URBANA — Cameron Mammen’s varsity football debut at Urbana High School came in Nathan Watson’s first game as the Tigers’ head coach in August 2009.
The opener against Normal Community wasn’t supposed to be Mammen’s Friday Night Lights debut.
“I’d identified Cam in the summer as a kid we could build off of,” Watson said. “I wanted him on the sidelines charting plays. I think you can learn from listening to the offensive coordinator.”
Before halftime, starting quarterback Trey Russell went out with an ankle injury and backup Kyle Clevenger was sidelined with concussion-like symptoms.
“It was our first game as a staff,” Watson said. “We were trying to get things together. We didn’t have a No. 3 quarterback developed yet.”
Watson took the clipboard away from Mammen, however, and sent him in to play.
An Urbana program that had scored one touchdown or less in seven of nine games the previous season put three TDs on the board in a 42-21 loss to the Ironmen. It was the most points Normal allowed in the regular season.
The catalyst was the freshman quarterback. Mammen completed 5 of 7 passes for 103 yards (including an 88-yard scoring strike) and rushed for 87 yards, 55 of those yards coming on his own scoring run.
The next day, in a freshman game, Mammen suffered a broken fibula and was sidelined for the remainder of the football season.
Some fathers and sons have weekend bonding time in front of the television, watching one football game after another.
Mark Mammen took his son, Cameron, directly to the game of football, but they didn’t go to stadiums where games were taking place.
They went to ones that were idle.
“Any field that had yard markers on it,” Mark Mammen said.
They went to practice fields, high school fields and — occasionally — even found a college field they could get on.
“Most of the time I acted as the quarterback and he ran pass routes,” Mark Mammen said.
“We would spend hours going up and down the field,” Cameron Mammen recalled. “We would pretend we were the Pittsburgh Steelers playing in games.
“At the time, it was just a lot of fun to do that with my dad. Now, though, I realize I was gaining skills and learning the game of football a lot better than many kids ever get the chance to do during those times.”
In one of their outings — Mark thinks Cameron was about 9 — “I told him to imagine it was the last play of the game and we were down by five,” he said.
“We had the ball on the 15-yard line and I told him I was going to throw a fade pass into the corner of the end zone and he needed to get it. When I threw it, I thought I overthrew him, but he made a diving catch and kept his feet inbounds.”
Dad got an inkling about his son’s feelings for football when he heard his take on the play.
“The wind was blowing hard, and the trees were waving back and forth,” Mark Mammen recalled, “and he said that was the crowd cheering for us. I knew right then he really had a passion for football if he could come up with something like that.”
Last summer, Cameron Mammen returned to his pass-catching days. Though he played quarterback throughout his four years at Urbana, when he attended various one-day camps and showcase events during the last offseason, he said, “the college coaches wanted to see what I could do as a receiver.”
A family friend who played in the NFL (Victor Bailey) gave the teenager a crash course on receiver techniques.
“All the hand-fighting, footwork and little things to get into routes and separate from a defender,” Cameron Mammen said. “It really helped me compete in the camps.”
As Mammen goes through the recruiting process, college coaches are projecting him as a possible slot receiver or defensive back.
For those who think it would be a long shot for him to make it as a receiver at the next level, consider this: The athlete who became the most prolific passer in the history of Champaign-Urbana had limited experience at the position prior to ninth grade.
“I only played quarterback one year in Pee Wee football,” Mammen said. “I played receiver, running back, middle linebacker, defensive back, kick and punt returner and punter during my Pee Wee football days.”
Mammen won’t soon be forgotten as a quarterback. Basically playing three seasons (he missed all but one game as a freshman with an injury), he rewrote all-time Urbana and Twin City records for passing yards and total offense.
The records are his, but Mammen said there are plenty of others who share in them.
“Nobody can have success in football without good teammates,” he said. “Football is such a team sport. I enjoy sharing in our team’s successes with my teammates.”
As a senior, Mammen set Urbana’s single-season passing record for the third consecutive time, this year throwing for 1,790 yards. He set a Twin City season record for total offense (3,008 yards) with an amount that is less than 100 yards from placing him in the IHSA’s all-time top 20.
For his career, Mammen’s Urbana school-record passing total is 4,613 yards and his Twin City total offense mark is 6,613 yards, which ranks 13th on the IHSA’s all-time list.
In the 26 years The News-Gazette has chosen an Athlete of the Year in football, Mammen is the third Urbana student to win the award, joining Preston Williams III (2004) and Morris Virgil (2000).
Mammen thinks he’s earned bragging rights in his immediate family, though his dad — a former Illinois State University wrestler — tries to make a case for himself.
“We joke with each other about who was the best athlete,” Cameron Mammen said. “He always tries to tell me how many times he would’ve sacked me if we played against each other, but I know better than that.”
