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The peach fuzz brigade was gathering near the main court at Horton Field House. We were there for the Will Robinson Basketball Camp, many of us a month or two shy of our first high school class.

At a side basket, a 6-foot-3ish, 200-poundish block of granite wearing no shirt, gym shorts, Chuck Taylor Converse and a healthy 5 o'clock shadow caught the eye.

As he shot jumpers with a few peach fuzz types, a question begged.

"Who is that?" a future reporter asked.

"Mike Priebe," was the answer. "He'll be a sophomore."

Ah, a sophomore at Illinois State. Makes perfect sense, the mind concluded.

A few months later, The Pantagraph made its daily doorstep arrival and suddenly nothing made sense. An article on Normal Community High School football mentioned Mike Priebe.

The man at that Horton side basket (emphasis on "man") was only a year older than the fuzzy face in the mirror.

That reality hit home again this week with the news Priebe, 60, had died at his home in Waco, Texas. A guy ahead of his time — in body and mind — was gone too soon.

He is not forgotten. That won't happen.

Priebe grew to about 6-4 and 225 pounds at NCHS, starring at offensive guard and outside linebacker on the 1974 state runner-up team. He also was an accomplished basketball player, averaging 12 points per game and attacking the boards as a junior and senior on talented NCHS teams.

He went on to play football at the University of Illinois, bulking up further to become a starter on the offensive line and earn an invitation to the Japan Bowl all-star game following his senior season in 1979.

A lot of it started with that Greek god physique. Yet, there was more to Priebe than bulging muscles and agile feet. Friends and former teammates remember him as an intelligent, driven and caring soul who never sought the spotlight.

"Back in the mid-70s, he was a big man. But he didn't carry himself like that," said Kurt Swearingen, star quarterback who ran frequently behind Priebe during that 1974 season. "I never thought he was like, 'Look at me.' 

"Even with our team, as big as he was, he didn't want to draw attention to himself. He just did his job."

In the process, he kept head coach Dick Tharp and his staff on their toes. Priebe wasn't one to accept status quo. He saw football, and life really, as an ongoing opportunity for improvement.

Had he done nothing extra he would have been the best player on the team. Instead, Priebe lifted weights before that was standard procedure and constantly critiqued his performance.

"He was a very cerebral player," Swearingen said. "Instead of just playing on instinct, I remember him being very precise with how he did things.

"He would work with the coaches on, 'What do I do best? What do I need to do better? What little things can I do to get better?' His questions were always of a technical nature."

Bruce Evans spent a good deal of time alongside Priebe. Evans was the center and Priebe at guard on the Ironmen line.

Evans gained an appreciation for the hours and sweat Priebe poured into what he did ... on the field and at a weightlifting facility that had just come to Bloomington-Normal.

"He had an unbelievable body, but he worked at it," Evans said. "He was a little more mature than the rest of us with his body and beard and mustache and all of those things.

"I think everybody looked up to him because of his skill and physical ability. But he wasn't real vocal in the locker room or in the huddle."

A team captain, Priebe led with his play and fostered unity with his personality, which Swearingen called "unassuming."

Tim McAvoy concurs.

McAvoy was an incoming freshman quarterback at Illinois in 1977. Priebe was an established offensive lineman who, in the pecking order of college football teams, had earned the right to ignore incoming freshmen.

He did the opposite.

"He was a very welcoming guy," said McAvoy, whose sons, Tim, Kyle and Luke, later starred at Bloomington High School and played in the Big Ten. "There was a lot of change at Illinois at that time. Mike welcomed everyone in and understood that we were a team.

"When you come in as a freshman you remember guys who were upperclassmen. But any guy who treated you well and respected you, you remember those guys the most."

McAvoy won't forget. Nor will Terry Brown, who talked by phone to Priebe as recently as two weeks ago.

Brown and Priebe played basketball together at NCHS, but also shared a love of fishing. The Pantagraph's outdoors columnist, Brown said his phone conversations with Priebe often centered on the best bait to use or best locales to catch certain fish.

Priebe relished the challenge of fishing and constantly sought to improve his chances.

"I think he was just super competitive," Brown said. "Once an athlete, always an athlete. You always have to look for something that gets that for you. I think (fishing) was it for him along with the relaxation of it."

That said, football remained part of Priebe's life. He helped coach his son, David, a 6-6, 212-pound tight end at Waco's Midway High School who has committed to a scholarship at SMU.

David Priebe's Twitter account reveals the bond they shared. Under a photo of father and son are the words: "From here on out it’s for you dad. I love you."

Well said. And well deserved.

Follow Randy Kindred on Twitter: @pg_kindred


Sports Editor

Sports editor for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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