High school football: Prairie Ridge players find unique way to share goals, honor veterans

At the beginning of the season — before the Prairie Ridge football team won the Fox Valley Conference Fox Division and before the Wolves advanced to the state semifinals — they sat in a classroom after a long two-a-day practice. Defensive backs coach John Caldarella gave each player a used bullet casing and a sharpie. 

They all wrote an individual goal on their empty shell. Then, they slipped them into an empty tank shell that Caldarella got from his son in the Marines.

“The idea was each person has an individual goal that they can do this year to help us our reach big goal,” Caldarella said. “Which is sacrificing for one another, honoring our veterans and winning football games.”

The Wolves (12-1) welded a top on the tank shell. Before every game, each player touches it and then a captain carries it onto the field as a symbol of what the team is trying to accomplish.

The shell was on the sidelines for the first game against Cary-Grove. It will be there again Saturday when the Wolves travel to play Montini in a Class 6A state semifinal game. 

The tank shell serves not only as the team’s symbol but also as a way to honor the military, something the Prairie Ridge football team had done for years. More than two dozen Wolves football players who graduated in the past 15 years have gone on to serve in various branches of the military.

“We love the way they do things,” senior defensive back Nick Greenberg said. “Their dedication, their hard work, their camaraderie. The way they work as a team.”

This season, the Wolves have worn patches on their uniforms to honor veterans, hosted a veterans night at the school, collected items for care packages, sold t-shirts and donated money to veterans’ organizations. 

“We look at our veterans and our military as some great role models with courage, honor, self-discipline, self-sacrifice,” said Caldarella, who served in the Army. “We try to emulate those goals for these kids, not only when they’re in high school but when they grow up and they’re husbands and members of society. They can bring some of that with them.”

Last season, the Wolves imparted these lessons on their players in another way. Each player received a dog tag at the beginning of the season. A few days before each game, all of the dog tags were tossed into a bag. Players picked out teammate’s tags. That’s who they were playing for that week. 

“After the game, we’d say, I played this game for you,” Greenberg said. “I hope I can look you in the eye and say, 'I did everything that I could for you as my brother.' ”

Caldarella said he hopes these lessons extend beyond the football field.

“Think about that life lesson, too,” he said. “You have to live a life completely for other people and try to sacrifice and put other people ahead of you.”

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