JUST THIS SIDE OF HEAVEN — It’s 6:03 on Friday night, November 16th and Riley Krolikowski and his teammates are still practicing football. He can’t quite believe it to be honest.
“You think you can make it (to the state championship game), but until it actually happens, you don’t really believe it,” he says, walking to the locker room from Grand Island’s old football shack, Memorial Stadium.
He’s wearing a purple jersey that is a little different than everyone else’s. It looks like there is a dragon on the front of it.
“It’s a pig eating pancakes,” Krolikowski says. It’s reserved each week in practice for the linemen who has the most pancakes in the previous week’s game.
It’s a jersey Randy Krolikowski would love.
In 2017, Grand Island had one of those “what if” football seasons.
In week one, they lost Kearney 20-16 and gave up a defensive touchdown early in the game. The Bearcats made the finals. In week five, eventual champion Omaha North came to Grand Island and trailed 20-6 heading to the fourth quarter before pulling away for a 26-20 victory.
The next week, GISH allowed Omaha North to “beat them twice” as the old saying goes and they laid an egg against Millard South in a 38-17 loss. They rebounded to finish 6-3 and looked like a team that could cause some problems in the playoffs.
On October 27, they took a late 17-10 lead against Omaha Creighton Prep, until a late field goal won it for the Junior Jays who lost to Kearney in the semifinals.
Through it all Riley Krolikowski was coming into his own for coach Jeff Tomlin.
“He was our long snapper and just played a ton of minutes for us in the offensive and defensive lines,” the coach said. “He is just a fantastic young man; a relentless worker.”
Ten days later, Randy Krolikowski, Riley’s dad, went to the Nebraska Heart Institute for check up from a previous surgery. He wasn’t feeling quite right. And then, he didn’t get to come home. He passed away from complications of the surgery on November 6th.
“Coach T was one of the first people I called,” Riley said.
For the last few years, Saturday mornings at Randy and Marcy Krolikowski’s house have been, let’s just say, full. Riley’s older brother, Ryan, who was also a starter in the offensive line during the 2014 and 2015 seasons started a little Saturday tradition.
After every Friday night game, every offensive line starter came to the Krolikowski’s to sleep after the game and wake up to a famous Marcy breakfast the next morning: pancakes and bacon.
“And, Sam Sims’ mom will bring a breakfast casserole to throw in the oven, too,” Riley says with a smile. “Usually only about four of the eight people who come over end up eating because everyone wants to sleep.
It’s turned into a friend group now. The linemen, Jack Wemhoff, brothers John and Ben Reilly, and Keyin Wentling. They even let quarterback Cole Evans join in the fun.
The coaches — especially offensive line coach Clint Cunningham — have caught on to the tradition.
“He started figuring out we had leftovers and I had to bring him breakfast casserole on Saturday mornings,” Krolikowski said.
For his part, Tomlin said the staff appreciates the tradition (and the breakfast).
“We have had some breakfast casserole brought into us,” Tomlin said. “It’s been nice to get the benefit of it. It’s a neat tradition and a rallying point for our team. These guys are so close that team chemistry in the locker room is huge.
“These guys have a bond that can’t be broken. You can’t coach that. I have had the honor of being able to be a part of it.”
Friendships and being on a team are sometimes the most powerful lessons we learn in high school. Sometimes it’s more important than AP English or a college credit course. Riley Krolikowski knows this.
He’d like to become a dentist, but he also wants to keep playing baseball. He’s been a standout catcher for the Islanders and summer legion team Home Federal. So, he’s still battling between which one he’ll choose after high school. Either decision will be right.
But, he knows that friends on a team are a special thing. He learned that last November 6th.
“We were in Lincoln at the hospital,” he reflects. “But, by the time we got home our whole friend group from Friday night was at my house waiting for us. That was a big part of getting back into things. They were always there helping me with school work that I missed. They were huge part of helping me get back on my feet.”
As the seasons passed and the Islanders qualified for the state baseball tournament and worked to get ready for Riley Krolikowski’s final football season they bonded together as well.
“My friends always remind me that my dad is watching,” he said. “I know he’s up there, too, watching. It just makes me want to do the best I can in everything I do.”
Tomlin sees it on an almost daily basis.
“He’s improved his strength leaps and bounds,” Tomlin said. “He made real big strides last winter. His technique work has helped him to sharpen his ax to where it is sharp today.
“And, leadership wise, he is one of our team leaders. Not just for the offensive line, which is invaluable, but our entire team looks to him.”
Tomlin said Krolikowski’s buddies that start on the offensive line — that Saturday morning group — have been the center of his team this season. All of them — Reid Beilby, Eric Allen, Mateo Martinez and Javier Cruz — have been multiple year starters.
“They are the heart and soul of our football team,” he said.
Riley was mowing the yard on Sunday after the Islanders had advanced to the semifinals with a 27-24 win over Millard South. Offensive coordinator Russ Harvey was on the phone.
“I have a few things to run by you,” he told Riley. “First play of the game on Friday, we are going to get you the ball. We have to practice some hand offs this week in practice.
There was No. 53 on Friday in the semifinals. In the back field next to Cole Evans and ready to go. There was only one thing to say in the huddle since there was nothing else to call the play.
Riley bulled his way for three yards. The crowd knew. GISH jumped to a quick 14-0 lead on favorite Bellevue West and then iced the game behind their offensive line in the fourth quarter for a 37-30 win and the school’s first trip to the state finals since 1990.
“All week we practiced the handoffs and I just had to focus on not fumbling,” Riley said. “I could feel him there when I was running the ball.”
Like every week in the Grand Island football locker room, there is a sheet to identify with as you walk out onto the field or to put in your backpack as you head to class. This week the theme was legacy.
“Let us endeavor to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.” — Mark Twain
Riley Krolikowski and his buddies have one more game left on Monday night, but they are already champions. They’ve galvanized a community that will move en masse to Memorial Stadium to cheer them on in the state finals.
The program has been few a some difficult events in the past three years. Early in the 2015 season, young linemen Nick Galvan was killed in a car accident. The next summer former all-stater and Nebraska punter Sam Foltz was also in a fatal car accident. This past week, former head coach Ken Fischer, who led the Islanders to the 1978 Class A title, passed away at age 91.
Riley thinks Randy Krolikowski will join them in watching on Monday night.
“We know how great they were,” Riley said. “We want to try to live up to their legacy, but no one is really ever going to be able to. They were such great people. Sam and Nick were top of the line people on and off the field.”
It seems a perfect ending to this football journey for Grand Island Senior High. A community in the stands. Some program favorites watching the Islanders from above. Playing for a championship.
And, especially, watching Riley.