Few people can say they didn't lose a football game when they were in high school, but Tom McCartney is one of them.
The former Pittsfield quarterback was part of 36 victories over four years and one of the great dynasties in Illinois high school football history. The streak was part of Pittsfield's record-setting 64 consecutive victories from the opening game of the 1966 season until Sept. 21, 1973. McCartney was named to the Champaign News-Gazette all-state team in 1969 and graduated in 1970.
He played quarterback for three seasons at the University of Illinois. After graduation, he sold insurance for 20 years and was in the car business for 18 years. For the past five years, McCartney, 66, and his wife Marlys have lived in Savoy near Champaign for four months a year and in Largo, Fla., for eight months.
How often do you get back to Pittsfield?
I was just back there. My uncle passed away, and I was there for a funeral over the weekend. My mom is 91, and we try to get over there every two to three weeks to see her. We don't get to see her when we're in Florida. I still enjoy coming to Pittsfield. I have a lot of friends there, and we play the nine-hole course at Old Orchard in Pittsfield. A lot of stotries get told about the old days. I don't know if they're all true, but it's fun.
Did you grow up wanting to play football in Pittsfield?
I went to a little two-room schoolhouse out in the country for six years. We had our little games in the backyard. My brother and a few friends would come over. There was no youth football in those days. The football coach would come out and see people in P.E. classes, and he'd pick you out. He'd say, "That guy's going to be a quarterback, and that guy's going to be a wide receiver."
Speaking of your football coach, what was it like to play for Deek Pollard?
He was a unique individual. He was before his time. When we stepped on a field, we knew we were going to win. We were so well coached. A team would line up, and we'd know what they were going to run. We watched a lot of film, which was before it's time. It wasn't always fun watching film from the Friday night before, because if you made a mistake, you got your butt chewed. He demanded perfection. He demanded it in practice. That was his nature. You didn't slack off.
How did you decide to play football in high school?
It was at high school orientation before school started as a freshman. I was kind of hobbling through there. I had plantar warts taken off my feet. Coach comes up to me and says, "Are you going to be at football practice?" I said, "As you can see, I'm not doing too good." And he said, "You'll be there." I didn't play varsity until I was a sophomore. I was actually a skinny tight end. I weighed maybe 175 pounds. We had a really good football team. I just happened to be part of it.
Were you prepared to play football?
All I know back then was that I was going to play every sport I could, except cross country. I couldn't get too excited about that. But playing football was just the thing to do. I played baseball and basketball in grade school and did pretty well. I think we won a state championship in grade school basketball. We had good teams. I didn't prepare for football because it wasn't offered until my freshman year. I went out, and I think I scored seven or eight touchdowns my first game on the freshman team. That's not saying a whole lot, but it was just the start. My sophomore year I started on the varsity, and my junior and seniors years, I started at quarterback and we didn't lose.
Did you come close to losing?
Beardstown was close. I think we won 13-7. Winchester had us beat my junior year, but we called a timeout at the end of the game, and we scored on the last play to beat them. We had some good games. We played Quincy Notre Dame one year in the rain, and that game ended up 6-0. It must have rained two or three inches during the game, and there were maybe 3,000 people at the game, but it was horrible evening. I think they were driving when the game ended.
Did you ever wish that a high school playoff system existed?
Oh, yeah. Back then, Geneseo was one of the other big programs in the state, but it didn't work out that we could play them. I think we had maybe 500 kids. It just hadn't happened yet. It's like when freshmen were ineligible for sports in college, and the 3-point shot wasn't in effect. You didn't know what you didn't have. You played the game the way it was at the time. I would have loved to play in a playoff. That would have been fabulous. It just wasn't available at that time.
How much of a difference was it to play for Pollard?
He was a tough coach. I'll just say that. Not just to me, the whole team. He didn't know anything else but winning. That's all he wanted to do. Losing wasn't in his vocabulary. He'd take kids who were 270, 280, 300 pounds, put them on a weight program and make a football player out of them. He did that for quite a few people. The other thing I respect, after he'd made them a player, some of them weren't going to go to college, but he'd get them a college scholarship. I can name quite a few people he did that for. He went to work for kids, getting them scholarships after high school. That meant a lot. But a lot of people didn't like him. He was pretty rough on people.
How was he rough on people?
