St. Bede Academy graduate Luke Balestri sits in the top row of the football field bleachers staring at his past. Soon he will be heading to Western Illinois University to study pre-law, but at the moment he’s content to relax and reminisce.
Directly in front of him is the football field where he gained much of his area-leading 1,259 rushing yards this year.
To his right is the baseball field where he played a sensational center field, hitting .400 for the season.
And to his left is the gymnasium holding the basketball court where he helped a team of inexperienced players become a credible threat toward the end of the season.
“When I was sitting out there looking at the football and baseball field, a lot of memories came,” Balestri says. “When I was a sophomore, it was like I had all the time in the world. Now it’s over.”
But Balestri made the most of his time at St. Bede, and his overall performance and leadership this year helped him become the 2004-05 NewsTribune Boys Athlete of the Year.
“Luke has just worked hard,” says St. Bede baseball and football coach John Bellino. “He’s just a hard worker who’s progressed over the years.”
“In this area, you’re always trying to push yourself to be the best athlete in the area,” Balestri says. “If not, you shouldn’t have been playing.”
Balestri is known as much for his toughness as his skill, playing through pain and not complaining about it. He came back sooner than expected from a thumb injury in baseball this year and bounced back every time after taking the usual beating on the football field as a tailback and safety.
He developed this toughness as a kid wanting to play sports with the older boys in his neighborhood in north La Salle. The youngest child on the block, Balestri earned the respect of his peers through determination and hard work.
“In order for me to play, I had to be good enough to play with them,” Balestri says. “And there were quite a few good athletes, kids that all played sports in high school. When I had the opportunity to finally (play), I tried my hardest.”
That attitude stayed with Balestri throughout his athletic career at St. Bede as he joined the varsity squads in baseball, basketball and football his sophomore year. He didn’t get much playing time that year — except for in baseball — but he was setting himself up for future successes.
After a good junior year in all three sports, it was time for Balestri to take a leadership role his senior year. A natural leader, Balestri was also the Student Council president this year.
“He’s a great leader,” Bellino says. “I just think his determination is the great key.”
“I’m so competitive that I feel I just can’t sit back and watch things happen,” Balestri says. “And if I can have my hands in anything and take control then that was my job. And if it took getting in someone’s face, that’s what it takes. You also have to understand there’s different people that react to different things. Over time, you have to learn how to tick people off the right way.”
Balestri learned much about leadership from Bellino, the longtime baseball and football coach at St. Bede.
“He’s a very intense guy,” Balestri says. “He knows what he’s talking about and he’s another person I owe a lot of my becoming a better athlete to. He’s always pushing you. Against Marquette I had 200-something yards, and that Monday I was working just as hard as I was the week before.”
Balestri’s favorite sport is football, and it’s also the sport he had the most success in this year. He came just short of breaking St. Bede’s single-season rushing record this year after a huge storm the last game of the season limited his carries.
“He fell just a little bit short of the rushing record,” Bellino says. “Other than that, he’s achieved just about everything he could on the football field.”
He averaged 6.5 yards per carry and rushed for 1,259 yards and 11 touchdowns his senior season. Balestri also led the area with 193 carries.
“I always said if I’m going to get 10 or more carries, I’m going to be able to put up big numbers because my junior year every time I had 10 or more carries I was putting up big numbers,” Balestri says. “By the end, (Bellino) was giving me 35 carries, which I don’t know if that’s what I wanted either.”
A juker his junior year, Balestri became more of a power runner this year, something that suited him just fine as he ran over as many people as he ran past.
“Those guys want to hurt you just as bad as you want to hurt them,” Balestri says. “When it’s over, the war is over. But when you’re out there, you have to go 110 percent all the time. Otherwise you’re gonna get hurt.”
Balestri also played safety on defense where he excelled, but it was his offensive presence that helped St. Bede average 304 yards and 26 points per game this season as the Bruins went 7-3 overall.
“He had a lot to do with our young offense maturing,” Bellino says. “He knew what everyone in the backfield was doing. I knew he helped (Mike) Kelley. I knew he helped my son (John Bellino Jr.), as well. Many times he just wanted the ball.”
“I always felt if I had the ball in my hand I could do something with it,” Balestri says.
While he didn’t do quite as well in baseball and basketball as football, Balestri put up fine seasons in both sports.
He averaged 7.4 points per game as the starting point guard for the Bruin basketball team to go with a team-leading 57 steals and 95 assists. In typical fashion, Balestri also led the team in floor burns with 22.
“He’s just a great all-around athlete and an extremely hard worker,” St. Bede basketball coach Tim Burgess says. “He puts forth 100 percent whether it was a practice or game, and I think that’s the reason he’s so successful in all his athletic endeavors and also academically.”
“I felt as a point guard I did what I needed to do,” Balestri says. “By the end, (Ryan) Milus had turned into the best player on the team and he needed to get the ball. I made it my job to try to get him the ball.”
He also helped develop his eventual successors, sophomores Tyler Potthoff and Neal Hodges, along with helping the team improve considerably over the course of the season.
“He was the guy that had experience for us and he was the guy everyone looked to,” Burgess says. “He has the ability to lead; some do and some don’t.”
“By the end of the year, we were a real competitive team, I thought,” Balestri says. “We gave Bureau Valley a really good game (in regionals).”
Balestri always looked forward to playing Bureau Valley because of Preston Jones, his doppelganger in many ways. The senior Bureau Valley athlete was a tailback for the football team, a point guard for the basketball team and the center fielder for the baseball team, the exact positions Balestri played. The two also have similar hard-nosed styles of play.
“The one guy I’ve always kind of felt like I wanted to go up against was Preston Jones from Bureau Valley,” Balestri says. “We’re similar. I think we’re extremely similar. And now he ended up playing baseball this year. Center field. And when he went out for baseball, I was just like this is like d j vu; he’s everywhere.”
After losing to Jones and the Storm in football and basketball, Balestri finally got his revenge in a St. Bede baseball win over Bureau Valley, throwing Jones out at third on one play.
Balestri was the heart of the baseball team and its fortunes went where he went. He had to battle through a bad thumb injury through half of the season, but he still had four home runs, 22 RBIs, five doubles and two triples.
“He’s been our center fielder for three years,” Bellino says. “When he was going good, we were going very well. When he was hurt, we struggled. He performed very well with the thumb he had.”
Balestri doesn’t plan on playing any varsity sports at college, though there’s a possibility he’ll go out for the baseball team with fellow graduate Chris Halberg. He will play intramurals, though, as he prepares for his law degree.
“Hopefully it keeps me active,” Balestri says. “My mom, that’s her biggest worry when I go to school, that I’m just going to get lazy.”
Mom shouldn’t have too much to worry about, though, if Balestri stays as busy at Western Illinois as he did at St. Bede. And the last thing Balestri wants to do is disappoint his mom and dad, Mags and William Balestri.
“I’d like to thank my parents because in this day and age you’ll find a lot of parents who really push their kids, bring them out to the baseball field, make them take batting practice for three hours,” Balestri says. “They just push sports on them. My parents knew I liked to play sports, but it was always kind of play at my own pace. I think that over time that helped because if I had been really pushed to do something, too many kids hate sports because of that. And that’s a shame.”