Jeff Ainsworth returned to his alma mater in 2008, assisting the Geneva football program’s freshman team.
Originally, his plan was to re-establish his Vikings ties long before then.
“That was the year of my 40th high school reunion, so that was kind of my joke with everyone – ‘Well, it took me 40 years, but I finally made it back,” Ainsworth said.
Ainsworth, a Class of 1968 Geneva football and wrestling standout, is among three inductees tonight to the Geneva High School Athletics Hall of Fame.
Although Ainsworth said he unsuccessfully tried to launch his career as a teacher and coach at Geneva after completing his college football career at Northern Illinois University, he ended up deeply satisfied by his long tenure at nearby West Chicago High School.
“I wouldn’t trade the 37 years working with children there for anything,” said Ainsworth, who remains an assistant in West Chicago’s track and field program. “Just awesome relationships. [West Chicago] is not known for its athletics too much there but there have been some kids that have gone on to some super things, and I just really appreciated working with those kids.”
Ainsworth was a stalwart offensive and defensive lineman on legendary Vikings coach Jerry Auchstetter’s first Geneva team in 1967, helping Geneva’s program climb out of a malaise to finish with a 6-2 record.
Auchstetter also helped groom Ainsworth into a wrestler who finished with a 25-3 senior season, although a season-ending loss to an opponent from Mooseheart “has stuck with me a little bit” over the years, he said.
Ainsworth wrestled at 180 pounds as a sophomore but joked that he put on 40 pounds over the next couple of summers thanks to working at Geneva’s Dairy Queen.
Bulking up allowed him to develop into a starting lineman at NIU, where he played for three different coaches during his career.
Ainsworth’s coaching career at West Chicago included an early highlight – in his second year, 1974, he was an assistant for the West Chicago football team that went 13-0 and won a Class 3A state championship.
“Our toughest competition that year was Geneva, and we beat them 14-7 at Geneva [in the regular season],” Ainsworth said. “My dad wouldn’t talk to me after that for two weeks. My dad was a big Viking fan.”
Ainsworth, who spent five years as West Chicago football’s varsity coach from ’84 to ’88, lives in Batavia, and his son, Jake, played cornerback for the Bulldogs in the mid-2000s.
Ainsworth said his reconnection with Geneva’s football program in 2008 came thanks to his relationships with Vikings coach Rob Wicinski – also an NIU football alum – and Vikings freshman coach Kevin Bell, a longtime friend.
Tonight’s hall of fame induction has the potential to play havoc with Ainsworth’s emotions.
“My sisters are going to be here, and we just spent our first Christmas together in a long, long, long time, so them coming here [from San Antonio] is pretty neat,” Ainsworth said. “And my son will be here of course, so, I don’t know, I’m honored. I’m very honored. As long as I don’t have to talk, I’ll be fine.”
Ainsworth’s fellow 2014 inductees will be Jim Klein and Jackie Santacaterina.
Klein (Class of 1990) was a standout football and track and field athlete who was a college receiver at Western Illinois and, later, Illinois under former coach Lou Tepper. He is a professor of education and counseling at Illinois-Springfield.
Santacaterina (Class of 2006) excelled in soccer and basketball for the Vikings and later advanced on to professional soccer for the Chicago Red Stars. Santacaterina, who played college soccer at Illinois, is founder of “TRUE,” a sports performance training program that helps mentor young athletes.
GHS Athletics Hall of Fame Induction Tonight, halftime of 7:15 p.m. boys basketball game vs. Streamwood Inductees: Jeff Ainsworth (class of 1968, football, wrestling); Dr. Jim Klein (class of 1990, football, track and field); Jackie Santacaterina (class of 2006, soccer, basketball).