25 Most Interesting People Part 1

Meet 25 individuals who have left a mark on our region.

Everyday heroes are all around us. Parents, emergency responders and teachers come quickly to mind. But what about the small-business owners, conservationists, philanthropists and quiet leaders among us? It’s easy to take for granted, but it’s important to recognize the many ways these heroes inspire us to dream more, do more, be more. So, we’ve found 25 individuals who have left a mark on our region by inspiring others through acts of courage, vision and passion.

By Chris Linden, Jermaine Pigee, Jim Taylor, Paul Anthony Arco, Paula Hendrickson, Randy Ruef, Toni Rocha // Photography by Samantha Behling

Justin Francis

Music Therapy

Justin Francis isn’t one to sit idle. His intense work ethic is driven by many interests and a strong belief that days should not be wasted. “I take life day-by-day,” he says.

So far, the 33-year-old Auburn High School graduate has founded a church, started an internet-based radio station, and created the second-largest gospel awards show in the country. As if that wasn’t enough, Francis works full-time in human services for the Rockford Housing Authority.

“God has put me in so many areas for a reason,” says Francis, who is married and has three children. “And I love doing it all.”

Francis started writing gospel songs as a teenager and had some significant success: 10 of his songs, he says, have been recorded by some of the top gospel artists in the industry. At 18, Francis scored a six-song publishing deal with Sony BMG Music Entertainment Company. But writing music was more therapy than anything else for Francis, who says he was abused as a child. “I went through a rough time in my life and music was my outlet,” says Francis, who also credits counseling as part of his healing. “I want to be a testimony for others who are going through similar experiences.”

But writing music wasn’t his only creative path. Francis founded Soar Radio, a 24/7 online radio station that features local and national inspirational and gospel talk and music. Francis runs the station with the help of a producer, and he hosts a show three days a week. Soar Radio has twice been named internet station of the year.

Francis’ success with the internet station inspired the Gospel Radio Awards, which are held at Forest City Church in Rockford. The annual red-carpet event, organized by Francis and his wife, Rebecca, honors the biggest names in gospel music. After going virtual due to COVID last year, Francis hopes to host an in-person event this year and eventually take the award show on the road.

Three years ago, Francis, also an ordained pastor, opened Soar Assembly Church, which is located on Rockford’s southwest side and serves 125 members. Francis is getting ready to launch his latest project, Soar Records, an independent record company, later this year.

Francis says none of his success would be possible without the support of his family, which has suffered its share of heartache. Francis has lost a great-grandfather and grandmother to Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as ALS; and his mother and an uncle are currently battling the same disease.

“That’s why I have to make each day count,” he says. “It’s not easy, but I get my strength from God.” – PAA

Lisa Freeman

The Trailblazer

When Lisa Freeman is having a bad day, the president of Northern Illinois University (NIU) cheers herself up by talking to some of the most important people in her life.

“I just walk outside and talk to a student,” says Freeman, who’s been NIU’s president since 2018. “That picks me back up and re-energizes me immediately. I even enjoy eavesdropping on students when they’re studying together or when they’re talking about what they’re going to do on a Friday night.”

When Freeman rose from her role as executive vice president and provost to became NIU’s 13th president, she also became the first woman to hold that title in the school’s 127-year history.

She’s reminded of that fact each day when she walks to her office, situated in historic Altgeld Hall. The outside of her office is lined with portraits of her predecessors.

“It’s pretty hard not to be aware of that when you walk past those portraits every day,” she says with a laugh. “I’m happy I’m the first, and I’m hopeful that I won’t be the last.”

This isn’t the first time she’s worked in a field dominated by men. Before she got into college administration, she worked in pharmacology, biophysics and research administration.

“It was never daunting for me to take on a role with mostly men,” she says. “There are times over the course of my career when I’ve walked into a room, and people have said, ‘Can you introduce me to the president of NIU?’ And I’ve said, ‘I’m the president of NIU.’ It happens every once in a while.”
Freeman never realized the extent of her influence until she spoke to a little girl who was in awe of her position.

