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Montini hangs a jersey and a shirt with the number 76 in remembrance to Johnny Weiger, who earlier this month lost his battle with cancer. | Paul Bergstrom ~ For Sun-Times Media

CHAMPAIGN — Joe Borsellino was at a ceremony to get his state championship ring last fall when a freshman football player at Montini came up and started a conversation.

“He said, ‘You’re a great player,’ ’’ said Borsellino, a star receiver for the Broncos.

Borsellino responded in kind, telling Johnny Weiger, “Your time’s coming up soon.”

This story has a sad ending. Weiger was just starting to feel the effects then of chronic myeloid leukemia, a disease that wound up claiming his life on Nov. 4.

But Johnny Weiger’s tale is also one of inspiration and sportsmanship, of two programs who are fierce rivals on the field and good friends off it. It’s a story of some people who get what is truly important in life.

During Weiger’s illness, the medical bills piled up and among those who teamed up to help his family were the members of the Montini and Aurora Christian athletic families. Montini athletic director Bob Landi reached out to his Aurora Christian counterpart, Dan Beebe, before the teams’ football game on Oct. 12. The result was a concerted effort both to help pay for Weiger’s care and to boost the spirits of him and his school mates.

“We got together and prayed before the game,” Aurora Christian coach Don Beebe said. “From there we started raising money for the whole family.”

When Weiger passed away three weeks later, Beebe and his son Chad, a senior standout for the Eagles, were among those representing Aurora Christian at the funeral.

It was a practical application of the philosophy Don Beebe has brought to Aurora Christian since taking over as head coach in 2004 after a successful NFL career.

“Life is more than just a silly game of football,” Don Beebe said. “Teaching kids the right way is why I coach and why Chris [Andriano of Montini] coaches.”

The right way is to compete hard and to be there for each other. When the Eagles started playing Montini, the games were mismatches; Beebe remembers once losing by 60.

As the gap between the teams has narrowed — Aurora Christian’s only loss en route to a second consecutive Class 3A title this year was 31-27 to Montini — the bond between the programs has strengthened.

“It just shows what a great conference we have,” said Borsellino, who earned another ring on Saturday when the Broncos beat Morris for their fourth straight Class 5A title. “When we have names like ‘Montini Catholic’ and ‘Aurora Christian,’ it means we are Christian and Catholic and that we follow everything [those faiths teach].”

The Eagles and Broncos supported each other this weekend, too. Montini players and coaches were on hand for the first half of Aurora Christian’s win on Friday night and Don Beebe was here Saturday with his staff and players for Montini’s victory.

Borsellino and his teammates were wearing orange wristbands — Weiger’s favorite color. And there was a No. 76 jersey on the Montini sideline in his honor.

Johnny Weiger is gone, but he won’t be forgotten. And neither will the spirit of sportsmanship displayed between two friendly rivals.

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