Keenan Hailey showed up for practice in August a little bit lighter than he was the previous season.
“He dropped about 10 pounds,” Joliet Catholic coach Jake Jaworski said. “We joked with him before the season about how we might have to limit him to 10 carries a game because he was getting so small.”
Looking back after the season, Jaworski’s thoughts on the matter seemed utterly comical as Hailey put together one of the more historic seasons for one of the most storied programs in the state.
Hailey rushed the ball a whopping 318 times for 2,637 yards and scored 37 of Joliet Catholic’s 71 touchdowns on the season. All in all, not too bad for a former fullback.
“Coming from my sophomore and junior year, I was a fullback, so I maybe didn’t get the touches that I wanted,” Hailey said. “I was ready for the responsibility for whatever came my way, I just needed to step up and do whatever the team needed.”
At the beginning of the season, Hailey expected his role to increase. But unforeseen circumstances led to Hailey being thrust into a more prominent role in the Hilltoppers’ offense.
Typically, Joliet Catholic’s offense heavily relies on the running skills of a multitude of running backs. The Hilltoppers often have three running backs that piled up a similar number of carries and subsequently share the load throughout a grueling season.
The Hilltoppers believed they had such an arsenal in place, but things changed early when one of those expected running backs, junior Kenyetta Williams, was lost for the season with an injury in Week 1 against St. Rita.
With no ready-made replacement for Williams’ role in the offense, the burden shifted to Nick Iannantone, who also put together a spectacular season and Hailey, who clearly was going to get the opportunity he strived for.
Hailey finished that game with
233 yards, the first of six games in the regular season where he stacked up 200-plus yards in a game.
“People would ask me about that, with Kenyetta’s injury and how it made things different for us,” Jaworski said. “But all along, even before that injury, we knew that Keenan was going to carry the load. What we had seen from him was that physicality and the ability to be a punishing runner.”
What Jaworski saw early, opponents saw too much of. Getting the feeling that they’d rather simply wave the white flag than try to endure another drive of trying to slow Hailey down.
“I always had confidence in myself. I just wanted a year, or even two or three games to prove myself to people,” Hailey said. “I just really feel like I wasn’t surprised. I just wanted an opportunity to show people what I could do.”
And with the continued stacking up of yardage, Hailey and the Hilltoppers started to envision what they might be truly be capable of.
The team’s first goal to that point was an elusive playoff berth, and the team gelled just in time to upend Niles Notre Dame in Week 9 to earn that berth. And while Hailey admitted the realization of that goal was indeed epic, he didn’t really sense what might be coming next.
“I think I can speak as a team, we wanted to make the playoffs badly. When we won the Notre Dame game and we made [the] playoffs, people were on Twitter saying, ‘This is the happiest day of my life.’ That was our main goal. In the summer, we were pretty excited about it.”
A weight clearly was lifted with the qualification as Hailey, and the Hilltoppers ran roughshod over traditional class power Metamora in the first round.
“It was a totally different vibe. It was like an automatic switch turned on, it was a different level of intensity. It was really was a big switch. Everybody had their game face on,” Hailey said. “It was incredible. I think that’s when we really started to believe what might be possible.”
That wave of momentum crashed over the next three Hilltoppers opponents, as they routed Marion, Highland and Hillcrest in succession to earn their place in the Class 5A title game against Montini.
It figured to be an epic battle between the longtime rivals that had a bit of a history against one another in the state playoffs. Hailey and the rest of the Hilltoppers knew little of that, knowing only that they were on the precipice of delivering the school’s 14th state title with a win.
Things did not start well for the Hilltoppers as they fell behind, 21-7, midway through the second quarter. Then, they seemed to get much worse.
Hailey went down with an injury at the 6:17 mark of the second quarter. From the looks of things, his day very well might have been done.
“There were some dark moments. It hurt so bad, I didn’t think I would be able to go back in,” Hailey said.
He was armed with a pair of crutches, and while the Hilltoppers still were deeply embroiled in a battle with the Broncos, emotions swirled within many on the JCA sideline.
“The first thing I thought of was just how bad I felt for him,” Jaworski said. “To have worked as hard as Keenan did to get to that point and how far he had brought us, to not be able to have been able to play in that game was just something that was heartbreaking.”
But Hailey wasn’t done. He was determined to get back onto the field and wasn’t very concerned about the potential consequences.
“It was a big moment for me in that game where I realized I couldn’t let these people down,” Hailey said. “It didn’t matter what happened, I could have hurt myself bad, and I still wouldn’t have cared. I just needed to be out there for my teammates.”
There might not have been anyone more surprised at the University of Illinois’ Memorial Stadium when Hailey tapped Jaworski early in the fourth quarter and declared himself ready to go back in the contest.
“It was kind of in disbelief,” Jaworski said. “I knew that because he had his helmet he had gone through the protocol because they had taken his helmet when he was initially hurt. I went and found the doctor and training staff just to make sure it was for real.”
Real it was. Hailey entered the game early in the fourth quarter. His first rush went for no gain, but the value of his reappearance on the field was worth far more than any one play.
“He made a good point, he said he felt like we needed an emotional boost,” Jaworski said. “And he was right. He had said he didn’t want to let his teammates down, not just from what he could do on the field, but from an emotional sense, too. It was like here’s our leader, battling to the end.”
His return to the field wasn’t only window dressing. Hailey gained confidence in his ability to move fluidly with each play. Then, with about
two minutes to play, Hailey burst into the open field as if nothing was ailing him at all. He scored a 30-yard touchdown.
Later, it was discovered that
6 yards into that touchdown gallop, he had surpassed the school’s all-time single season rushing record set by JCA legend Ty Isaac in 2011.
And although Hailey and the Hilltoppers had to survive a heart-stopping, potentially game-tying touchdown drive from Montini, victory eventually was secured, and another big trophy would be added to the procession of titles housed at Joliet Catholic.
“It didn’t feel real,” Hailey said of the moments after the state title was secured. “I felt like everybody doubted it.
“Everything that led up to that moment, it was like a movie.”