Defensive tackle, drum major and tennis player? Meet Jacksonville High's renaissance man
JACKSONVILLE — At halftime of home football games in Jacksonville, defensive tackle Larry Littler removes his helmet and takes his place as the drum major for the school's marching band.
Following football season, the Jacksonville senior turns to wrestling. In the spring, Littler then exchanges a singlet for a tennis racket. He also has enlisted in the U.S. Navy.
Littler has a wide array of interests — and it didn’t take long for Jacksonville’s first-year band director Cory Ellis to notice.
“I would say there isn’t a person in the school who would not say he is a unique individual,” Ellis said. “I really love his energy because it’s not that often I meet a high schooler who is so willing to put themselves out there and be unashamedly on the football team, in the band, whatever he’s doing, he’s into it and he’s proud of it.
“It’s really inspiring in a way to see. I hope other members of the band can follow his example. Sometimes I have to take a step back and appreciate something like him running off the field after the second quarter in his full gear joining the band and conducting the band.”
Music came first
Littler grew up with a front-row seat to Duncan Park, the staging ground for many of the parades within Jacksonville. The music and the marching quickly drew his attention. By fourth grade, he knew what he wanted to do.
“I watched the marching band go by, and I seen a (saxophone) player and I thought it was one of the coolest things in the world,” Littler said. “The next year in music class, we got the opportunity to play instruments and stuff so I chose the saxophone and it’s pretty much been uphill from there.”
Littler stuck with the alto saxophone through eighth grade, then transitioned to the tenor sax. He was an Illinois Music Education Association all-district selection with that as a freshman. He then moved to the baritone saxophone and has made the ILMEA district levels twice with that instrument in both jazz and concert band.
Littler’s ability to play instruments don’t stop with the smooth sounds of the saxophone. He can play the bass drum, drum kit, guitar, bass guitar, clarinet and flute. He’s currently learning the piano and said he gave the trumpet a shot.
“I was trying to pick up trumpet but it just confused the hell out of me,” he said with a laugh. Littler’s football teammate, junior lineman Landen Fricke, plays trumpet for the JHS band.
“I’m not saying I’m good at guitar or bass guitar or the flute and clarinet, but if you gave it to me, I could pick it up because I know music-wise, it’s pretty simple and straightforward,” Littler said. “Fingering-wise on a flute or clarinet, it’s almost the exact same on a saxophone. For clarinet, it’s a matter of (mouth position on the reed) and on the flute, it’s getting my airflow right across the hole. It’s not hard but it’s not easy at the same time.”
As drum major, Littler leaves football pregame warmups to help lead the band with the school song and the national anthem for games at Kraushaar-Rosenberger Field. Then, as the second quarter ends, Littler and fellow drum major Lorissa Gertz take their places on the podiums and direct the band’s halftime routine.
Gertz, who was selected to participate in the Macy’s Great American Marching Band’s performance at the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and Littler alternate between the main podium and the one off to the side.
Band is in his future
Littler has his future mapped out already. His original plan was to join the Marine Corps and eventually play with The Commandant's Own, the United States Marine Drum and Bugle Corps. (“One of the most prestigious marching bands in the world,” he said.)
Just before Littler was ready to sign up for the Marines, a Navy recruiter came to his house looking for one of his brothers.
“We get to talking and (the naval recruiter) said, ‘You seem pretty fit. How would you like to join the Navy?’ I told him I was planning on joining the Marines,” Littler said. “We get to talking, I see all the benefits and stuff. The Navy’s band is also super prestigious and really fun and they’re going to send me to college anyway. But the difference between the Marine Corps and the Navy … in the Navy, you’ll have more time to do your school work to get your degree (to get into the band). In the Marines, you’re probably going to be stationed somewhere … and you won’t really have time to do school work, especially if you get deployed overseas.”
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Littler said he plans to double major in electronics and music then finish a 20-year naval career in the United States Navy Band.
“I’ll get my degree then I’ll audition for the band — hopefully get in — and once you get in, you get promoted to (rank) E-6 and it’s money and I’ll be doing what I love,” Littler said. “I plan on staying in for 20 years, retiring, getting my pension.”
Football, band overlap but don’t interfere
Most Mondays during the football season are a chance for the Jacksonville coaches to have a film session and for a walkthrough before full practices begin on Tuesday. But Ellis and Jacksonville football coach Mark Grounds made arrangements which allow Littler to practice with the band on Monday and then Littler watches the film session on his own.
Grounds said it is important to allow an athlete to pursue other interests.
“With (video service) Hudl, we can make corrections and send to him and we can check to make sure he’s (watching the videos) and he does and it gives him an opportunity to do two things that he loves,” Grounds said. “If you try to make kids change, they’re going to lose out and ultimately your school and your community loses out when you force kids to make painful choices.”
After football practice on Tuesdays, Littler joins the band practice until 8 p.m. Then it’s time to go home to eat and start homework.
Jacksonville sits with a 3-4 record with a game at winless Decatur Eisenhower at 7 p.m. Friday. The Crimsons finish the season at home against Decatur MacArthur (3-4) with a shot to snap a playoff drought which dates to 2016.
In Jacksonville’s 3-4 defense, Littler lines up directly across from the opposing team’s center. He said he used to be a two-way player but is strictly on defense now.
“He’s gotten better and better every year,” Grounds said. “He plays with good pad level and leverage and gives every ounce of energy that he has and has great effort.”
Late love for tennis
The 5-foot-10, 236-lb defensive tackle was talked into tennis for the first time in the spring. He wasn’t sure he’d enjoy it, but he found out he did.
“A bunch of my friends were doing tennis because they loved it but they didn’t have enough players for competitions so they asked me and I didn’t think tennis would be fun and I said, ‘It’s not for me,’” Littler said. “They got about a fourth through the season and they were begging me: ‘Dude, someone just quit, we can’t compete, please help us.’
“I went to the first practice, and I had some of the most fun in my entire life. It’s probably one of the most underestimated sports ever.”
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Littler, who wrestled last season in the 220-lb weight class said he will once again follow this wrestling season on the tennis court. He admits he’s not a great player, but gives it all he has.
“I’m a hustler. I went up against the No. 1 player and I was smacking the ball back over, I was one of the quickest on the court,” Littler said. “People don’t expect it out of me, but I’m pretty quick.”
As if he isn’t busy enough, he works weekends — during sports seasons, usually just Sundays — at Jacksonville Memorial Hospital as a dietary aide.
Grounds said Littler is truly experiencing all life has to offer.
“He participates in the band and does everything he needs to do to be a well-rounded individual,” Grounds said. “The amount of stuff he participates in is truly amazing and he’s almost a straight-A student with that. It’s a situation where we’re proud of him and he’s what high school should be about: being able to participate in as many things as possible and really enriching all of them.”
Contact Ryan Mahan: 857-246-9756, email@example.com, Twitter.com/RyanMahanSJR.