At one point in the fourth quarter of Lincoln-Way East’s 35-20 football victory over Homewood-Flossmoor, Griffin linebacker Kyle Langenderfer cut down Viking back Taje Smith just before he squirted loose in the middle of the field.
Smith picked himself up and patted Langenderfer on the top of his helmet, then returned to the H-F huddle.
One little guy was showing another a bit of respect.
Smith, a 5-foot-7, 160-pound speedster, scored two second-half touchdowns for the Vikings. Langenderfer enjoyed the last laugh, though.
He is a 5-8, 150-pound package of what making the most of the least is all about, a football hitting machine and IHSA state champion wrestler.
Langenderfer, a senior linebacker and football co-captain for East, was in on three hits of H-F quarterback Ronald Johnson that resulted in losses for the Vikings. Langenderfer also was in Smith’s face much of the night as the Griffins (4-0, 2-0) bottled up an explosive H-F offensive unit and remained undefeated through the first four weeks of regular-season play.
Next up for Lincoln-Way East is Friday’s game at rival Sandburg. Kickoff is at 7:15 p.m. in Orland Park. The Eagles (4-0, 2-0) also are unbeaten and chomping at the bit to reverse a decade of dominance by the Griffins. East leads a series that dates back to 2001 by a 10-2 count.
“With a guy like that, you’ve got to keep your feet and make sure tackles, force him to throw, I guess,” Langenderfer said after the Griffins harassed Johnson into a 15-for-24 passing effort for 104 yards. “That’s what we were trying to do, and it worked out. He started throwing the ball around a little bit. We got a pick.
“And, I don’t know, just wrapping up on tackles, it seemed to really help us out.”
Langenderfer, with 40 tackles, five TFLs and four sacks, finds ways to help East out that others twice his size would love to duplicate. He would be the Little Engine That Could except Griffin coach Rob Zvonar calls him by a couple of other names.
“He’s 10 feet tall and bullet proof as far as I’m concerned,” Zvonar said. “That kid—he reminds me of that long-haired linebacker who plays for the Packers—Clay Matthews. I think he’s Clay Matthews Jr.—just a smaller body, a three-year starter for us who just committed to the University of Illinois for wrestling.
“I couldn’t be prouder of him. He had a tough decision he had to come back and make (from the state wrestling tournament). When you’re that highly touted as a wrestler—he could have decided to stick with wrestling full-time. He wanted to play football with his friends one more year. We couldn’t be happier that he made that choice.”
Langenderfer defeated St. Rita’s Tim Corse 5-4 to capture the 138-pound championship at the Class 3A state wrestling tournament last February in Champaign. The win capped a 42-2 run to the top for Langenderfer. He placed second at 135 as a sophomore and boasts a two-year wrestling record of 82-4.
He said the skills he uses on the mat to take down opponents work for him on the football field, too.
“It’s just form—you’re always in a good position,” Langenderfer said. “It’s definitely like shooting with your offense in wrestling. You’re just heads up and you’re making good tackles. So, it definitely comes in to play. And I feel it really helps me with balance and some different stuff like that.
“But, definitely, being a wrestler helps a little bit, especially with my size.”
He said he has “grown” to 5-7 or 5-8 and fluctuates between about 150 and 160 pounds at this time of year. He takes pride in playing much bigger than he is, often flying to the ball with a reckless abandon.
“I’ve played this way my whole life,” Langenderfer said. “I definitely try to fly around and make plays. I’m not thinking that I’m smaller than anybody. I don’t really have that mentality that, ‘Oh, this guy is bigger than me.’ So, I just try to do everything I can perfectly and lay hits on people when I can.”
He’s hard to block because he’s hard to find.
Langenderfer checks in at No. 3 on the East Game Day program. He is fast-becoming known as part of the Southwest Suburban Blue’s No. 1 linebacker unit. On the inside, he teams with Adam O’Grady to get the job done for the Griffins.
“Yeah, there’s no doubt about it that he is the leader, both vocally and by example,” Zvonar said. “He’s one of our captains along with Adam O’Grady. And, overall, the defense has played well this year. But we’ll have to look at some tape (after the H-F game) because there were some times when they had us on our heels.”