Visitors to the Effingham County Museum entering from Jefferson Avenue walk between two red granite pillars on the south side of the building. Those pillars, in effect, provide a portal to the county’s past and a physical reminder of Effingham High School’s football heritage.
When Effingham High School came into existence in the latter 19th century, there was a belief that football would be an integral part of the athletic program. However, enthusiasm for the sport seemed to die out. Not until the school year 1915-1916 did competition with other high schools in football become well established at Effingham’s Central High School, a building located at the corner of Fifth Street and Fayette Avenue. Due to the building’s downtown location, the field had to be located a distance from the building. When South Side Grade School was built in 1917, the grounds there provided a nice place for the football field. Three separate sets of pillars, including the pair currently located on the museum grounds, helped to direct fans from Wabash Avenue and also from Fourth Street to the grounds where competition occurred. And so, a team whose school colors were green and red, in uniforms without any pads, including non-padded helmets, began play during the World War I era.
The EHS yearbook for the 1916-1917 school year offered a great description of the start of the sport, which would lead to many championship seasons during the next 152 years:
“Football is still in its infancy at the high school. The football of this year shows a marked improvement over that of last year. Last year’s team had difficulties to meet and being the first year, the chief obstacle was in not knowing the game, and not the proper spirit taken toward it. This year’s team was coached by one of the best football men in Southern Illinois. Mr. R. O. Anderson, who won his letter at the University of Indiana was the coach. And no defeat was due to improper coaching, or lack of spirit in his work.
The team played seven games, winning three of the seven, and played the others to a tight score. They had the honor of being the third team to score on Olney, who holds the championship of Southern Illinois, and the same team that defeated Effingham 100 to 0 last year. That alone shows a great improvement over the team of last year. Although the team is light, it makes up for it and speed and nerve, backed by one of the most loyal schools in the state. At each of the home games the student body stood by the boys, winning or losing alike, cheering them on down the field. It would be unfair to not mention the fact that the entire faculty showed more interest in the game than has been taken in previous years. Even the citizens spoke of the boys with pride, and encourage them by loyalty supporting the cause.”
World affairs interfered with any dreams which were there. When the United States entered WWI, the E.H.S. coach and several players soon enlisted. That meant that the 1917-1918 school year did not witness any Effingham football games; nor did the next year, but, for a different reason: many of the players were “unqualified to comply with the requirements of the Illinois High School Association.”
It was not until 1920 that the team began practicing again. This time they were without a coach until two former players volunteered to coach them on “the college ground.” They played only three games during the last two weeks in October and the first week in November. The local school lost all three. But they persisted throughout the 1920s, even though scoreless games almost seemed to be the norm.
During those painful years, the schedule was sometimes quite short: three games in 1920; five, eight or 10 games the other seasons. The scores were often brutal, with there being many 40 or 50 to 0 contests. On occasion, Effingham’s opponent scored over 80 points without any points being put on the scoreboard by the local team.
In those early days, the team was not known as “The Flaming Hearts.” That name would come into use during the mid to late 1930s. At the start, “The Reds and Green,” “The Red and Green Warriors” or simply “The Warriors” were the typical references. Sometimes, the media called them “The Fighting Effinghamers.”
Their opposition included an array of two and three-year high schools (Effingham put a four-year curriculum in place in 1910). The schools that provided the opposition during the painful years were Newton, Pana, Charleston, Casey, Olney, Toledo, Flat Rock, Shelbyville, Martinsville, Willow Hill, Robinson, Mattoon, Palestine, Westfield, Salem, Charleston Teachers’ College High School, Oblong, Marshall and Greenville.
By 1925, representatives from 10 schools met at Casey to create plans for the high school league. Six other schools were also invited to join the organization. The basis for selection was that the school had to be “within a radius of a few miles of Casey as a center, and all (had to be) on a hard road or soon (would) be.”
The 1924 season was the most successful season to that point in school history as EHS registered seven victories with only one defeat: Newton 10, EHS 19; Toledo 7, EHS 14; Shelbyville 14, EHS 0; Martinsville 6, EHS 38; Willow Hill 0, EHS 7; Flat Rock 0, EHS 34; Robinson 0, EHS 13; Charleston 0, EHS 40.
