As an English teacher, I occasionally assign students to read a book outside of class and write a book analysis on that particular book. I always give them some guidelines and hope they choose something that might relate to their interests. In late December, I read around 80 book analyses written by my junior classes. One book especially intrigued me, mostly because it was non-fiction and took place in rural Illinois in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
A couple of days later, my wife and I were at the Geneseo library, and the same book was on the new non-fiction shelf, so I checked it out. The book, “One Shot at Forever,” by Chris Ballard, is about a small-town Illinois baseball team and their coach in the early 1970s.
I recommend the book to anyone who has any interest in small-town life in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, The Vietnam War era and its effect on rural America (complete with peace signs and “Jesus Christ Superstar”), the close-knit camaraderie of a team and their coach (who were sometimes called “the mod squad”), and baseball. The book was particularly interesting to me because the coach was an English teacher who originally had no intention of coaching baseball or any sport.
The Macon High School Ironmen, influenced by Vietnam and the non-traditional methods of their teacher and coach, headed toward state in 1970 and actually made it to state in 1971, clearly the underdogs in the tournament. The rural community, just south of Decatur, was also home to retired Kewanee dentist Dr. Doug Tomlinson, who was a key player on the 1970 team before graduating from Macon High School. The book mentions Doug Tomlinson (and his family) a number of times, and it is obvious Macon was a special place for their family.
It’s a book about baseball, but it’s so much more. It took me back to small-town life as it was. Even though I was in elementary school during Macon’s baseball success, so many things in the book reminded me of what it felt like to attend Neponset High School in the late ‘70s. ... Not to mention being part of a community where it seemed like most people contributed in their own ways to make life complete. It made me realize life in rural Illinois, at least in our area, still has traces of the way of life in the early ‘70s and before, but so much has changed.
Finally, it’s a book about how each person on the team made a difference; their talents highlighted by Lynn Sweet, their amazing coach. Forty years later, those lasting relationships caught the attention of Sports Illustrated writer Chris Ballard, who does a great job of stringing the memories, facts and life-changing experiences together for the rest of us to savor. áIt’s a great reminder to all of us that just one person — a good teacher, coach, support staff, team member or community volunteer — can make a difference that lasts a lifetime.
If you’re looking for a great book and a slice of Illinois sports history, I recommend it. I can’t wait to take a road trip down to Macon this summer to experience for myself some of the places mentioned in the book!