Peoria High offensive linemen work on a drill with their new chrome, silver Riddell helmets, which allow coaches and trainers to monitor the amount and magnitude of hits players take.
Peoria High offensive linemen work on a drill with their new chrome, silver Riddell helmets, which allow coaches and trainers to monitor the amount and magnitude of hits players take. — Aaron Ferguson for Friday Night Drive

PEORIA - Widely known as a basketball town, Peoria is drawing national interest on the gridiron.

Two years removed from shattering IHSA offensive records and winning a Class 5A state championship, the Lions listened to Peyton Manning announce them as Riddell’s team of the future.

“It just recognizes our play style and culture around here,” senior defensive lineman Jordan Williams said. “It just shows how much dedication our players have to our program and how our coaches are to us. To get that recognition, it’s good to realize that we have that potential for our future and those (younger than) us.”

Riddell, a Chicago-based company, has recognized other schools from the state of Illinois and surrounding states as part of their 'Smarter Football' grant, but they were looking to do something bigger. Peoria High has been featured in social media posts and outfitted with new helmets, shoulder pads, girdles, practice equipment, football pants for the freshmen team, footballs and much more.

“It’s a game changer for us,” head coach Tim Thornton said. “It puts us on a different level for how we’re able to accommodate the kids and it rewards them for being the resilient kids that they are and playing with a lot of disadvantages. This finally gives them an advantage they can get excited about.”

The new helmets come with a special liner that goes inside the helmet and tracks hits. The training staff gets live updates, or can download them after practice, to see where someone is being hit, the magnitude of hits, which periods of practice the team is hitting the most and can compare to the average hits for that position.

“It’s going to help us be smarter about the number of hits, quality of hits that they’re taking and giving; finding ways to continue to improve making this game safer than it already is,” Thornton said.

The school located in the heart of Peoria didn't’t know what to expect when they loaded their buses to visit Riddell headquarters on April 16. During a tour of headquarters, the Lions saw their new chrome silver helmets, shoulder pads and, then, were hit with the ultimate surprise of meeting the future Hall of Fame quarterback.

“Coach (Thornton) said he had a couple of surprises for us,” junior receiver Izaiah Haslett said.

“First, he brought the helmets out and then he brought Peyton Manning out. I was actually turned around talking to one of my friends, and all I hear is people screaming, and Peyton Manning walks out the door.”

Meeting Manning was even a cool experience for Thornton, who is in his 11th season at Peoria High (67-38) after leading now-closed Peoria Woodruff and serving as an assistant at Illinois State.

Said Thornton: “My favorite part was, as he was asking me questions about some of the, ‘crazy things we do,’ how excited he was about it. He said, ‘Man, I wish we did things like that when I was in high school. I wish I knew I had four downs all the time instead of just three.’ It was fun.”

Peoria High was selected because of Thornton sharing about his program with the Riddell representative who reconditions their gear each year. Over the past several years, Thornton has shared about their leadership program, which the school has adopted, why they go for two-point conversions, onside kicks and rarely punt.

Thornton said the Riddell representative nominated Peoria High in a meeting as Riddell discussed the qualifications for the program they were looking for, and Peoria High fit the bill.

Off the field, Peoria High has a separate ranking system, which is indicated on their helmets. Players earn points by maintaining a specific GPA level, volunteering in the community, taking the ACT and more. The higher the rank, the better the rewards, which include eating first on team trips.

The other part of the culture is Brian Kight’s leadership, where e + r = o. This equation stands for an event (e), plus your response (r) to the event impacts the outcome.

“Our culture overall has evolved a lot because a lot of us don’t have much to go to or look up to so coming out here and having football gets us away from the streets and the things that are happening outside our field that’s something we don’t want to be a part of,” Williams said. “It helps our guys stay disciplined and have control over what they do. 

“Holding each other accountable is probably what holds us together because a lot of teams will say they are family but our family and love for each other is beyond the fields. We keep each other accountable in the schools and out of the schools, making sure everybody’s got something to eat and somewhere to sleep. It just makes us better and gives us opportunities in the future because instead of getting caught up in not being able to get out of our own house, it gives us a place to relax and be ourselves.”

The brand of football is unlike anyone has ever seen. It’s why Peoria High holds state records for points in a season (805), scoring average (57.5 points per game), touchdowns in a season (116) and total offense (7,753 yards).

It starts with an up-tempo, no-huddle approach, which was the coaching staff’s way of adapting to a younger generation.

“We have kids that want everything now,” Thornton said. “The cell phone and video games reset faster. If you die, you come back to life, and if you’re on your phone you have everything at your fingertips so we have to do everything faster.”

Data drives Peoria High’s decision-making. They’ve gone for it on fourth down from inside their own 20. The onside kick far more than they kick it deep. It all boils down to the Lions wanting to dictate tempo and getting as many snaps in a game as possible, typically twice as many as a normal high school game.

They also go for it on two-point conversions every time they score a touchdown. Thornton felt validated when they beat Peoria Notre Dame 82-80 on Nov. 15, 2016, the IHSA’s highest-scoring game (162 points). Peoria High scored fewer touchdowns but converted all 10 of their two-point conversion attempts and got a safety.

“We had a deal where we lost a game by a point,” Thornton said. “We put someone on the field and asked them to do a job that maybe they practice 15 minutes per week versus having them do a job that they practice two hours a week. We said why don’t we just continue to do what we’re better at and try to gain three yards.”

The ‘team of the future’ expects big things on the field this season, but knows they’ll have a target on their backs.

“Now, especially that we have that label, we have to play like it and make good things happen for our team,” Haslett said.