Another win for the twelfth man

A Friday night battle between Montini Catholic and St. Francis High School was much more than a game. The Montini Broncos honored the memory of Johnny Weiger, their teammate, classmate and friend.

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 Montini's Duffy Stadium, Johnny's favorite color served as a symbol. It represented leukemia awareness and his 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, Johnny lost his battle with chronic myeloid leukemia.

The Montini community came together for Friday's game, raising money in Johnny's name to fight leukemia. Fans wore orange rather than their usual maroon and gold, all to honor Johnny. The team donned 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, Montini and its 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 discussed the Broncos' game plan, then mentioned Johnny Weiger. His memory lives on in the team.

"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 two-point win over the second-seeded Sycamore Spartans, just one day before Johnny passed away. Montini then topped 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 Weiger. "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 twelfth man."

Chris Emma has covered recruiting, college athletics and professional baseball for FOX Sports Next since 2009. Emma covered the Nebraska Cornhuskers and Northwestern Wildcats, and currently covers the Purdue Boilermakers. A Chicago native, he resides in West Lafayette.
Facebook | Twitter| E-Mail |

Boiler Sports Report Top Stories