The first thing I saw upon arrival at the Badovinacs on Friday night in Wilmette were the maroon and gold balloons tied to the Loyola football sign in the front yard.

It signaled I was at the right place.

The first thing I heard as I approached the house was the big, booming bark of Tank, the Badovinacs’ 170-pound South African boerboel. One website described the dog breed as homestead protectors, but Tank couldn’t have been more welcoming to this stranger.

Once inside the home, the first smell that hit my nose was a mixture of smoked pulled pork, deep-fried chicken fingers, macaroni and cheese, baked beans and toasted buttered bread. The gigantic dinner spread was prepared for the 15 offensive linemen who soon would stampede through the side door.

The night before every game, the Ramblers eat a meal at the home of a teammate’s family. The five groups are quarterbacks/receivers/running backs, defensive backs, linebackers, offensive linemen and defensive linemen.

Offensive line coach Mike Kotowski, father of senior center Paddy Kotowski and a 1987 Loyola graduate, said the pregame dinner is a tradition that started with the offensive line and dates back to before he was hired as a coach in 1992.

“The tighter knit an offensive line is the better it is,” Mike said. “They have to do so much talking on the field, make so many adjustments that it helps if they are close.”

This is the second season senior left guard and team captain Jack Badovinac (pictured above left) has participated in the pregame ritual, and the two-year starter said it’s a great way for the players to unwind before a game.

“We don’t talk about the game plan,” said Badovinac, whose older brother and 2016 graduate Sam Badovinac was the starting center last year. “We let loose and get our minds off of football for a night and try to have a good time. It’s about building chemistry and trust with your teammates.”

Mike Kotowski said the coaches encourage the players to take a break from football.

“If it’s all football all the time, then you are not going to be fresh for the game,” he said. “You will be too wound up. We like for them to relax the night before and take it easy.”

After filling their plates to capacity, the players filed into the backyard, where a rectangular table was set up. The starters — senior left tackle John Brekke, senior right guard Callum Brien (pictured above right), junior right tackle Charlie Gross,  Badovinac and Kotowski — weren’t the only ones who controlled the conversation. Senior Kyle Lodarek and junior Isaak Altenberg were among the chattiest players during dinner.

The most entertaining portion of the meal was when each player discussed his high point and low point of the week. It mostly focused on school, but one player made the mistake of mentioning his girlfriend, which triggered a chorus of good-natured boos from his teammates.

Badovinac said the line usually turns to Brekke or Gross to lighten the mood. He said Paddy is the most serious on the football field. Mike Kotowski agreed with Badovinac that Brekke and Gross can get some laughs.

“It’s a fun group,” Kotowski said. “John is one of our bigger goofballs. Charlie doesn’t even have to try very hard. He just says random things. I’m not sure he means to be funny, but he is.”

Kotowski said Badovinac is the one who the players look to for leadership. Brien is the quietest of the starting five, according to Kotowski, but he’s smart and does his job.

“It’s a close group,” Kotowski said. “They have spent a lot of time together, and they all have their own personalities, which is a good thing. The one thing they all have in common is that they all are very workmanlike.”

After the players put away countless calories, they broke out the games. Some played bags, and some played basketball at the next door neighbor’s house. Two-plus hours into the evening, and I had to hit the road back to Chicago. I’m not a teenager anymore, so I needed to get as much rest before Saturday’s big game.

“What I like about these dinners is that every week you get to know your teammates better on a personal level,” Badovinac said. “You get to know their sense of humor and personality. The memories you make at the team dinners are priceless.”

Photo credit: Geoff Scott