Former Bloom Trail wrestling coach Ron Ray remembers exactly when he first thought 1982 had the chance to be a history-making season for the program.
“I recognized halfway through the magical season that these guys were pretty special,” said Ray, who was a two-time All-American and NCAA individual champion at Oklahoma State in 1975. “I was a national champion, and I had trouble with and could not physically compete with our bigger weights. They were tough kids, and I thought they were going to raise some hell.”
Ray was right.
Bloom Trail went on to win the program’s first and only state championship.
“It was such a big deal for our school, which was only in its sixth year at the time,” said Ray, a former principal at Bloom Trail. “It put the school on the map and did a lot for our communities. Reflecting back, I thought it was going to be easy to win state championships and we’d do this every year. Now, I realize some guys coach their whole lifetimes and don’t come close. It was just a special group. They were dynamite.”
Dubbed the “Fantastic Five” by a local reporter at the time, the Trojans were led by state qualifiers Chris McFarland (145 pounds), Reggie Wilson (155), Derrick Williams (167), Rory Drake (185) and the late James Irons (heavyweight).
Irons won the individual championship after finishing runner-up as a junior, while McFarland and Wilson both placed second.
“It meant everything to us,” McFarland said. “We knew we were good, but we didn’t really know that we were on the threshold of a breakthrough. I look at Ron Ray, and for him to be able to take five kids that were never exposed to the sport before high school and lead us to a state championship, it was amazing.”
After returning from Champaign’s Assembly Hall, the team was treated to a motorcade through the Bloom Trail district, which included a trip through East Chicago Heights (now Ford Heigts), the home of the “Fantastic Five” and other teammates.
The 46-year-old McFarland will never forget the emotions that ride triggered.
“Getting off of I-57 at the Lincoln Highway exit and seeing a fire truck, we thought something was wrong, but it was a welcome parade for us,” McFarland said. “When we went through Ford Heights, which was and still is one of the most impoverished communities in the country, it really meant a lot to us. That day was a happy one there and to bring something like that to the community was special.”
Wilson went on to shine in college, but his high school days will always hold a special place in his heart.
Wilson led Triton College to back-to-back National Junior College Athletic Association championships and won consecutive individual titles to become the first wrestler to ever win the Ernest B. Gould Outstanding Wrestler Award twice.
Wilson then placed sixth nationally at Oklahoma State before becoming the first All-American at Chicago State when he placed sixth at nationals as a senior. He’s a member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
“My success in college showed how hard we worked in high school,” Wilson said. “We pushed each other and wrestled with so much intensity. The whole wrestling room became one as a unit. We were like one big family.”
History Nearly Had Different Ending for Bloom
McFarland didn’t compete his junior season because of a broken neck suffered at the end of his sophomore season.
After school one day, McFarland worked out and then played basketball before heading to a dance. He then worked the midnight shift at a fast-foot restaurant before heading right to a tournament the next morning.
By the time McFarland reached the finals, he was going on about 36 hours without sleep.
“I tried a headlock and my muscle just collapsed (from fatigue),” McFarland said. “I was throwing a guy and he landed on me and broke my third, fourth and fifth vertebrae.”
Everyone thought it was a career-ending injury, but McFarland worked hard to return his senior season, but needed to first convince his parents he was healed and then Ray, which wasn’t easy.
“That traumatic injury made me work harder,” McFarland said. “It still drives me to this day because in the face of adversity I was able to persevere.”
McFarland went on to have a stellar senior season, but one loss still haunts him.
After defeating the state’s top-ranked wrestler in the semifinals, McFarland lost the 145-pound championship match to Belleville West’s Bob Dahm, who wrestled at Southern Illinois.
“I feel he robbed me of the ultimate glory,” said McFarland, who wrestled at Eastern Illinois. “It was bitter sweet. I went on to tech-fall him in the first period of the freestyle state finals and then beat him three or four times in college. I never lost to him again. I’d do anything to have that match again.”
COMING THURSDAY: Log on at 6 a.m. Thursday to catch up with Bloom Trail wrestling legend Chris McFarland. What is he doing now?