“When a little girl said to me, ‘Wow, you’re the president of the university? I can be a president of a university?’ To me, that’s the most powerful thing because I’m letting people who wouldn’t necessarily see themselves as candidates for the role see themselves that way. Even if that little girl never wants to be a university president, she’s recognized at a young age that she could be a university president if she wanted to. That’s the power of being the first woman in this position.”

Hers is a role with many inspirations.

“Even if I weren’t the university’s president, I think I’d still want to live in a college town, because there’s something that’s so energizing about young people, because they have great hopes and dreams,” she says. “They’re so full of energy, so full of ideas, and just making sure that I’m doing everything possible to help them reach their dreams is what gets me out of bed each morning.” –JP

Margaret Raether

From Page to Stage

Margaret Raether’s love affair with British author P.G Wodehouse began when she bought a dog-eared copy of “Code of the Woosters” at a secondhand book sale. That encounter led to Raether adapting five of his works for the stage, all featuring Wodehouse’s beloved duo, wealthy gadabout Bertie Wooster and his unflappable valet, Jeeves.

“I never thought I’d have to learn so much about the English serving class of the 1920s and ’30s,” she laughs. “I’m always afraid that someone from England will storm out of the theater.”

So far, no one from across the pond has raised any objections. In fact, Raether’s 15 plays have delighted audiences around the world. Currently, scripts bearing her name are in production in 11 states. She has also made an impact at a local level, winning the Blanche Ellis Starr Award for the Arts in 1997 and the Rockford Area Arts Association’s Individual Artist of the Year in 2019.

Most of her works are debuted by Artists’ Ensemble Theater (AET), a company Raether and her husband, Richard, helped to found with local performers in 2003.

“We were in the middle school play together,” she recalls of meeting Richard. “My only memory of him is that he couldn’t find his pitch with both hands and a flashlight.”

The Raethers met again at Rock Valley College, married and moved to New York, where she started penning sketches for Richard’s performance troupe. It wasn’t long before her writing caught the eye of off-Broadway producers.

“I was like ‘Oh! You want to pay me?’” she laughs.

The pair eventually started a family, moved back to Rockford and formed AET, which launched its first play in 2004.

When the pandemic hit, Artists’ Ensemble pivoted to podcasting, creating “Mysterious Journey: Theater for the Mind.” Raether adapted 18 short stories from well-known authors to create 30 podcast episodes.

“I combed through almost all of Project Gutenberg,” she jokes, referring to the online digital library of free domain materials.

The hard work paid off. Raether and the cast were nominated for a 2022 RAAC Award for Innovation in the Arts.

Now that theaters have reopened, Raether is back home with Artists’ Ensemble, who are in the middle of a season featuring two of her plays, including “Jeeves Saves the Day.” She plans to continue writing and performing.

“I trained as an actor and I really enjoy being on stage,” she says. “But the nice thing about writing is that I get to play all of the parts.” –JT

Greg Brown

Building Up Belvidere’s Future

It’s hard to drive around Belvidere and not see a recent development that bears Greg Brown’s fingerprints.

Whether it’s helping to turn a former ShopKo into Rock Valley College’s Advanced Technology Center (ATC), or helping to pass referendums for new schools, Brown has used his skills to improve conditions at Belvidere School District 100.

“I actually started to volunteer with the school district in the fall of 1992,” he says. “I started to work on the referendum campaign for all of the schools that were built in the community. I also volunteered with other stuff in the community through the Booster Club.”

His history of public accounting, two decades working in real estate development and volunteer efforts helped him become CFO of the school district in 2009, a role he held for 12 years. He provided key behind-the-scenes actions on several referendums

“We started a community awareness campaign, and for a number of those referendums we literally went door-to-door, like you’d canvas for an election,” he says. “Belvidere is always all-in when it comes to the schools.”

