LOMBARD, Ill. -- As a young boy, Johnny Weiger’s favorite color was orange. It stemmed from his love of a tiger doll he was given as a child.
On Friday night at Duffy Stadium, orange was a symbol of unity. It represented leukemia awareness and Johnny’s memory.
Johnny was supposed to be on the sidelines with his Montini teammates. He would have been a high school junior and playing his first season of varsity football. But last November, he lost his battle with chronic myeloid leukemia.
The Montini community came together to honor Johnny for Friday’s game, all while raising money to fight the disease. Fans wore orange rather than their usual maroon, all to honor Johnny. The team wore special jerseys with a cross over the heart and orange wings on the shoulders.
Johnny’s family was overwhelmed by the tribute.
“It’s a lot of emotion,” said Fran Weiger, Johnny’s mother. “Knowing he should be out there playing. But those are his brothers. We’re here to support him and them. Johnny’s here with us, I know that.”
Before the game, the Montini Broncos and their opponent from St. Francis High School gathered at midfield for a prayer. The Weiger family stood in the center of the large circle. As the sun set, the sky over the stadium filled with orange.
“I looked at the sky and thought, he has to be watching us,” said Montini junior Leon Thornton.
It was Thornton, Johnny’s classmate and close friend, who sparked the Broncos’ 30-7 win with an 83-yard touchdown catch, his first of three on the game. As he sprinted down the sidelines, those orange wings on his shoulders were illuminated by the bright lights.
“This game, it meant so much more than Montini and St. Francis,” Thornton said.
Before the game, longtime Montini coach Chris Andriano discusses the Broncos’ game plan, then mentioned Johnny Weiger. The message was simple: play for Johnny.
“He makes us appreciate what we have in life, really, and to put our best effort forth on every single play, every single down,” said Montini junior quarterback Alex Wills.
With Johnny as their inspiration, the Broncos completed an improbable run to the Illinois 5A state title in 2012. It started with a 24-22 win over the second-seeded Sycamore Spartans, just one day before Johnny passed away. Montini then beat Marian Central Catholic handily, snuck by a loaded Joliet Catholic squad, and beat Morris, 19-6, to win the state championship.
As the Broncos stood at the podium to accept the trophy, Johnny’s No. 76 jersey was held high in the air.
“We lost a teammate, a classmate, a friend,” said Coach Andriano. “Our kids still remember. We don’t want them to ever forget.”
The Broncos played inspired football on Friday night. It started with Thornton’s long touchdown catch. With St. Francis driving, cornerback Derrick Curry intercepted a pass and returned it 82 yards for a touchdown.
Just before halftime, kicker Mason Wissenhoffer’s 45-yard field goal split through the uprights, with help from a strong gust of wind.
As the Montini team gathered after the game, the Weiger family stood in the huddle. Players and coaches offered hugs to Fran and Karl, Johnny’s father.
“Football is part of our lives,” said Fran. “Montini, being part of this family, it’s amazing.”
The Broncos got another win for Johnny, their fallen teammate. They know he’s watching over them.
“It’s so amazing,” Fran said. “That’s their 12th man.”