EUREKA, Ill. -- When you grow up in the little Illinois town called Roanoke, you know everybody and everybody knows you. You play four years of football at the local college a few minutes away, they know you, your daddy, your uniform number, and they know that you used to work at Doc’s Diner, there on Front Street, a teenage fry cook scrambling eggs for farmers at 8 every morning. Such was life for Sam Durley before he did that 736 thing.
The number is beautiful, 736. Nobody had ever thrown for 736 yards in a game, though maybe Peyton Manning dreamed it. Durley did it last Saturday, and here came the world, and, suddenly, he was talking to people he didn’t know. He did the “SportsNation” radio show. Then ESPN wanted him live. USA TODAY called. The Peoria television people drove over, and the Journal Star, too. The Pantagraph in Bloomington wrote it up big after Eureka beat Knox College, 62-55, winning on Durley’s 13-yard touchdown pass with 20 seconds to play.
A couple days later, Durley sat in a cinder block meeting room with a reporter from Sports on Earth – Sports on Earth? – and said, “Pretty much everybody in the media I’ve ever heard of, they’ve talked to me.” Here, a smile. “And some I hadn’t heard of.” Then, an aw-shucks tuck of his head: “It’s all pretty neat. Awesome, even.”
Nearly the whole game against Knox, Durley called his own plays from a no-huddle, two-minute offense using spread formations that put four receivers in play, sometimes five, usually under defenders playing deep and gasping for breath against the hurry-up offense. “Our offensive line was great, the receivers were great, everything was working everywhere all the time,” Durley said. First quarter: 4 of 8 for 106 yards, one touchdown. Second: 9 of 12, 217, two TDs. Third: 8 of 13, 177. Fourth: 13 of 19, 236, two TDs. That comes to 34 of 54, five touchdowns, no interceptions. He had 16 completions of 24 yards or more, the longest 86 yards.
To see Sam Durley is to say, “Yep, quarterback.” He’s 6-foot-5, 240, good-looking, dark hair, stubble of beard. He has had big games before -- 470 yards, 479 -- and he holds most of Eureka’s career passing records. He can put serious air under the ball. “I’ve thrown it 70 yards, yep,” he says. His coach, Kurt Barth, thinks Durley could play at a higher level. “The only thing separating him from D-II, maybe D-I, is accuracy.” The coach used to be a wide receiver. He knows quarterbacks carry a hero gene. “Because Sam’s got that arm,” Barth says with a wink, “he likes to throw it downfield.”
Eureka plays in the NCAA’s Division III. It’s the smallest of small-time college football, no scholarships, no real recruiting. Players show up, and if they can play some, they probably will, and if they can’t play much, they’ll probably play anyway. A member of the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference -- teams in Illinois, Minnesota and Missouri -- Eureka went 4-6 last season, 2-8 the year before. Durley’s leading receiver in the 736-yard game was a senior playing his first game of football anywhere. Jordan Kindred (no relation to SoE’s reporter) was the basketball team’s point guard, strong and quick, hounded by Durley until he walked on for football. “First pass Sam threw me,” Kindred says, “went through my hands and hit my helmet. Embarrassing.” After that, he caught 13 for 235 yards. “It wasn’t as hard as you’d think it’d be,” Kindred said. “Only trouble was learning all the plays.”
Eureka is America’s heartland, writ small. It’s a county seat town, 5,300 people in west central Illinois at the intersection of Routes 117 and 24. It’s surrounded by corn and beans, vast fields that normally are as pretty as a song but this summer have been left for dead by drought. Along country roads, antique tractor wheels work as yard art, the iron rims painted green, the spokes yellow -- in homage to the John Deere company. Deere was the Vermont blacksmith who first fashioned a plow good enough to turn the Illinois prairie land inside out and keep doing it all day. Though John Deere is a saint here, he runs second in the fame department. Where 117 crosses East College Street, a sign points to EUREKA COLLEGE with a postscript: RONALD REAGAN TRAIL.
The future president was a fresh-faced kid from Dixon, Ill., nicknamed “Dutch,” when he played offensive tackle and guard for Eureka three seasons, last in 1931. “He was not a star by any means,” his old coach once said, “but he was a good, conscientious, dedicated player – enthusiastic about sports, which he lived for.” After games, Reagan amused teammates by imitating a play-by-play announcer reliving the day’s action. He used a broomstick for a microphone.
Ancient history, all that. So, before practice the other day, on dirt approximately where the kid Dutch Reagan had stumbled through drills, Jon Deedrick, a senior offensive guard, said, “It’s great, what Sam did, because all anybody ever knew about Eureka football was ‘Ronald Reagan.’ Now we’ve got something else to talk about.”
Eureka plays its second game this Saturday at the College of St. Scholastica. On Friday afternoon, after class, the Red Devils’ 55-man traveling squad will pile into two buses for a nine-hour drive to Duluth, Minn.
Nine hours? By bus? This is not the way Alabama rolls.
Sam Durley laughed and said, “Nine hours, it’s not so bad. You’re with all your buddies.”
When you’ve thrown for 736 yards, riding a bus nine hours into the northern wilds is a happy thing. It means you’re nine hours closer to another day when you can throw the thing all over the lot.