Brown was also instrumental in getting the $11 million ATC off the ground. “We figured we were a dark horse, but we still put a project together and we got the green light from our board to put a proposal together,” Brown says. “We pitched it as a partnership with Rock Valley College.”

Brown and his team served as the project manager, and they worked closely with the contractors to prepare for its recent opening. The facility now provides workforce training related to manufacturing and logistics careers.

“We didn’t just pitch a building,” Brown says. “We pitched a comprehensive plan to try and deliver services to people who needed retraining and for K-12 students to learn about advanced manufacturing.”

RVC approved the project in 2020, and the first classes were held this past January. That same month, Brown accepted a role as CFO for Rockford Public Schools.

“I’m just trying to stay relevant, and I’m always looking for something new,” he says. “I accomplished a lot in Belvidere, but I felt like I could have an impact if I made that next jump.”

Brown expects Rockford is his last stop before retirement.

“I’m going to have fun working in Rockford trying to help make things better not just for Rockford Public Schools, but for the whole region,” he says. “All of the school districts work together behind the scenes, so we just have to keep working together as a region.” –JP

Katie Townsend

Learning as She Grows

When Katie Townsend was in grad school, she took a test to determine whether she was left-brained (wired for science) or right-brained (wired for the arts). Her result was both.

“The professor explained that usually means you’re either going to struggle or enjoy doing a bunch of different things,” she recalls. “For me, it was the latter.”

Now bearing three master’s degrees, Townsend brings her eclectic background to Midway Village Museum as a Historical Garden Manager and as director of her consulting business, Nature Education Stewardship Team.

Townsend brings more than 35 years of experience to Midway Village. She spent 21 years with the Rockford Park District, providing programming at the Atwood Environmental Center. She then spent an additional 10 years at Angelic Organics Learning Center as an Urban Farm Educator and as the Program Director of On Farm Programs.

“The Urban Farm experience at Youth Build and Blackhawk Courts Farm and Garden changed my life,” says Townsend. “Those marvelous people patiently taught me what it means to be an ally.”

Now Townsend assists Midway Village in its mission to collect, interpret and preserve the history of Rockford. This includes managing and maintaining the museum’s nine gardens.

Townsend’s work involves a staggering amount of expertise, but she is up for the challenging learning curve. This includes tending to the museum’s iris garden, which is recognized by the Historic Iris Preservation Society.

“When I came here, I didn’t know much about irises,” Townsend says. “Luckily, we have some amazing volunteers who walked me through it. We’re learning as we go.”

Volunteers have become a vital part of the museum’s mission and Townsend’s work.

“We have 25 talented garden volunteers,” she adds. “Many of them are master gardener or naturalist trained. And we’re always looking for people to join our garden team.”

Like the gardens she tends, Townsend is always seeking growth, both in the programming she provides and in her own skill set.

“If you take our gardens as background, or flashes of color, you might miss what’s really being said here,” she says. “Nature is always telling you when and how to look and when and how to work.” –JT

(Jacksonville Jaguars photo)

James Robinson

A Man Among Boys

Bruce Bazsali fondly recalls the first time he met James Robinson in the gymnasium at Rockford Lutheran High School. Bazsali was the Crusaders varsity football coach and was in awe of the chiseled teenager standing before him. “He was so muscular, so strong,” says Bazsali.

During his high school career, Robinson was a man among boys, setting the Illinois High School Association all-time rushing record with 9,045 yards and 158 rushing touchdowns. “His work ethic was fantastic,” says Bazsali. “He just worked harder than anyone else. He was a leader by example.”

When Robinson’s dream of playing Big Ten football didn’t materialize, he attended Illinois State University, where he became a game-changer for the Redbirds and their head coach, Rockford native Brock Spack. Robinson finished his college career with 4,444 yards rushing, the second most in school history.

