Lights out on Rockford sports: 40 years later

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ROCKFORD, Ill. (WIFR) - Strapped for cash, Rockford Public Schools asked taxpayers if they would pay for extracurriculars, including all of athletics, in a referendum that was voted down.

40 years after the cancellation of sports, 23 News sports director Mike Buda looks back on how the school year of 1976-77 affected student-athletes.

"We really thought it was a bluff. Everybody did," says East High School class of '77 graduate Dwayne Collins.

Whistles blowing, shoes squeaking, the roar of the crowd it all went silent inside Rockford Public Schools as sports and extracurriculars were canceled. For many stateline athletes, that meant their high school career went lights out.

"We always wonder what could have been," says Collins.

Dwayne Collins, a three-sport athlete at East was blindsided by the city's no vote. Before having his senior season taken away, he and many others expected a successful year from the ERABs.

"The sport's success was pretty much expected. In order for us to have a good year and not be disappointed, we could probably place in six different sports in the state and we expected to do that so it was quite a heartbreaker," says Collins

Collins says his grades dropped off and his attitude changed for the worst.

"You just had pent up anger thinking: how could this happen and how could this be taken away from me? Because you only get one chance to be a senior in high school. We had that chance but it wasn't the same at all," says Collins

While students like Collins missed out, others had options.

"It was a pretty high price to pay. I'm one of the few people who can look back and say my senior year wasn't too bad, but most of my friends really got the raw end of the deal," says Auburn class of '77 graduate Paul Harder.

Harder, a swimmer at Auburn, stayed in the pool with a group made up of athletes from around the area at the Belvidere YMCA. They went on to compete at nationals and even broke a YMCA record in the medley relay.

"That was a dream come true far beyond what I could have expected," says Harder.

Don Hecox was a NIC-9 champion wrestler for Guilford but when he saw the opportunity to get into the Harlem School District, he jumped on it.

"I always considered myself part of the Harlem district even when I moved away from it because I went to grade school there and middle school. At Guilford, I almost felt like a traitor to Harlem. When I found out, wow I can actually go back to Harlem my senior year," says the Harlem class of '77 graduate.

Hecox went on to repeat as conference champ with the Huskies and like Harder felt a little bit guilty.

"It robbed a lot of people that I know their opportunities in life, at least in the short term, were going to be measured and affected by the opportunities that they had in sports," says Hecox.

And while the three men's lives forever changed, all found some form of success after athletics. Collins is retired after working for the City of Rockford. Harder continues to volunteer coach with the Knights and Hecox gets to watch his kids now play for Harlem.

Collins still ponders what could have been for East football and despite the ERABs eventually winning a state championship just eight years later, Collins does not believe the Rockford sports scene has ever fully recovered.

"No. It never has. I don't think it ever will recover. Once momentum keeps going, whether it's good or bad, it's the most difficult thing to stop," says Collins.

Harder believes the referendum vote says even more about the community.

"I think it says a lot about Rockford and not a lot of good things. I was really disappointed that our city thought so little of its public schools and its kids," says Harder.

Prior to the referendum, RPS sports won 21 state titles and in the 40 years since have won just nine.

This was not the only setback for Hecox, who also got the rug pulled out from underneath him while at Rock Valley and Taylor University in Indiana, where the wrestling programs were axed while he was there.