‘They snapped their pants off.” That’s the moment Ryan Russ said he knew his dreams of a five-peat was threatened in the 2016 casket race.
It was years in the making, years of watching the juggernaut park district team, with runners from all corners of the community, take down every casket team striving for the top trophy.
Although I tried to convince our journalists and support staff to train for the race, they just lacked the dedication needed to win the big race on Beloit Avenue. I took a page from the winning team and decided to assemble my own collection of unaffiliated talent over 18, committed to running. That naturally led me to the Concordia University track team, the fastest young men and women in a 10-mile radius.
It was an outlandish fantasy to convince our local Cougars to push the redecorated water heater, but I believe in miracles, and one that was delivered in the basement of First United Church at Elgin and Harvard. While waiting for the Montessori Spanish class to end, I sat in the room with another parent, Phil Kopinski. While we both had boys in the class and Cub Scouts, we had never actually officially met. So I struck up a conversation, inspired by the embroidered polo shirt he was wearing with “Concordia University,” asking if he worked there, and his reply, “I’m the Concordia Track coach,” sent a ripple of sunlight into the room, a hum from the organ above, and a flight of birds into the sky. He pledged to see if any of his sprinters would be interested, and we would reconnect in October.
The scheme was hatched. Our publisher here was more concerned about “ringers” and ethics, but I insisted he keep his naivete on that side of Harlem. I screen-printed a whole slew of T-shirts, prepped face painting, foot massages, water, pickle juice, whatever the team might need to bring home the prized concrete skull.
When Brandon Davis, Chelsee Wilson, Ladontis Turner and Tyrique Thomas arrived with their shorts hiding under their quick release snapped pants, Captain Russ and I locked eyes for a moment across the pre-battle lines of the parking lot and I knew the fun was about to begin.
It was a day that has echoed for years. The Cougars were astonishing and left a trail of dust that is still settling. This was a one-off, never to be repeated. The 2016 Casket Race was phenomenal and the Review-Concordia team still fills me with delight. The Concrete Skull Trophy proudly watches all who come through my office, surrounded by a shrine to the runners that day.
This year I am pouring my miracle dreams into growing a giant pumpkin for the Invasion of the Scarecrows. Planted the seed in the spring and am monitoring the sunlight, water, nutrients and animal activity like a helicopter mom. This clever fundraiser for the Historical Society and Arts Alliance sold out last year and the hot scarecrow kits will be picked up in just a little over a week — at Garage Galleries.
This friendly neighborhood scarecrow invasion will have a rule this year to limit stuffing the ballot by allowing people only one vote per person, we are on this side of Harlem, but we have our limits.
Anyone will be able to vote one time for “Most Artistic,” “Most Historical,” “Most Forest Park Pride,” and “People’s Choice.” In the inaugural year last year, Ghoulia Child, Bat-scrow, Munch’s Scream, Anansi, Shakespeare, Shrek, and Turnip Head were some of the delightful displays about town. The Golden Girls on the rooftop, Forest Park firefighter climbing a ladder in honor of breast cancer survivors, Scarecrow Watering with Color and Adolph Luetgert, the Sausage King took top honors.
If all goes well, my pumpkin will be the center of the “Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown” scene for my Scarecrow Invasion, but not to worry, I’m not eligible to be in the running for one of the prize baskets. I look forward to the creative handiwork throughout the village as our townies embrace the Invasion of the Scarecrows and support art and history.