Still, Robinson’s name was never called during the 2020 NFL draft. He joined Jacksonville as an undrafted free agent and made the 53-man roster as a rookie. A punishing runner, Robinson set the record for most rushing yards for an undrafted rookie in Week 1 with 62 yards. Listed at 5-foot-10, 219 pounds, Robinson became the fourth undrafted player in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in his rookie season, and he set the record for most scrimmage yards (1,414) of any rookie free agent in NFL history. Robinson was listed as the 100th player in the NFL’s Top 100 Players coming into the 2021 season.

While experts and fans alike were surprised by Robinson’s quick ascent in professional football, he wasn’t. “Anything’s possible,” he says. “It doesn’t really matter where you go. You never know who’s watching. I was always told that, so every game I always tried to make a play every play and try to stand out. Keep working hard and you never know what can happen.”

This past year, Robinson had an up-and-down season with the Jaguars, ending in Week 16 when he tore his left Achilles tendon on a non-contact play. He’s expected to miss eight months to a year while he rehabs his injury. “He’ll bounce back,” says Bazsali. “There is no one who plays the game with more heart and determination than James.”

While he’s a long way from his hometown, Robinson will never forget where it all began. “I think growing up, for me, in Rockford, everyone wanted to make it, play professional,” he says. “Either it was the NBA or NFL, and for me it was all about NFL, trying to get here. A lot of people doubt people from Rockford, but I think it was just me working hard trying to get to this point. It definitely inspired me.” –PAA

Ross Vehmeier

The Man Who Can’t Sit Still

When Ross Vehmeier graduated from college, he had no idea what he wanted to do next.
“Both of my parents are entrepreneurs,” says the Lena, Ill., native. “I had big shoes to fill.”

There was only one thing Vehmeier knew for sure: He wasn’t ready to jump back into his family’s business, Rafters Restaurant, which has long been a Lena mainstay. He has many memories of working for his dad on everything from dishwashing to bussing tables to being a prep cook.

Instead of heading home after college, Vehmeier got a job with MGM Mirage in Las Vegas, and for the next three years he learned all about the food service industry, from the intricacies of fine dining to opening a new burger place on the strip. It was literally trial by fire.

“The grill would catch fire every day,” says Vehmeier. “We’d feed between 2,000 and 2,600 people every day. That’s the population of Lena, every single day.”

Three years in Vegas was enough to convince Vehmeier it was time to come home.

“My parents needed me,” he says. “I’m the only kid in the family. If I wasn’t going to come home, who knows what could happen to the restaurant?”

When he returned to the Rafters, Vehmeier hit the ground running.

“I came back and said, ‘Let’s shake this place up,” he says. For Vehmeier, that included adding a full-scale catering arm to his family’s business plan. By 2019, catering was netting the same income as the restaurant.

Then, he launched Lena Brewing Co. in 2013. The craft brewery experienced intense growing pains before opening a tap room in 2015. “We went through two brewers within six months,” says Vehmeier.

Despite the trials and tribulations, and a global pandemic, both Lena Brewing Co. and the Rafters continue to draw attention. While running two businesses may be enough for some, Vehmeier stays busy with other enterprises, including a digital billboard company, hemp and CBD products, a baling company, a virtual imaging company and a solar power company that keeps the lights running at the restaurant and brewery. All of it keeps Vehmeier busy, which is exactly how he likes it.

“I knew, at some point in my life, I was going to be an entrepreneur,” he says. “I didn’t know how or what I’d be doing, and I didn’t think it would be the restaurant business, but all that really matters is doing the right stuff to keep growing.” –JT

(Photo provided by the United States Parachute Asssociation)

Maxine Tate

Diving Out of Her Comfort Zone

Staring down from 13,500 feet, the ground stretches as far as the eye can see. For the briefest of moments, the Earth below is suspended before it suddenly rushes toward you. For the next 30 seconds, your focus is not slowing that rush, but increasing it. The ground looms as you descend at nearly 300 miles per hour.

