By Blake Faith
Coach Gerald Temples says his 2003 Mattoon High School football might have been his best team.
That’s an especially impressive statement by a coach who won 152 games across 24 years to earn a spot in the Illinois Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
Temples attributed the success of the 2003 team to the players, coaching staff and inspiration from the 1999 MHS team.
No moment is more memorable than the 56-14 win against an undefeated Belleville Althoff team in the second round of the IHSA playoffs.
The 1999 team had reached the second round, losing to Big 12 foe Normal Community despite entering the game undefeated itself at 11-0 – the only Mattoon football team to achieve that feat.
In 2002, Belleville Althoff had defeated Mattoon, 28-14, in the first round on its home-field. The Green Wave, though, would have the home-field advantage in 2003 against a top-rated, undefeated Belleville squad.
“We were in the ball game and we were a young team,” Temples said. “We virtually had everyone back and that was a big factor in our kids knowing that they could walk on the field and compete with them.”
Temples remembered coming out of the locker room and the stands were packed. Mattoon would provide a performance worthy of such attention.
Mattoon defeated Belleville Althoff, 56-14, with senior running back DJ Walker recording 228 yards and scoring three touchdowns on 37 carries. Walker ran for more than 200 games in three successive postseason games.
Quarterback Cody Mullen threw three touchdown passes and added a rushing touchdown.
The special teams, offense, and defense played at a level that could not be beaten as well, said Temples.
In 2013, Mullen told JG-TC sports editor Brian Nielsen: “The Althoff game was awesome. I think that’s a particular game that you will never forget. Everything went perfect. That’s when you think of all those early morning workouts and 7-on-7. Everything came together and we realized how good we were.”
Defensively Mattoon forced six turnovers, and intercepted the ball three to hold the Belleville Althoff offense to its lowest scoring game that season.
“It was one of those ball games where no matter what we did everything got on a roll,” Temples said. “Without question, that was the best I’ve seen a team play in one game in all of my years of coaching.”
In the first half, Mattoon made a 16-play, 76-yard drive that took 7 minutes and 12 seconds. The drive finished with Walker scoring from one yard out. The Green Wave built their lead to 27-14 by halftime behind 280 offensive yards and two touchdown passes to senior Nate Meinhart.
In the third quarter, Mullen then threw a 50-yard touchdown pass to junior Kyle Hudson that made it 34-14. With 1 minute and 47 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, Walker broke for a 37-yard rushing touchdown. Shane Lockart’s extra point kick made it 42-14.
Walker secured his third and final touchdown in the opening seconds of the fourth quarter when he broke for a 47-yard touchdown to put Mattoon ahead, 49-14. The Green Wave ground out 461 offensive yards overall.
And the defense forced four fumbles, regaining three, and held Belleville Althoff to 269 offensive yards – keeping them scoreless in the second half.
The Decatur Herald & Review deemed Mattoon’s offense the best in central Illinois. Walker rushed for 1,912 yards and scored 21 touchdowns to lead all running backs while Mullen threw for 1,783 yards and 18 touchdowns to lead all area quarterbacks. Meinhart was second among area wide-receivers with 699 receiving yards on 37 receptions for eight touchdowns.
“There were games especially where DJ would have crazy running games, and what a tremendous competitor,” Temples said. “Every ball game, DJ knew the reason he was able to do that was because of his offensive line. There were some ball games where teams keyed so much on DJ that we started the ball game throwing the ball around.”
The 2003 Green Wave had 11 All-Big 12 selections, two second-team selections, and two Big-12 honorable mentions.
None of those selections mattered, Temples said.
“That (egos) was something we checked at the door and the kids never worried about,” Temples said. “Each player fed off of the other, and I think there was a tremendous amount of respect each kid had for each other.”
During the preseason, Mullen had to fly back and forth between Michigan for American Legion baseball and to Mattoon for high school football practice. Temples attributed that to how Mullen’s character was and was evident on the field.
“I think Cody making the commitment to get back in time for practices and to be eligible to play was certainly an indication of his leadership qualities and that was a strength he had in the huddle,” Temples said. “When you walked in the huddle no one ever questioned him. He was running the show.”
The Green Wave went 8-2 during the regular season, losing to Normal West and Normal Community. The team had their fair share of setbacks. Hudson leaped and for a Hail Mary pass in the season opener, breaking his hand when he landed in it. So he had to play with a cast afterward. And Walker had to sit out a game with an ankle injury.
“I knew that I was going to be able to help the team offensively, and, obviously, having a cast on my hand didn’t allow me to do it,” Hudson said. “It did allow me to focus on defense and help out the defense as much as I could.”
“I think the strength of the whole team was how close those kids were,” Temples said. “They were all friends off the field and all held each other accountable. There is no question in my mind that they had tremendous chemistry and that bunch gave you the feeling that they were going to compete and give everything they could to win a game.”
When the team lost to Normal West, Temples said his team didn’t play well, but there was no finger-pointing. instead, the team gained momentum heading into the playoffs. The Green Wave defeated Jerseyville in the first round of the playoffs, 39-30.
In the next round, Hudson set a state football record when he intercepted three passes in a 35-7 win over Highland. Still, Hudson said he had more fun against Belleville Althoff.
“Just having that time to go back and relive those experiences,” Hudson said. “A couple specific things to me were riding in the back of trucks to school wearing our jerseys. We all bought into each other and what the coaching staff was preaching to us, and it was super impactful to my life – not even in sports, but beyond into my life.”
The 2003 team would lose in the state semifinals to Sacred Heart Griffin, 49-14.
The 2003 had multiple players to go on and play at the college level in a sport, including Hudson who played both baseball and football at the University of Illinois. He is now an outfield coach for the Cleveland Indians, working alongside two-time World Series champion manager Terry Francona.
“I’m definitely blessed, that’s for sure, with the route that I’ve taken,” Hudson said. “A lot of it has to do with the way I was raised by my parents and the people I have come into contact with. I give Coach T a lot of respect. He is one of the reasons I am in the situation I’m in right now.”
What made the team so special?
Hudson credits the close relationships the players had with one another.
“Every time that I talk to younger kids that are involved with sports,” he said, “I talk to them about how the relationships built on a football field are different than any other sport.”
Temples credits the selfless approach displayed by his players.
“We always talked about it’s not about the wins and losses,” Temples said. “You don’t worry about winning and losing, but you do the best job you could do and good things would happen. I think that if any message could be sent from the 2003 team is that they sacrificed for the good of the team to make that team better.”
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