Sep 01

The Ghosts of Wheaton — Pursuit of Perfection

It had been 70 years since football legend Harold “Red” Grange had terrorized opposing defenses for the Wheaton Tigers. So, why now? Why in the first year of Wheaton Central’s transition to Wheaton-Warrenville South High School was Tiger football coach John Thorne making such a push for his players to not only know about the “Galloping Ghost,” but to understand what made the prolific runner tick?

In the 1992 season, Thorne wanted the accomplishments of Red Grange permanently affixed to his players’ minds. He wanted Grange’s name on the tips of their tongues. The Tigers had come so close in 1991. Perhaps all they needed was a little extra push from the “Wheaton Iceman.”

Thorne would invoke Grange’s name early and often as the Tigers set sail on their 1992 season of destiny. In this transition year, Thorne recognized that he needed something that would connect his players to the past as they embraced the present and struggled with their uncertain future. That something was Red Grange.

When Thorne’s players circled around him in the first practice that summer, the coach acknowledged that they were no longer the “Wheaton Central Tigers” and that they might not be ready to accept themselves as the “Wheaton-Warrenville South Tigers.” So maybe instead this season, they should just be the “Red Grange Tigers.”

The players took to it immediately. Perhaps sensing the importance of the moment or simply recognizing Grange’s accomplishments, the players would spell out “R-E-D-G-R-A-N-G-E-T-I-G-E-R-S” each time they did calisthenics before and during the 1992 season.

And when Sports Illustrated that year proclaimed Grange as the greatest football hero of all time, Thorne showed the magazine cover to his players, challenging them to examine and understand the focused-intense-dedicated gleam in Grange’s eye. The players ate it up, recognizing that they themselves needed to have “Red Grange eyes.” Ultimately, the coaches would make dozens of copies of the magazine cover – and those Red Grange eyes – which the players quickly plastered on their lockers. They would begin and end each practice by looking into Grange’s focused eyes.

Nelson cover FINAL“He always worked hard. He was always extremely humble. He always wanted to pass the glory onto his teammates or the community or his coaches,” Thorne said. “He changed the whole world of football.”

It’s an easily winnable argument that the National Football League probably would never have happened without Red Grange, Thorne said.

“He added honor and dignity to professional football. And as fellow NFL legend Bronko Nagurski himself once said, `He added honor and dignity to the human race.’ And that’s just who we wanted our kids to model themselves after.”

Red Grange would be the 1992 Tigers’ 12th man. No. 77 was back in Tiger orange, patrolling the sidelines from the Heavens.