Amid the tension of Whiting's official return to football three weeks ago, there was a post-school board meeting moment that Oilers coach Brett Jennings still can't help but laugh about.
"There was limited capacity allowed in the board room, so all the kids were on the outside," Jennings said. "They didn't know until I came out and told them. I said, we're reinstated."
Instead of the expected looks of joy, Jennings was met with blank stares and confused faces.
"They didn't understand what that meant," he said. "So I said, 'We get to play sports!' Then they were excited."
Senior Tony Madrueno remembered getting the text from Jennings about the meeting, his hopes rising with the news. He also remembered not knowing what to think when his coach came out to share the news.
"We were all wondering what he was saying, then eventually we realized it had happened," Madrueno said. "We were waiting for a decision, and that moment was crazy. It was hard to believe it came true. I'm very thankful it's happening."
It all gets real tonight for the Oilers as they open the season, in week eight, against Griffith.
"I'm feeling great. I'm very hyped," junior Tommy Eggers said. "We have a really young team. It means a lot to find out the group I'll be working with next season, all the underclassmen, they're not going to go a year without football. I was skeptical at first, with only two weeks to start, but it all fell back in line the first week. There's definitely higher energy. Everyone was eager to be back out there. It's a been a 100 percent attitude into everything."
Whiting will open its season tonight against Griffith. The Oilers were the last team in the Region to return to football. (Photo courtesy of Brett Jennings)
It was a stark contrast of emotions to Aug. 10 when the school corporation announced the cancellation of football, following the four Hammond public schools to the sidelines.
"I was devastated, heartbroken," Madrueno said. "My senior season, our last time out there, it was something the seniors obviously didn't want happening. Then as time went on and everybody else was playing, I started to get sadder."
He wasn't alone.
"I was upset, then I was excited to hear everybody was going back," Eggers said. "I was thinking, what's taking us so long? What can we do?"
Madrueno texted Jennings, hopeful that the Hammond moves, along with Calumet, was a good sign for Whiting.
"I asked, is there a way we can get back?" he said. "He told me, we're trying."
Jennings wasn't trying to be evasive or provide false hope. He simply didn't know either.
"The week Hammond voted to reinstate, it was a sliver of hope, but there was never any discussion," he said. "It came out of nowhere. From what I heard, Hammond, even the ADs, had no idea what was happening. We didn't hear anything either. It came out of nowhere, too."
As a coach, Jennings was challenged in keeping his own spirits up, knowing the players would follow his lead. He was able to do some radio color commentary, which allowed him to be back around the game, but it still wasn't quite the same.
"I enjoyed it. I was able to watch some film, talk to coaches," he said. "I took it a lot harder than I thought I would. It's my 19th season, so this is clearly a part of me. There was a depression thing. As sports started, I started to come back around, I told myself I'm going to be positive about it all, promote that the game could be played safely. I could've gone to social media bashing, but chose to take the opposite route. Then in the middle, as it was going, I kind of went back into a depression."
Whiting players do drills Thursday during practice at Ray P. Gallivan Field in advance of Friday's season opener against Griffith. (Photo courtesy of Brett Jennings)
Madrueno, who also plays basketball and baseball, channeled his effort to working out for those sports.
"I was staying in shape, to get better, but I thought (football) was over," he said.
Eggers did much the same, seeking out any form of activity, then going to workouts once assistant coach Chris Davenport was able to start up those again.
"It was hit and miss," Jennings said. "There were a group of kids who did a pretty good job staying in shape, then there were others, not so well. It was the same thing over the quarantine in general, some good, some bad. (Coming back) was the exciting part, then it was realizing there was a lot of work to get done. There are more questions than answers right now."
While Jennings isn't one to lower the bar, he understands the unique circumstances he and his team are facing, and is being realistic.
"As a football coach, you tend to inflate everything," he said. "We've gone the opposite direction. It's skeleton offense, really basic; skeleton defense, really basic. We're going to keep it as simple as possible. I think they've bought in, they're having fun. We've got a lot of sophomores and juniors. The bottom line, is you get to enjoy playing football. When we finish every day, I say, go home and tell whoever it is that you talk to, thank you for another day of football. Just enjoy every moment."
Whiting will host Griffith tonight, when it will honor its seniors. The Oilers and Boone Grove filled a mutual vacancy next week and a sectional game with Bishop Noll will follow that.
"It's such a short season, we're not going to take anything for granted," Eggers said. "We're going to have fun with everything."
Madrueno is happy to have a senior night that for quite a few weeks he thought would never happen, at least not for football.
"I was wondering if it was done for me," he said. "The days are coming a lot quicker. I'm thankful for every day out on the field, my last couple times with the group of kids on this team, building bonds that will last forever."
Jennings has had some crystallized moments as a coach, running onto the Lucas Oil Stadium turf as an assistant coach for the Class A state championship in 2015 and his debut versus as the head man against Hammond Clark in August 2019. He expects tonight's job to be memorable as well.
"I think I'm going to be caught off guard," he said.