If Cameron Mammen needs an advocate, Urbana coach Nathan Watson would be a good starting point.
“He can throw out of the pocket. He can throw on the run. He can option. He can do it all,” Watson said.
Out of uniform, Mammen is a 5-foot-11, 180-pound athlete who blends in with the crowd.
“He looks like an ordinary kid,” Watson said.
He even acts like one, too.
“He’s quiet, carefree and laid-back,” Watson said. “He likes to joke around, but he’s one of the most humble kids I’ve ever met. This year, I learned what makes him go: his love of his teammates.”
As telling as any statistic — and they are plenty telling — Watson said a tweet from Mammen reveals the depth of his character.
A postgame tradition at Urbana, which started with Watson’s first varsity win, was for the players to head to the fence by the south bleachers and exchange handshakes or high-fives with crowd members.
“He tweeted that’s what he’d miss the most,” Watson said. “You wouldn’t think that would be one of the things.”
There were plenty of reasons to celebrate this fall. Urbana was unbeaten on its home turf at McKinley Field.
“The biggest and best player-fan celebration was after we won that first playoff game,” Cameron Mammen said. “It feels amazing knowing so many people cared about and were inspired by our success this year.”
Mammen’s collegiate future is undetermined, but he has options.
“I hear from at least one coach from somewhere about every day of the week,” he said, “either by phone, email or regular mail.”
The first school to make contact last year was Nebraska, where he went for a visit when the Cornhuskers hosted Michigan State.
“I really didn’t know what to expect from the recruiting process,” Mammen said. “It’s all pretty new to me. My dad and my uncle (Kirk) have told me recruiting nowadays is a lot different than it was when they were being recruited as high school athletes.”
Not all for the better, Mark Mammen said.
“Back then, you would see college coaches come out to high school sports events a lot more to see kids in person,” Mark Mammen said. “Nowadays, it seems like many coaches rely way too much on the Internet, recruiting websites and ranking systems that seem very flawed.
“The one thing I feel coaches can get a better sense of when they see an athlete practice or compete live is the level of heart and drive that they have. It’s a hard thing to measure, but it’s a very important thing to find in a prospective student-athlete.”
Cameron Mammen hasn’t set a timetable for making his college choice, but he would prefer to pin down a decision sooner than later, he said, “so I can put my full attention toward finishing my senior year strong academically and athletically. I have one high school sports goal left to work on: a state wrestling championship.”
In the latest rankings by The Illinois Best Weekly, the unbeaten Mammen is top-rated at 172 pounds in Class 2A.
There’s something Mark Mammen and his wife, Kristi, care about much more than the sporting achievements and associated accolades.
“I’m far more proud of the type of person he is than anything he has done athletically,” Mark Mammen said. “He’s a great son, and a great person. I have never had to worry about him making bad decisions and that is very comforting as a parent.”
Cameron Mammen is active in Urbana’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes program. Kristi Mammen said she is impressed “with how much Cameron values family time in spite of his very busy sports and social life.”
He is a person, she added, “who always seems to make the right decisions.”
Funny thing. That’s what Nathan Watson said after the football games, too.
Football Players of the Year
YEAR NAME SCHOOL
2012 Cameron Mammen Urbana
2011 Dennis Hightower Danville
2010 Justin March Danville
2009 Dylan Sturgeon Unity
2008 Andrew Brewer Mahomet-Seymour
2007 Caleb Pratt Westville
2006 Mikel Leshoure Centennial
2005 Henry Deters Unity
2004 Preston Williams III Urbana
2003 Dylan Ward Prairie Central
2002 J Leman Champaign Central
2001 Marquis Johnson Centennial
2000 Morris Virgil Urbana
1999 Brian Royse St. Joseph-Ogden
1998 Dustin Ward Centennial
1997 Dusty Burk Tuscola
1996 Dusty Burk Tuscola
1995 Curtis Blanden Danville
1994 Lenny Willis Centennial
1993 Chris Jones Paxton-Buckley-Loda
1992 Juan Herrera Arcola
1991 Carl Brown Villa Grove
1990 Andy Schofield Danville
1989 Jimmy Phillips Georgetown-RF
1988 Jeff Taylor Rantoul
1987 Adon Navarette Rantoul
Coaches of the Year
2012 Scott Hamilton Unity
2011 Rick Reinhart Tuscola
Final N-G rankings
TEAM (previous) RECORD
1. Unity (1) 12-2
2. LeRoy (2) 11-1
3. Urbana (3) 9-2
4. Bismarck-Henning (4) 10-1
5. Cerro Gordo (5) 10-1
6. Monticello (6) 8-3
7. St. Joseph-Ogden (7) 9-2
8. Villa Grove (8) 9-2
9. Salt Fork (9) 9-2
10. A-L/A-H (10) 7-3