But then the painful losses started again in 1925 and continued into 1926. Nonetheless, student and public support for the team remained high. Prior to the October 23 Toledo game, for instance, there was a parade from Central School through the downtown business district, with a majority of the students joining the festivities as the parade stopped at some street corners to announce the game and to present cheers. On Saturday, students decorated the town then that afternoon, along with many adults, attended the game. Before the Nov. 6 game against Salem, there was an enthusiastic pep rally at the high school followed by 100 “EHS Boosters” parading through the business district. The crowd at the game was the largest one to attend an EHS football game to that point in time. Unfortunately, Effingham lost 43-0.
In 1925, several Midwestern newspapers, as far away as Massillon, Ohio, carried the story about the difficulties of Effingham’s football team.
“The team in five times to date, has been kicked around like an old shoe, without even making a gesture like a touchdown. It’s been ticked by scores ranging from 7 to 80 to 0. Opponents have totaled 335 points to Effingham’s 0.”
Prior to their game on Oct. 23, the eight boys on the team held a parade for themselves, carrying a banner which read, “We want a touchdown.” They also said “Help us score a touchdown.” In the aftermath of the final game of the 1925 season, Casey High School served oyster soup, a gesture of goodwill, to the team whom they had held scoreless.
A Decatur newspaper on Nov. 1, 1926, had a story about the percentages of prep in grid teams. There was a list of 56 Central and Southern Illinois teams’ win and loss records. Effingham was at the bottom of the list.
When the 1927 season began, the scoreless games continued: Shelbyville 6, Effingham 0; Charleston Teachers College High School 12-0; Martinsville 24-0, When Palestine beat Effingham 26-0, it was the 17th straight scoreless game for Effingham with close to 600 points for the opponents.
A local poet, M.C. McCallen, decided to intervene with his poem entitled “Effingham High School Football Team:” The Oct. 19, 1927, EHS Life school newspaper carried the four stanza poem:
Here is to the Boys
Of the Effingham High
Who fight to the finish
And never say die.
On the gridiron and field
Wherever they meet,
They smile at your triumph
And laugh at defeat.
With a cheer on their lips
They enter the game —
When the struggle is ended
You find them the same.
Three cheers for the Boys
Of our Effingham High
Who fight to the finish
And never say die.
Then things seemed to be changing. A headline shouted, “Effingham High Scores First Time In A Long While.” The date of the game was Oct. 22, 1927. The game was another disaster for Effingham as they lost 62 to 6 to Casey. However, the lone touchdown — the first in two years — broke a string of 14 scoreless games. The hero was an end, Ross Phillips, who intercepted a pass and ran 25 yards for the score.
But something even better came on Oct. 28 in the game against Willow Hill. “We won! We won!” was the cry on the streets of Effingham. The local Candy Kitchen placed an ad in the school paper celebrating the 21-0 victory. The next game seemed to being showing the turn- around in losing as Effingham played to a 6-6 tie with Salem. Unfortunately, the jubilation was short-lived as the next two games resulted in losses to Newton 19-0, and Pana 25-0.
In September of 1928, there was somewhat of a new spirit in the air. The high school newspaper began referring to the team as the “Warriors.” EHS registered victories and tie games in six of the 10 games they played that year. But the 1929 season witnessed a reversion to the losing pattern with eight losses to go with two wins.
Although it is unclear why Effingham decided to remove its name from football scheduling, it is quite possible that it was because the Great Depression had begun.
By 1932, there was a lot of difficulty facing football in this part of Illinois. A number of schools in the Eastern Illinois League had withdrawn from football. Westfield, Effingham, Hutsonville, Greenup and Toledo stopped playing football altogether, while two or three others indicated they might follow the same pattern. That made it very difficult for their league to continue football.
In 1946, Effingham began once again its football program. The 1947 yearbook recorded, “Despite a season’s record of only one win against six defeats, local fans and students seemed well pleased with the return of football as a major sport at EHS after a 17-year lapse.
The crowd of an estimated 1,000 cheering fans watched the Hearts drop their first game to St. Elmo 45-13 on the home field. As might be expected, the team was very jittery in its first game and this proved to be its downfall.
The next five games found the Hearts on the short end of the score. Although win-less, "they kept their spirits high and never gave up until the final gun had sounded,’" said Coach Sheahan.
Still looking for their first win of the season, the boys made the trip to Oblong for their seventh and final game of the season. This thrilling game was played under the worst possible conditions. The rain poured down so hard at times during the game that it was almost impossible to see across the field. The Flaming Hearts walked off that rain-drenched field with a 25 to 14 victory, the first in 17 years. A winning tradition would soon be established.