For many, this scenario is the stuff of nightmares. For Maxine Tate, it’s another day at the office. A skydiver with multiple disciplines under her belt, Tate took home the gold medal at the 2021 FAI World Parachuting Championships in Russia, setting four world records as she plunged at 285 mph.

“I’m addicted to being a student,” says Tate. “I love to learn new things. This is just another step along the way.”

One of the main stops on Tate’s journey was the Chicagoland Skydiving Center (CSC) in Rochelle, Ill. Tate, who’s originally from England, considers Rochelle her home drop zone.

“CSC has been my home for the past two seasons while I trained for the world championships,” says Tate, who’s also a member of the U.S. Parachute Team. “It’s one of the best facilities in the country, but for me what makes it stand out is the people. Every single staff member is incredibly passionate about skydiving and sharing that passion with their visitors.”

Tate’s passion for skydiving was born during a tandem jump at age 33. It wasn’t long before she walked away from a prosperous corporate job as a finance director in London.

“I did a complete 180,” she laughs. “For me, skydiving is all about pushing yourself outside your comfort zone. It’s transformative and inspiring.”

Today, Tate continues to live and deliver this message, both through her own jumps, and as a member of the Highlight Pro Skydiving Team, a group of female skydivers formed in 2020 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment.

“Highlight is an extraordinary group that uses its passion for skydiving as a metaphor for empowering women and girls to lead bold, brave lives of their own design,” Tate says. “We perform demonstrations at events where we feel we can deliver on that message and ‘highlight’ the importance of leading an intentional life where you pursue whatever you are called to do.”

Tate and the rest of the Highlight team continue to travel, jumping into stadiums at high-profile women’s sporting events.

“I’m fine with not knowing what the future holds,” Tate says. “Good things happen when you live on the other side of fear.” –JT

Victor Rivera

Do it for the Kids

Victor Rivera inherited his love of Rockford from his parents, who migrated here from Mexico 50 years ago.

“They came here with the intent of making it, and they did. I still believe in that dream and vision that Rockford can be this great place, a land of opportunity,” he says. “But you have to contribute. Things don’t just happen.”

Indeed, Rivera is actively involved in making things happen. He’s actively involved with local art galleries, Rockford Art Museum and the board of the Rockford Area Arts Council.

As a teenager, Rivera and his friends loved hip-hop and breakdancing, but they didn’t have anywhere to dance.

“We were mainly Mexican and African-American, so people associated us with gangs and low-lifes, but we were the complete opposite of that,” he says.

After school and on weekends, the friends turned garages or basements into makeshift dance studios. “I’d have 20 kids in my garage – Mexican, black, Asian, white – and my parents were cool about it because they saw that all we were doing was dancing. Not smoking. Not drinking. Not anything but dancing.”

Those experiences have motivated Rivera to provide today’s teenagers with the kinds of creative outlets he would have enjoyed at their age. He started curating art shows, hosting dance competitions, and networking with area arts and dance communities and local politicians.

“I wanted to make things happen and make more people aware of these things,” he says. “Oddly enough, there are people who don’t know there’s an arts community or a dance community. Being able to bridge these gaps is something I’ve been part of most of my life.”

Most art show promoters charge a commission on every work sold, but Rivera – who funds events with money earned at his day job – doesn’t take a penny. “If someone sells something, that’s all for them, and it makes me very happy,” he says. “I see myself in many of the younger artists. Seeing them get opportunities I wish I’d had – that, to me, is the profit.”

Rivera recently launched a podcast, “Breaks, Beats, Boombap, and BEYOND,” dedicated to preserving Rockford’s hip-hop history.

Much of what Rivera does is for his kids, ages one and seven. “By planting these seeds, I’m trying to create, vicariously, the Rockford I wanted when I was young. They’re little kids right now, but one day maybe they’ll be into art or dancing, and there will be a better community or understanding because of what we’re doing today.” –PH

Lynn Stainbrook

Building Bridges to the Imagination

A public library is far more than a collection of books. It’s a resource for finding information, learning new things and expanding one’s mind. Since her arrival in 2014, Rockford Public Library’s (RPL) director, Lynn Stainbrook, has been a tireless advocate for the “people’s university.”

