For the past year, at least two nights a week, Port Byron tug teams have prepped for Saturday's 32nd Tug Fest.
Port Byron leads LeClaire 20-11 in the Mississippi River rivalry. This year's face-off begins at noon, with 11 teams vying for bi-state bragging rights.
Four years ago, Port Byron Tug Master Alan Black told Todd DeClercq of DeClercq Farms in Hillsdale that there was a spot open if he wanted to enter a team. DeClercq jumped at the opportunity.
When he and his partners launched the Rams Riverhouse in Port Byron this year, the eatery soon became part of the team's workout regimen.
"With only 11 teams able to participate, we added the Rams logo to our shirts," said DeClercq. "The team comes to eat after practices, and our employees will be wearing shirts, too."
This year's shirts honor "Grampa" Eugene "Geno" DeClercq of Hillsdale who died June 17.
"He loved Tug Fest and he was loved by the community," said his grandson, Wes DeClercq. "He died Father's Day, so the team decided to dedicate this year's win to him."
Laura DeClercq said said she couldn't remember a year without Tug Fest, watching with her family from the time she was little. Twice a week, on Thursday night and Sunday, she often can be found taking photos at Black Fabrication in Hillsdale, where the Port Byron teams work out on a tug practice field.
“My oldest brother, Wesley, is team captain and my younger brother, Blake, was tugging, too, until he was deployed two weeks ago," Laura DeClercq said.
"My dad (Todd) is always in the pit, cheering and motivating everyone," she said. "During practice, all players have their stance checked by coaches and get on the ropes. They watch, tug against each other and sometimes tug against heavy objects."
Black coaches all of the Illinois teams and tuggers. Because teams are matched randomly during the Tug Fest competition — with the exception of the women’s team — all tuggers need to be hard-working and strong.
A tug may last three minutes. But some team members may pull three or four times as part of different teams.
"They are a bunch of strong farm boys," said Laura DeClercq.
Since its inception four years ago, the DeClercq team has won all its tugs. Wins are decided by who pulls the most of a rope — 2,700 feet long and 750 pounds, dry — out of the Mississippi River between Port Byron and LeClaire.
"The most rope we have pulled is about 65 feet," said Wes DeClercq.
"As team captain, my big job is getting everyone together to practice," he said. "I talk to my dad about strategy and getting our members in sync."
The 2012 Riverdale High School graduate earned a University of Wisconsin-Platteville degree in animal husbandry and ag business. He said the DeClercq tug team started when his dad told him to pick seven to nine of his buddies, and then they added a few of their buddies.
"For the most part, team members remain the same unless someone leaves the area," he said. "Most are Riverdale grads.
"I am really excited about the upcoming event," Wes DeClercq said. "It is an opportunity for the community to come together. We are all thankful to the dedication and support of Alan Black, who has made a place for us to train."