CAMP POINT, Ill.
Randy Niekamp will make sure to set his television to record Friday morning before he drives to Champaign.
He hopes he has a game worth watching when he returns to his Camp Point home that night.
He believes he will.
"I know we'll play well," Niekamp said.
Like many former players from the Central football program, Niekamp will make the journey east to Memorial Stadium to watch Central play in the Class 1A state championship game at 10 a.m. Friday, hoping to see the Panthers capture the first state title of any kind in school history.
It's a drive that some former players and fans wondered if they'd ever get to make. There was a time when they might have had their doubts.
Niekamp, a 1971 graduate of Central High School, was a senior on the fourth football team ever fielded at the school. The Panthers went 8-28 in those four seasons, but they lost 24 of 27 games in the first three years under coach Joe Jake.
"My junior year, we won one game, and we were so excited," Niekamp said. "We were the team that people wanted to play on their Homecoming night."
Those kinds of seasons were the norm at Central. After a 5-4 season in 1970, the Panthers didn't have a winning record until going 6-3 in 1981. The next one after that was a 5-4 season in 1987.
By the time Central finally made its first playoff appearance in 2001, the Panthers had suffered through 29 losing records in their first 34 seasons.
"We had one or two victories a year, and that was it," said MD Ideus, a 1972 graduate who played for a couple of seasons but still follows the team.
However, the support from former players, alumni and people in the community never wavered. Even in those rough seasons, Niekamp, Ideus and others still made sure they were at home games on Friday nights and traveled to as many road games as possible.
"Once you play, you just have a love for the game," said John McMahon, a 1972 graduate who has kept statistics for the football team for the last 17 seasons. "Then you just hope for the future. You hope to see progress get made for the teams of the future and work toward the goals.
"That's what kept me coming back."
That hope and patience finally paid off.
Many of those former players were in Argenta for the state semifinal victory that saw Central clinch its first berth in the title game. Former players approached coach Brad Dixon after the game, saying they couldn't believe the school's first state title game was in football.
"To have those guys come up to you and be just so elated from seeing the program where it was and where it is now, that's what they always wanted," Dixon said. "To be a part of helping make that happen and really just get the community to rally around football is something I'll never forget."
Dixon has been instrumental in building the winning culture that Central now enjoys.
He first was an assistant for Bill Reed, who was hired in 2008 and led the Panthers to three straight playoff appearances. Central didn't miss a beat when Dixon was named head coach in 2011. The team has made the playoffs in all eight seasons under his guidance.
The last 11 years have been the best in program history. Offensive coordinator Casey Rhea was a junior quarterback when Central made its only other playoff appearance.
Rhea grew up knowing the reputation of Central football. He was thrilled to be on the first playoff team, but he always wanted to see the program reach higher.
"I was there in the higher times and the really bad times," Rhea said. "It's more than what we've done. The saying is we are standing on the shoulders of giants, and that's really true."
That's why winning a state championship wouldn't just be for this year's football team. It also would be for the community, the parents and past players who continued to back the program during a time when simply making the playoffs seemed impossible.
It's been a journey they've all enjoyed.
"It's brought so much joy not just to myself, but to others," McMahon said. "There's teammates I have who are no longer with us, and they'd be so thrilled by this.
"It's for all of us, for everyone who's ever suited up and went out there. You don't quit. This program doesn't quit. You have goals, and you keep going for them."