Just off a northern stretch of Highway 65 in Missouri, past the store fronts lining the main drag, you’ll find one of the state’s tradition-rich football programs.

Over at the stadium, see the large C sitting on the hill? It overlooks what’s now an impressive turf field of a multi-million dollar facility. And, just beyond the south end zone stands a board that counts the number of overall wins, which stood at 686 after 2019.

The press box? It lists the state championships by season. And in the trophy case over at the high school are all sorts of trophies, including one from 1936.

In other words, the Chillicothe Hornets were Friday Night Lights before Friday Night Lights. Which is why the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame is proud to induct the Chillicothe High School Football Program with the Enshrinement Class of 2020.

Chillicothe has played for seven state championships, winning five state titles. The pinnacle seasons cover 1970, 1972, 1978, 1985 and 1991, with state runner-up seasons in 1988 and 1993. All of the state championship game appearances were in Class 3, except in 1985 when they played in Class 4.

Along the way, Chillicothe has won 24 state playoff berths, 23 district titles, 23 conference championships and reached five other state semifinals. A total of 115 Hornets also have earned All-State recognition.

Additionally, six alums went on to sign pro contracts: James “Junior” Darr (1947 Baltimore Colts), Vince Turner (1964 New York Jets), John Butch Davis (1970 Chicago Bears), Ardell Johnson (1975 NFL Draft pick of Washington Redskins), Jeff Marriott (2000 NFL Draft pick of New England Patriots) and Justin Bland (NFL Europe 2003).

This for a program led by only two head coaches in a 55-year stretch. Chillicothe graduate Bob Fairchild (MSHOF 2002) coached from 1963 to 1997, with his teams earning 287 wins, including 15 playoff berths and 19 conference championships.

From 1998 to 2017, the team was coached by alum and longtime Fairchild assistant Phil Willard, compiling a 144-74 record. Willard’s teams earned 10 playoff berths and had three seasons with at least 10 wins – including a 13-win autumn in 2008, a state semifinal season.

That said, many in Chillicothe wonder if more state championship trophies would have been celebrated had MSHSAA began a postseason tournament prior to 1968 and if the modern set-up – not the old points system – would have been in place.

After all, Fairchild’s teams from 1963 to 1969 were 55-5-2. His final two teams of the decade barely missed the playoffs, which back then were based on a points system.

Naturally, those near-misses fueled the Hornets’ motivation.

The 1970 state title team (11-0) dominated, averaging more than 40 points a game. Those Hornets beat Dexter 32-6 for the title. Mark Putnam (1,012 yards rushing) and Ardell Johnson (829) were leading rushers that season, with quarterback Brent Anderson throwing for 1,307 yards. Five players off that team played in NCAA Division I football.

In 1972, the Hornets beat Chaminade 14-9 in a rainy and muddy finals to finish 10-1, despite its offensive line averaging only 167 pounds. Chillicothe eked out a 15-13 semifinal win against Jefferson City Helias on Troy Cranmer’s 25-yard field goal with 1:33 left.

The 1978 Hornets (12-0) averaged more than 31 points a game and allowed an average of 7.6 points. They beat Camdenton 14-8 in a semifinal as David DeVaul hit Doug Switzer on an 11-yard TD pass with 2:29 remaining. That season, David Macoubrie rushed for 2,024 yards and DeVaul passed for 1,004 yards.

The 1985 team (13-1) won its four playoff games by an average of nine points, including a 20-14 victory against Kansas City Center in the finals at St. Louis’ Busch Stadium. Kevin Fender and Les Swift combined for 3,108 yards rushing that season – Swift’s 193 yards on 40 carries highlighted a rainy quarterfinal – and the defense allowed less than 7 points a game.

Chillicothe’s 1991 team (12-2) won its final eight games, including a 40-12 blowout of Herculaneum in the Show-Me Bowl. The Hornets were led by rushers Drew Danner (1,185 yards), Kevin Gilgour (788) and Shawn Clark (592). The defense yielded less than 7 points a game.

Those teams – and, truly, every player who ever wore the Hornets uniform – not only put Chillicothe on the state sports map but also inspired grade-schoolers to reach varsity. And that may be the Hornets’ greatest legacy.

A legacy for one of Missouri’s best programs.