Father and son together again for Peoria High return to football championship game

Dave Eminian
Journal Star
Peoria High head coach Tim Thornton, left, and his son Deuce walk off the field together after the coin toss before the start of the Class 5A football state title game Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022 in Champaign.

CHAMPAIGN — Now it's Deuce.

Tim Thornton and his son, Deuce, were on the Zuppke Field at Memorial Stadium sideline again Saturday, as the past caught up to the present in the IHSA Class 5A state championship game.

They were together in 2016 on this same sideline, father and son going through a championship season.

"We thought it was once in a lifetime," said Deuce, now the Lions tight end. "Well, now it's twice."

A repeat experience, and a repeat trip to the championship game — but this time the Lions lost a heartbreaker to LaGrange Park Nazareth, 45-44.

"We reflected on it a little bit," said Tim Thornton, the head coach of the Peoria High School Lions. "So many similarities. We're facing a team out of the north, we had to beat Morris to get there. We're playing on the same dates and of course, Deuce is here again."

IHSA football:Peoria High finishes second in the IHSA football Class 5A state championship game

Back in 2016, when Thornton's Lions won the state title, his son, Deuce, was 10 years old. He was the ball boy that day.

"The only thing I remember is getting my foot stepped on by Colton Smith Brown," the Lions tight end said, laughing. "There was a fumble recovery, and I ran out there to change the ball. I was 10 and I got stomped."

Deuce was no ordinary kid back then. In the seventh grade, he was identifying fronts at Lions games. In eighth grade, he was the offensive coordinator, calling plays for the Lions freshman team.

"I learned all that from really hanging out with my dad," Deuce Thornton said. "We always talk football. He'd let me sit in the coaches' meetings and it was interesting."

True story.

"His football IQ is off the charts," Thornton said of his son. "And in school, he's never gotten a B and he has college credits already. He took college algebra and college trig before he got to high school. He's a kind, nice kid.

"But when he gets on the field he can flip a switch. He brought some nasty to the field for us."

Deuce Thornton suffered a late-season knee injury and was out Saturday. But he dressed in full uniform and worked the sideline, revving up his teammates.

"I want to let him be a kid," Thornton said. "Let him be a teammate. He's still a leader on this team."

Said Thornton, the player: "It's just going to be exciting to be there. I'm going to make sure our guys are ready, help them any way I can. It's a great atmosphere, the competition is fun."

Peoria High running back Geno Hess runs over Keagan Sohol of Morris in the 2016 Class 5A Playoffs. (Journal Star File Photo)

The ghosts of 2016

Once you wear the maroon and black, you are in the Peoria High football family forever. The Lions had eyes on them Saturday from that 2016 team, as far away as Montana.

"When I first transferred there, Coach Thornton believed in me, gave me a chance and helped me pursue a dream," Geno Hess said. "I'd be in Champaign rooting the boys on today if I could."

More coverage:Every story from Peoria High's run to the Class 5A football championship game

Hess, the magnificent running back for Peoria High on that 2016 title team, was just named Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year.

But Saturday, he was thinking about 2016, as well as the 2022 Lions.

"Kendrick Green, Coran Taylor and all those guys, working together," Hess said. "We brought home a state championship. Your teammates are your brothers. All the articles, a big ring. It's been a long time, but I still have all those things at home."

The Lions would not have reached the state title game without Hess, just as the 2022 version rode another terrific runner, Malachi Washington, to the season's final game.

"I think the thing with Geno, it was nice having that guy who you knew down and distance didn't matter — he had a shot to take it all the way at any time," Thornton said. "Coran around the edge went unnoticed because everyone was so focused on Geno. I remember the pure joy on his face in that championship game."

Hess remembers it too and sent his beloved Lions some advice he learned from 2016.

"I remember when the clock hit zero, holding that trophy up," Hess said. "If I could be there Saturday, I'd tell every one of those seniors 'Make your legacy, nothing else matters. This championship is a moment you've created, since you've played as a little kid.

'Show everyone how it's done.' "

The Lions have made their mark

From 2016 and 2022, Zuppke Field has been a den of dreams for the Lions.

Washington rushed 47 times for 275 yards and six touchdowns, adding to the school's legacy in the championship game.

"I love them, I'm proud of them, I'm going to thank the seniors, they put us on a tremendous run," Thornton said after the clock reached zeros, the hands were shaken, the medals were handed out and the second-place trophy was in hand.

"And I'm going to remind the underclassmen 'Hey, that one point is going to pop up in your head every time you feel like taking a day off next season. This is a situation where we are (going to be) here again, and we have to make sure we leave nothing behind and have no regrets. "

Indeed, Deuce Thornton is just a sophomore. He and his father may walk this sideline together yet again someday.

"Hopefully," Deuce said, "there will be more."

"Lions," said Tim Thornton, "for life."

Dave Eminian is the Journal Star sports columnist, and covers Bradley men's basketball, the Rivermen and Chiefs. He writes the Cleve In The Eve sports column for Reach him at 686-3206 or Follow him on Twitter @icetimecleve.