Championship teams, no matter what level, aren’t formed in the season in which they are crowned — oftentimes the pieces come together before that.
“We were more talented [in 1998],” admits Tony Johnson, then DeLaSalle High School head football coach. He remembers running into Derreck Robinson and Dominique Sims shortly after their basketball season concluded; the two young men, who also played football, wanted to know when the weight room would open up so they can begin preparing for the gridiron campaign — that championship season that would begin in a few short months thereafter.
“I knew [then] we were going to be something special,” notes Johnson.
Stocked with such seasoned upperclassmen as Sims and Robinson, the DeLaSalle Islanders would later prove their coach correct, as they finished their 1999 season in the Metrodome as Minnesota state high school football champions.
Several members of that championship team, along with their coach, were in attendance at Robinson’s fifth annual youth football summer day camp at McRae Park in early July. It also served as a reunion of sorts as well.
“There were only four or five freshmen and sophomores on that team that were on varsity,” adds Robinson’s brother, Aaron. “C.J. [Hallman], Tommie Hill, Corey Hugger and I. We played in that [championship] game. I had a touchdown, and Tommie had a touchdown. C.J. was blocking.”
Hallman says he vividly remembers Sims’ pregame speech prior to the title game. “He was our captain, but he never really spoke out to the team like that. That was something,” he surmises.
(For full disclosure purposes: C.J. Hallman, who then was a DeLaSalle sophomore lineman, is my son. Sadly I didn’t get to see him play because I was out of town caring for my uncle, who was hospitalized at the time in Detroit. As a result, I missed one of the highlights of his life, which I always will regret.)
Johnson, who now teaches at a high school in Illinois, says that besides winning his only state championship, his fondest memory of his 1999 squad was its chemistry. “It was just such a magical group of kids, young men — I’m still in touch with them 10, 12 years later,” says the former coach.
“I got to play in that championship game with my brother,” continues Aaron Robinson.
“Hard work” sticks most in his memory bank, says Bryce Jones, a senior member of the squad.
“I remember it being a tight group, like a family,” Hallman points out. “Being with those guys and having [the upperclassmen] take me under their wing and really getting me acclimated to the seriousness of what we had to do — they were my big brothers. They showed me the ropes.”
“They are all successful,” Johnson says proudly.
Sims became a top recruit for Minnesota, where he played and also played in NFL Europe — he is in private business today.
Tommie Hill is a loan officer at a local bank.
Jones is a social worker.
Aaron Robinson works in Atlanta as a personal trainer.
Hallman works at his alma mater’s campus ministry office as well as an assistant coach in three sports: football, basketball, and track and field.
“For us to still be friends and see what we’ve had done is huge,” notes Aaron. “It’s something I will never forget.”
His brother Derreck went on to play at Iowa State and has been in the NFL since 2005 — he re-signed with the Cleveland Browns after the lockout ended this summer. “The guys who are here are the same guys that have been with me since I was 14 or 15. I appreciate the fact that they come and help me with my camp [each summer]. We are doing this all together as family and friends — as a community.”
All the former Islander players also were glad to see their coach as well.
“He’s the one who taught me the fundamentals of the game: working hard, being disciplined and staying committed,” says Derreck. “It’s really good to have him back.”
“He was the person who sat me down in eighth grade and talked to me about working out and getting stronger,” adds Hallman. “He always coached me to be better: not just on the field but also in the classroom as well. We love him.”
Johnson, who also operates his own player management firm, says, “It’s very nice to see the guys giving back at the park and the area they grew up. It is very touching and impressive.”
Finally, once you win a championship — no matter the sport or whether it’s pee-wee, college, pro or high school — that title sticks with you for life, a deserving badge of honor.
“[It] is something no one can ever take away from us — never,” concludes Aaron Robinson.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.