The Program: Serving up tradition

Oct. 26—PHILO — The menu is simple. The setup is simple. The support is simple.

The moment, though? That's what makes how the Unity football team will spend its time together this Saturday morning stand out.

Playoff football is a constant for the Rockets. Has been essentially every year since 1994 when Scott Hamilton first arrived in town to coach the Rockets, with Unity only missing out on the postseason in 2018 (a 4-5 record) and 2020 (COVID-19 canceled the IHSA playoffs) in the past 30 seasons.

The trend will continue this Saturday when Unity (7-2) hits the road to play at Williamsville (7-2) in a Class 3A first-round playoff game that kicks off at 2 p.m. at Paul Jenkins Stadium.

But not before the Rockets — players, coaches and parents — all descend upon the Philo Tavern around 9 a.m. The long-time establishment on Washington Street in the Champaign County village will serve up scrambled eggs, biscuits and gravy (with the gravy coming from Old Orchard in Savoy), sausage, bacon and cinnamon rolls for the entire Unity program to enjoy.

It's a tradition Unity has done before every Saturday playoff game, home or away, since 1994.

"Sometimes, I wonder what the kids think of stuff like that, like why do I have to get up and be at breakfast at 9 a.m. and we don't play until 2?'" Hamilton said. "I hope it's things they'll look back on later in life where they'll think, 'Well, yeah, that was pretty cool what we used to do back then and go for breakfast at the Philo Tavern.' It sure is appreciated what they do for us and what Old Orchard does for us, as well."

Senior linebacker Brock Suding sure enjoys the breakfasts. The 6-foot, 195-pound leader of the Rockets' defense with 108 tackles feasts upon the spread available for him and his teammates.

"That is definitely the highlight of the week when we get some breakfast there," said Suding, whose go-to order is biscuits and gravy and cinnamon rolls. "It's pretty energetic. Everybody is looking forward to the game."

Unity junior safety Ryan Rink echoes Suding's sentiment.

"I look forward to it a lot," Rink said. "The best part about it is it takes your mind off the game. You sit there with your friends and can look at the pictures on the wall. You forget about everything before you have to settle in and think about the game."

Plus, there's small gifts the players will receive, senior running back/wide receiver/safety Eric Miebach said, like socks, stocking caps and lanyards.

"It's small stuff, but it's still fun to get," Miebach said. "We love it. The food is always good. The parents will bring in some of their own stuff, so we get to see what their cooking is like, and it's always good. You would think everyone would be tired because it's early in the morning, but everyone has great energy and we're all ready."

Same for the parents who help with the dishing out of food.

"We look forward to serving the boys at many playoff breakfasts coming up," said Joe O'Neill, the father of Unity senior wide receiver Dalton O'Neill and sophomore wide receiver Mason O'Neill.

Unity opens on the road in the playoffs this Saturday for the first time since 2016.

Meaning Hamilton — who usually arrives at Unity around 6:30 a.m. on Saturday of home playoff games to start getting ready for the day before making the six-mile drive with offensive coordinator Tony Reetz from the high school to Philo Tavern, passing by hundreds of aces' worth of harvested farm fields in southern Champaign County — and his staff will have to switch up their routine a bit. No 'College GameDay,' to watch in the teacher's lounge after they arrive back from the Philo Tavern.

Instead, a roughly 90-mile bus ride awaits the Rockets to northern Sangamon County.

But the feel of a playoff game for Unity all begins with its time at the Philo Tavern. It's a relationship Hamilton covets and credits current owners Brad Bellman and Jeff Drook, along with former Philo Tavern owner Pedro Heller, for their help and support through the years.

"This started all the way back in 1994 when Pedro was still running the Philo Tavern," Hamilton said. "It was the first year we did this, and we've done it ever since then. It's been a great relationship with Brad and Jeff now, but even with Pedro when he started it for us."

The establishment is also where Hamilton and his assistant coaches will go eat dinner late Friday night after Unity regular-season games. The only rare times the Rockets aren't filing in to the Philo Tavern for breakfasts on Saturdays in the fall when they have a game is if the road game is too far away.

But the Rockets will be there this Saturday. And, if Unity can make a run to the program's seventh state title game, for nearly every Saturday morning in November, too.

"For me, it definitely creates the playoff atmosphere and what that day looks like for our program," Hamilton said. "It adds to the traditions we've had and the success we've had. Hopefully, we get to keep those traditions alive for several weeks now."