“People have this old-fashioned idea of the library being a place to just go and get books – and goodness knows we have books,” she says. “But I like that image of the library being the people’s university, because we do so much here.”

Indeed, she’s led the library to becoming a true 21st century resource. She’s helped establish new platforms including a bookmobile, a makerspace and the Career Online High School, where 25 dropouts have built the foundation for a meaningful career.

As powerful as those successes are, Stainbrook’s biggest feat is still taking shape as she leads RPL through a once-in-a-lifetime rebuild of its downtown branch. Scheduled to open late next year, the new main library promises loads of natural light, an ample book collection, connections with the adjacent river, and many gathering spaces. There are even thoughts of hosting museum exhibits and history displays. Flexibility is top of mind.

“I believe the library director 20 years from now should be able to say, ‘It’s so good they did it this way because we can do these things now,’” says Stainbrook. “We don’t want them to say, ‘What were they thinking?’ I think it’s really important for the future.”

This is a moment Stainbrook has spent a lifetime preparing for. Director jobs from Beloit and Milton, Wis., and to Ohio, Gurnee and Green Bay have brought her in touch with construction crews and taught her to “do more with a nickel than many organizations do with a dime.” Along the way, she says she’s felt a little like an architect, an attorney and a politician.

She does it for the people, she says – the power libraries have to shape minds young and old. She can’t help but smile about the fathers and mothers she sees reading to little ones at the library.
“We get to touch so many peoples’ lives in ways where we don’t always recognize the long-term impact,” she says.

The Janesville native has made herself at home in Rockford, and she’s often seen supporting library-connected initiatives like those at The Literacy Center or 815 Choose Civility.

Stainbrook guesses that, when she eventually retires, she’ll never fully leave libraries behind. After all, it’s always felt a bit like home.

“I have never regretted my career choice,” she says. “It’s always felt like this was where I belonged.” –CL

Andre Sayles

A Lifelong Mission

Andre Sayles was a child, walking to the Boys & Girls Club in Aurora with his brother and cousin, when they were picked up by police.

“We kept asking what we did,” Sayles says. “The police told us there was a shooting, but it was mid-summer, 10 a.m., and we didn’t hear any shots fired.”

When they got to the police station, they were told they were the wrong people, and they were free to go. Only problem was they had to travel 7 miles back – through neighborhoods notorious for gang violence.

“We stole some bikes so we could ride through those neighborhoods to get back home,” Sayles says. “That was the first time I ever stole something.”

That encounter sparked something in Sayles and set him on a lifelong career in law enforcement. Last April, he became the first black police chief in the City of Beloit.

“I don’t want any kids or any person to be subjected to that discriminatory act, or have their rights violated,” Sayles says. “Even to this day, I go to some of our schools, and I talk to kids about their rights.”

Sayles has done his part to bring in others with a similar background. “When I started here in 2005, there were just four African-American police officers,” he says. “Now, we have 12 that I’ve recruited and hired over the past two to three years and there’s 12 Hispanic officers as well.”

He also has a goal to do something that hasn’t been done in town since the ’90s: hire a female African-American police officer. “Our young women need guidance, too,” he says.

Community outreach is a major part of his strategy to “serve and protect.”

“Growing up as a young, minority male and seeing some of the ways that police officers treated people of color, and the way I was treated, and hearing police departments say ‘protect and serve,’ I didn’t see police protecting marginalized communities, but they were serving us and taking us to jail,” he says. “I wanted to do something different, so it’s been my lifelong mission to help and serve people.”

As he tries to show youngsters a different experience from his own, Sayles connects with children in many ways, including with the occasional candy bar that’s hiding in his car trunk.

