and retired after the '96 season, when he was inducted into the Indiana Football Hall of Fame. He worked the next three years for Pepsi before being asked back as a volunteer in 2000, making this season his 55th as a coach. "Coach does a good job with the interior defensive linemen, pulling them to the side during individual drills when he can," Osika said. "He's still pretty ornery." Balash, a 1968 Hobart grad, has spent his entire educational career at his prep alma mater, coaching football at various capacities since 1972. The 71-year old is a member of both the Indiana football and wrestling halls of fame, he helps with the offensive line. He has the added honor or working with his son-in-law, as his daughter Stefanie is married to Osika, who took over the program in 2018.
"It's different because I was his head coach and now he's mine, but he's been doing a great job," Balash said. "He does everything right. He tries to do it the Brickie way. He really respects the kids and I think they respect him for it. In three years, he's made it to the state finals, so that's awesome." The 75-year old Rogers, who retired from teaching when the new high school opened in 2009, helps former Brickies kicking standout Bill Manolopoulos coach that position. "I stay with a small group, two max," Rogers joked. "The nice thing is seeing all the guys you coached as kids being the coaches now, taking them there. They've done an outstanding job. Craig's done an outstanding job. Just to see the excitement of the kids and coaches, it's really amazing. It'll be nice to see the kids' faces when they get on the field. It reminds me of the old days in the Dome, just now it's Lucas Oil Stadium." Rogers went to "The Luke" several years ago when former Brickies quarterback Josh Miracle was on the coaching staff at Westfield when it reached the state finals. The Shamrocks are playing for the 6A title Friday night after Hobart's game. For Kerr, it will be his first trip back since '96. "It's come a long way," he said. "I've never been to Lucas Oil. It's always exciting, just to think what the kids are going through. Coach (Osika) always said, we're going to play 15 (games). The kids bought into it. We didn't get to play Lowell, but we're playing 14. What these kids and coaches have gone through with COVID and social distance, they have been great. Our administration has been great, allowing us to play. The easy way out for them would have been say we're not, but (Superintendent) Peggy Buffington said we're going to play. I give them a lot of credit." During all of his years with Howell, Kerr did the pre-game prayer, a tradition that was brought back when he returned. "These guys need a lot of prayers," he laughed. "Sometimes, I think it goes in one ear and out the other." Hobart went 20 years between sectional titles (1996 and 2016), and the task of meeting past successes in the football-rich community has been a tall one. That only makes this season's run even sweeter. "It's beginning to get its own history," Kerr said. "(Expectations) are OK. It stimulates the coaches, it stimulates the players. It gives them a little more incentive to work harder."
Osika couldn't help but get emotional last week after the semistate as he celebrated the win with his mentors.
"It was pretty special, giving (Kerr) a hug, telling him it was like old times," he said. "Just him being here every day when he doesn't have to be. They don't get paid. It's just the love of the game and the love for the program. We'll keep them around as long as they want to be here. They're always welcome. We love 'em. They're Brickies. They want to see them be successful."
Returning to state can't help but make Kerr reflect on his times with his Popeye-armed colleague.
"Coach Howell, he's smiling, he's happy," he said. "Some of the things they did during the year, he was rolling over in his grave, but we got the ship righted. It's been a great run with a great bunch of kids."