Practices, they weren't easy. If he liked you, he rode you, and he rode me so hard it's not funny. He was 5-foot-8, and he'd be looking up at me, spitting in my face, and you had to take it. That's the way it was. If someone missed a block, they heard about it. He was just pretty tough. But I survived. I got through there. There would be a lot of kids who wouldn't play for him today. For some reason now, a lot of kids don't go out for football in Pittsfield. They've had some pretty lean years lately. It's kind of sad, but it's the way it is.
What was it like to be part of the winning streak?
I'm very proud of it, for sure. It took a lot of blood and sweat, and the end result was definitely worth it. Like I said, I was so fortunate. There were a lot of other athletes who were pretty darned good. I just happened to come through at a time where we had a great coach and a good program. We did well back then. We didn't throw a lot. We pretty much ran a lot and ran a lot of option. I was a pretty good option quarterback. I wasn't blessed with the greatest speed, but I was fast when someone was chasing me. We had good running backs, some pretty good ends and a good line to block for you. It made it pretty easy.
So when you get together with your friends at Old Orchard, does any one game come up more than than the others?
No one story in particular. We just talk about the old days. There's guys back there who weren't on the team, but they make you believe they were because they went to the games and they make up stories.
How did you decide on going to the University of Illinois?
I was probably a better baseball player than a football player, so I wanted to go somewhere I could play baseball. I had scholarship offers from Michigan State, Missouri, Illinois, a lot of Big Ten schools, but I wanted to play both sports. It just so happened I was going to do that at Illinois. They had a coaching change, and Bob Blackman came in. He said that if you're on a football scholarship, you're going to play football in the spring.
Did you think about leaving?
I did think about it, but I didn't leave. Illinois is a good school. You do the best you can. You look back and think maybe I should have gone to a Western Illinois or an Illinois State or Southern Illinois, but I stayed. I played some. I didn't play a lot, but I got to start eight to 10 games in my three years.
How did you do?
Unfortunately, I played against pretty good schools. Southern Cal was pretty good in 1972 (ranked No. 1 in the nation), then we played (14th-ranked) Washington with Sonny Sixkiller, and then we played (16th-ranked) Penn State. That was our non-conference schedule when I was a junior, and then we started the Big Ten with (fourth-ranked) Ohio State and (sixth-ranked) Michigan. The starting quarterback, Mike Wells, got hurt, so I got to start for three or four games. Those just happened to be the games I started, and we lost every game.
Did your coach consider moving you to a different position?
Not really. I played defense in high school, but they just kept me at quarterback. I think I would have liked to have been a receiver because I always had good hands. I got to start some, but most of the time I was a backup quarterback.
Did playing at Pittsfield prepare you for the Big Ten? That's quite a jump in competition.
I was prepared pretty well. I had good coaching. It wasn't a whole lot different. Weights back then were just kind of starting. It's nothing like it is today. Some of these weight rooms today, you wouldn't believe some of the money that goes into them. They are building a $30 million performance training center at Illinois. When I was in school, we had to go stand in line to lift weights at men's old gym. I'm not making it up. That's the way it was back then. Today they have facilities that are unbelievable.
What is the biggest difference between college football today and when you played?
They're a lot bigger and faster today. When I was in college, 240 or 250 pounds was a good sized kid. Now these days, he's a running back or a tight end. If you're not 300 pounds , you're not considered a lineman. Times have changed. They've gotten bigger and faster.
What made Pittsfield so good when you played?
I was so lucky to have a good coach. I hate to keep going back to that, but Pollard was such a good coach. It made it kind of easy. We were so well prepared to play. Today, I know there are good programs throughout the state and good programs right around here in Champaign like St. Joseph Ogden and Tolono Unity. Coaching is the name of the game in high school football. Ideally you want a good young coach who is willing to put in a lot of time and effort with kids. You've got to put them on weight programs and make that 130-pound kid into a 160-pound defensive back. That's what Pollard was so darned good at. He'd take a scrawny kid and make them a good athlete.
If you had a chance to talk to Coach Pollard today, what would you say to him?
I'd probably thank him for what he did. I don't know that I would have turned out to be as good of an athlete had it not been for him. He made kids better athletes. He just cared about the kids. He probably would have a rough time coaching today. He could be a little bit what you call "hands on," and that doesn't work these days unfortunately.
How many state titles do you think you would have won had the playoffs existed?
Maybe one or two. It's not easy. You've got to win five games (in the playoffs), and you'd have to be on your toes. But then again, with Pollard, we were on our A game every week. There were teams that were as good as we were, but it would just be who wanted it the most.