MARION -- Keith Szablewski and his friend, Steve Mallroy, started their annual deer hunting trip on Saturday the same way they have for the past four years, with a prayer.
"We thanked God for the outdoors and a nice place to hunt," he said. "Then I said, Lord, let us both get a nice deer, a nice buck."
Szablewski's prayer was answered -- and then some.
Szablewski, who lives in Johnston City, was hunting from a ladder stand on private property in Marion. About 4:40 p.m., he looked down. "It just kind of ambled under the stand," said Szablewski.
The "it" was what most hunters would describe as "the buck of a lifetime."
"I shot it once in the neck," said Szablewski. "It ran about 10 yards and fell."
When he got to it, Szablewski, a novice hunter, knew he needed advice from someone with more experience.
"I said, 'Guys, I don't know what I'm doing,'" he said.
"Keith called me because he wasn't sure what to do," said friend and experienced hunter, Tony Kendrick, who asked Illinois State Police Conservation CPO Justin Summer to authenticate the legal harvest.
Summers estimated the buck at about 7-8 years old and Kendrick estimated the deer's weight at around 275 pounds.
John Hinde of Whitetails and Water Fowl Taxidermy in Murphysboro, where Szablewski took the deer, said on cursory glance, there appeared to be around 33 points.
"I'm not an official scorer," said Hinde, "but it's an incredible deer. It's going to score really, really high."
Hinde explained that deer are scored on the Boone and Crockett scale, in which the point has to be one inch before it's counted.
Szablewski said he will take the deer to the state expo in Peoria in July where it will be officially scored.
"For Southern Illinois it's really unique," said Hinde, who has been in the taxidermy business for over 30 years. "In all the years I've been doing this I've never seen anything like it."
"It's hard to say what they're going to do because it's so unique," said Szablewski.
Kendrick said he was thankful that his friend called him for advice.
"This is not just the story of a man deer hunting and shooting a big buck," he said. "It shows his character as a humble and giving man."
Szablewski, now retired, was a correctional officer for 29 years at the Marion Federal Prison. He was hired last month as the director of maintenance, buildings, and grounds for the Johnston City School District.
He and his hunting partner attend church together at the Southern Illinois Worship Center.
"Keith gets young boys and teens involved with the outdoors, fishing, camping, cookouts, and teaching gun safety," said Kendrick. "He tries to be involved with kids who are fatherless or from single parent homes."
Kendrick said when Szablewski prayed before beginning the hunt for two bucks, that's what he believed would happen.
Mallroy also bagged a 6-pointer.
Szablewski, who has only been hunting for four years, is humble about his deer, the third he has harvested.
"I'm not a professional at it," he said. "I'm just glad to show that there are deer here in Williamson County, big deer."