TOLONO — Any athletic program worth its salt has time-honored traditions or rituals that are well-ingrained and recognizable even to the casual fan. Clemson has Howard's Rock.
Notre Dame has Touchdown Jesus. Colorado has Ralphie the Buffalo. At Unity High School, the tradition is the salt itself. Call it the special ingredient that spices up the Rockets' traditional football run in the postseason. A 50-pound white salt block — the variety which livestock love and that can be purchased for $4.89, plus tax — is a staple for a Unity program that has advanced into the state semifinals for the eighth time in the past 13 years under head coach Scott Hamilton.
A salty tradition
Enterprising reporters wanted to learn the story behind the salt block, which is the responsibility of senior Jordan McLaughlin to carry onto the field during pregame, where it then becomes the duty of every varsity member to touch before stretching.
"I'm not 100 percent sure why," said senior Michael Miller, a starting offensive tackle. "To me, it's a tradition which has led us through the playoffs, and that's enough to get me excited."
The salt block will make a road trip today, when Unity travels to Aurora Christian for a 5 p.m. Class 3A semifinal showdown between teams with 11-1 records.
"In junior high, I saw it but didn't think there was that much significance," said senior Kyle Negangard, who was entrusted to carry the salt block as a sophomore when he was injured.
"It's something we do. It brings us together and reminds us it's time to get focused."
A building block
Dalton Flowers is a senior guard who understands the importance of everyone touching the salt block during pregame.
"It's a whole team effort to win a game," Flowers said. "It takes all of us to win it all."
Whether it's merely a superstitious ritual isn't the issue. "We look at it as inspiration," Flowers said, "and Jordan is the proprietor of it."
Danny Shroyer, another senior guard, said during the toughest moments in a game, there's more than coaches on the Unity sideline yelling instructions or shouting encouragement.
"You look over at the salt block and know what you have to do," Shroyer said. "You appreciate what it stands for. It's symbolic for the team."
As a postseason win nears completion, Flowers pays homage to the salt block.
"I kiss it after we score and I think the game is finally over and we're moving on," Flowers said.
In the beginning
Interesting stuff, but none of the comments explains the historical beginnings of how a salt block has captivated the imagination of an entire football team.
For that view, the source is Unity line coach Tony Reetz, a Monticello native who played collegiately at Illinois State University.
Upon graduation, he took a part of ISU with him when he joined the Unity staff in 2004.
"Our line coach, Harold Etheridge, had a saying, 'It's time to pound some salt,' " Reetz said.
The expression has a derivation in the boxing world.
'Pound some salt'
A fighter, if he notices an open wound on his opponent, will try to repeatedly strike blows in that area, Reetz said, "to make him get weaker."
It's an easy translation to football, Reetz said.
"We find some kind of weakness in the defense and go to work on that," he said. "Our mentality is that we wear you out in the fourth quarter. Once the wound is open, you pour salt in, pound the salt in and make it sting."
The tradition, he said, simply started with words during a motivational pregame speech directed to the linemen.
"It got the best of me and I said, 'Let's pound some salt, guys,' and it caught on," Reetz said.
Eighth year of existence
The words struck a chord with Chad Musselman, now the Villa Grove head coach but in 2004 Unity's offensive coordinator.
"He said something about salt and we all really liked it," Musselman said. "You see other teams that have traditions. I drove to Farm & Fleet and bought a salt block."
He then used a magic marker to inscribe the scores of every game the Rockets had won during the season.
"Us adults don't think about things catching on and staying there," Musselman said, "but when you find something that works, you don't want to go away from it."
This is Year 8 of the salt block phenomenon.
"To be honest," Hamilton said, "it's one of those silly traditions, but the kids look forward to it."
Ironically, Musselman doesn't have a salt block on the sideline at Villa Grove.
"I don't want to copy everything," he said. "You try to find some of your own little things."
Double dose of salt
Former Unity lineman Alex Ferguson didn't get away from the "pound the salt" mantra when he graduated from high school and enrolled at Indiana State University this fall as a freshman.
The Sycamores' line coach is the same Harold Etheridge who used to coach at the other ISU.
"I asked him (Ferguson) if he brings up, 'pounding the salt,' and Alex said he did," Reetz said,
"Though it originated with my college line coach, for our kids, it's not an ISU tradition, it's a Unity tradition. It doesn't matter to them where it originally came from."
Serving a purpose
The reality is that the outcome of the games would likely be unchanged if there was not a salt block on the sideline, but that's not really the point.
"It's kind of an abstract thing," Reetz said. "Maybe it doesn't do anything. At this point, it's kind of a superstition, but the kids get into it.
"There's no way the kids would let the bus pull out without that thing with us. For the coaches, as long as it makes the kids play hard, that's all we're looking for. It has transcended into a physical brand of football."
That's the message that Flowers delivers to those who question him.
"I never knew the whole background," Flowers said. "I tell people it's about good ol' hard-nosed football."
Saving the memory
The salt blocks aren't preserved and reused. Each new season requires a new salt block. Since Musselman's departure, Reetz makes the annual purchase.
At season's end, Musselman used to take the salt block to his parents, who live near Sadorus and have horses. Last year, center Lucas Rund took it for the livestock on the family farm.
Reetz is optimistic that one of these years the salt block will not be a treat for farm animals.
"Hopefully, one year we'll win state and it will end up in the trophy case," Reetz said, "and let people 50 years from now ask, 'What's that about?' "