HARVARD – Less than a mile past where the big wooden sign boasts Harvard as being a community where success comes naturally, the signs chronicling the town’s football accomplishments begin.
It starts on the digital read-out situated along Route 14 in front of the Cash Saver food outlet, where “Good Luck Hornets” comes up in red lights. Next door, Harvard State Bank’s sign displays a similar message, wishing Harvard’s beloved Hittin’ Hornets good luck in their next game.
The love continues up the road at the local Subway, where “Good Luck Harvard Hornets Football Team” is spelled out underneath the chain sandwich shop’s familiar green and yellow sign.
Harvard – population 9,500 according to the metal green sign that sits on the town’s eastern border – has always been a football town. For the fifth time in the town’s history, Harvard’s high school team finished the regular season unbeaten, matching the accomplishments of Harvard teams in 1941, 1957, 1977 and 1988.
The Hornets will take an 11-0 record into Saturday’s 1 p.m. Class 4A state quarterfinal game against Rockford Lutheran, hoping to advance to the semifinals for the first time in what will be head coach Tim Haak’s final season.
The occasion isn’t lost on the town or its residents. Travel past Harmilda, the town’s iconic fiberglass cow commemorating Harvard’s annual Milk Days festival and into the downtown district. It’s down this corridor, where green wreaths hang on light posts that also display nostalgic banners that include the message “Greetings From Harvard” above the image of an illuminated Christmas tree, where the story really begins to take shape.
There’s David Brady, whose jewelry store has been in business for 47 years. Brady is a Friday night regular, having spent the past 21 years on Harvard’s football chain gang. Brady Jewelers is among the merchants that display handmade signs on their doors and windows, celebrating a season that includes the most victories in school history.
The sign on Brady’s door is impossible to miss, including the message, “Harvard 11-0!! Hustle, Hit!! But Never Give Up!!”, written in black and yellow on a white piece of poster board. The pride displayed on the sign and others like it in storefront windows, is evident around town.
“It’s really good for the kids, good for the program, good for the town,” Brady said.
The Hornets have been the talk of the town throughout the fall, throughout a perfect regular season and now two games into their latest playoff venture. Brady describes a palpable buzz around town that extends to out-of-town customers who wander into his store and extend a goodwill gesture of congratulating Brady for the Hornets’ on-field success.
For more than two decades, Brady has had an up-close view of Harvard football, which has qualified for the playoffs seven times since 2004. Brady has enjoyed each of his 21 years working the sidelines, but admits there’s something more exciting about this particular season.
“It’s the winning streak,” Brady said. “It’s always more fun when you’re winning.”
Across the street, Judy Koch knows the feeling.
Koch owns Judy’s Florist, where gifts, scented candles and assorted flowers have filled the store for the past 30 years. But Koch’s love of Harvard football is evident before one even steps through the front door that includes a team poster autographed by each of Harvard’s football heroes.
But the large window is what stands out. “Go Hornets” is spray painted on the large pane of glass, accompanied by a smaller message, “Go Dakota #77”, paying homage to Koch’s grandson, senior offensive and defensive lineman Dakota Trebes.
Trebes is the third generation to experience football success at Harvard, following his father, Richie, who played on the Hornets’ 1988 undefeated team, and his grandfather, Dick, who was part of the school’s undefeated 1957 team.
Judy – wife of Dick and mother of Richie – sees a definite thread between the three teams – each of which holds a special place in Harvard’s heart.
“This is just a good, hard-working football team,” Judy Koch said. “They’ve been playing together since they were in junior tackle and they’ve just been going good. They’re all friends and nobody’s taken the credit for anything.
“They’re all working as a team, and that’s why they’re winning.”
But it’s that spirit, Harvard residents suggest, where the town and Haak’s Hornets intersect.
Mickey Ulmer runs Ulmer’s Jewelry and Gifts, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. In those five decades, Ulmer – who played football at Harvard, graduating in 1973 – has seen the community change, “All to the better.” He has watched the town celebrate good times and endure hardship, following a similar path as the town’s football program.
Ulmer, whose storefront sign reads “Our Blood, Our Sweat, Your Tears,” predicting another loss for the Hornets’ upcoming playoff opponent, believes this year’s team encapsulates Harvard’s hard-working mentality.
“They’ve improved since Day 1 and, as you watch them, you can just see how they’ve gotten better and better,” Ulmer said. “They seem to gel more and they’re all very down to earth.”
Just like the people, he says, who call Harvard home.
Koch, a lifelong Harvard resident, tends to agree.
“As far as I’m concerned, we have a good town,” she said. “Every town has its pitfalls, but Harvard is a good town.”
With a darn good football team.
No one knows that better than Jack Wirth, who was part of Harvard’s 1957 undefeated team. Wirth was a running back and outside linebacker and went on to work as a scout for the NFL’s Denver Broncos. But as many pros as he’s seen perform, it’s still the Hornets that resonate most with him.
Wirth sees how the community has embraced this year’s team – a level of pride he first felt when he was part of legendary coach Dan Horne’s teams.
“(An undefeated season) was a big thing when I was playing in the ‘50’s, and I think it’s just as big of a thing now,” Wirth said. “I think it gives the town a sense of importance, it gives the town a name and something people can associate with and God, everybody loves a winner.
“And when you’re a part of that – even if you’re just a fan or if you’ve just got a kid at the school – you become very enthralled in that.”
The town proves that is true. From the signs that stretch across the downtown strip to the way the Hornets have dominated the conversations of Harvard’s residents, it doesn’t take long to realize Haak’s team – hoping to find its way to Huskie Stadium in DeKalb on Thanksgiving weekend – won’t soon be forgotten.
“Win or lose, everybody’s really proud of them,” Ulmer said. “And we really believe they’re going to win.”