“That’s something I do out of my own money, and I wear my police uniform,” he says. “It’s building that connection with our kids. I always want to be around young individuals so they can see that police are not always bad.” –JP

Linda Heckert

A Partner in Business Success

Growing up in Lee County between Dixon, Ill., and Rochelle, Ill., Linda Heckert watched her father and grandfather run a farm supply business in Franklin Grove, Ill.

She didn’t realize it at the time, but watching them navigate the ups and downs of running a small business primed her for a career that’s brought her in close contact with entrepreneurs just like them.

“Having grown up with a family-owned business, I always wanted my own business,” says Heckert. She’s since made a name for herself as commercial lender and now serves as president and CEO of State Bank of Davis, in Davis, Ill.

Heckert always assumed she would open her own business one day. She hasn’t yet, but, constantly inspired by her clients, she still kicks around ideas.

“The bank isn’t my business – we have shareholders – but this is the business I’m fortunate enough to be running today,” she says.

Curious by nature, Heckert asks clients a lot of detailed questions about their businesses, the products they make, and what the funds will be used for – not simply as part of the loan application, but because she’s genuinely interested.

“I’m also trying to find a way to make the right fit for our commercial customers and for the bank,” she says. “I feel like I’m a member of each and every one of my commercial customers’ management teams. Sometimes I have to remind myself, ‘Oh, yeah. I work for the bank.’”

While there are many women in the banking industry, few rise to the level of president or CEO.
“There are still days that I find myself in a room where I’m the only woman. I’m still surprised by that, because I was raised that it’s not your gender that matters, it’s what you know and how hard you work,” says Heckert, who also serves as board chair for Rockford Local Development Corporation and is a member of the YMCA’s board. “I’ve carried that philosophy with me, and I try to learn and grow every day, with every chance I get.”

“I want to help make good things happen, whether that be with my commercial customers or nonprofits that I volunteer for,” she adds. “I feel I have a lot to give back.”

Looking back to the family business that sparked her interests, Heckert says, “I’ve been very fortunate. And I hope I can be an example for other women – and other leaders – by trying to give back and support our communities.” –PH

Jeff Boyer

Winning Ways

Jeff Boyer knows what it takes to win.

In 1999, he was the quarterback and safety on Byron High School’s state championship football team. Two decades later, he’s the head coach of the Tigers, who just won their second state championship last November.

Boyer also coached the team to back-to-back runner-up finishes in 2018 and 2019.

Still, he remains humble when he talks about his success, and he heaps praise upon his predecessor and mentor, longtime coach Everett Stine, who led the 1999 championship team.

“Coach Stine built the foundation, and he made the program special,” Boyer says. “I just happened to be the next guy who’s carrying the torch and trying to make it special for these kids. We have to give a lot of our success to Coach Stine for what he put in place here. My responsibility as the head coach is to run our program and keep it the way it was when he was coaching.”

Boyer started playing football in the seventh grade, but his love for the game became a life’s passion when Boyer reached high school and encountered Stine.

“It was much bigger than the X’s and O’s,” Boyer says. “It was about learning how to be a good person, how to be a good husband and how to be a good father.”

Now, Boyer passes on those lessons both on the gridiron and in the classroom. Boyer teaches math, and he credits his parents with leading him toward a job in education. His two brothers are also teachers.

“Similar to football, I had a great experience at Byron in the classroom,” he says. “Mrs. Carol Nauman had a big impact on me, and it’s ironic that I’m back here teaching math, because she was one of my favorite teachers and probably the most impactful that I had.”

When Nauman retired from teaching in 2008, Boyer took her place.

Between teaching math and coaching football, Boyer says he’s found a permanent home in Byron, especially since he has two young children in the district and a third entering kindergarten next year.

“I enjoy coming to work and I enjoy working with kids each day, whether it’s in the classroom, on the football field or in the weight room,” Boyer says. “I know those kids are counting on me in all those areas. I want these kids to have the same experience that I had at Byron, and as the head coach, I want to show up each day and make sure that they’re having a positive experience and they’re a part of something special.” –JP