Jan 25

The Ghosts of Wheaton — The Drive

Everyone in Hancock Stadium expected quarterback Ben Klaas to throw a quick pass out of bounds to stop the clock so the Tigers could attempt the 21-yard field goal to tie the 1992 Illinois Class 5A state title game. Instead, Tigers’ coach John Thorne had different plans as he sent junior kicker Doug MacLeod and the field goal unit racing onto the field as the clock continued to tick down from 15 seconds.

MacLeod’s leg was all that was standing between the Tigers and defeat. The Wheaton Warrenville South kicker had nailed a record-breaking 41-yarder earlier, but he had also short-legged a 26-yarder. Both were on his mind as he raced to put his tee down and holder Tim Kisner called for the ball. The snap from center Rich Thomas was perfect and Kisner dropped the ball onto the tee just before MacLeod’s foot Nelson cover FINALmade solid contact. The ball rose perfectly through the air and bisected the uprights with one second remaining. The Tiger sideline erupted.

“It’s good! Unbelievable! Oh my, my, my!” the television announcer screamed.

MacLeod’s follow through was to stare at the tee all the way through his kicks, so he was still staring at the spot thinking about overtime when he heard Kisner utter the words that shook him to his bones: “Wait, there’s a flag.”

MacLeod’s eyes shot up from the tee and searched the field. There it was: a yellow flag. In the panicked rush, a Tiger lineman had failed to enter the game on time, resulting in an illegal procedure penalty. The Tiger celebration abruptly ended as the three points were taken off the scoreboard and the officials marked off the five-yard penalty.

“Oh, my god,” MacLeod would say after the game. “It was a bad feeling. I didn’t want to think about it.”

You could almost hear the cruel giggling of history. The brass ring had been offered to the Tigers and snatched away so often that the worst was most surely expected as they lined up to kick the ball again: a botched snap or placement or perhaps Joliet Catholic’s All-Stater Mark Day bursting through the line to slap the ball back into MacLeod’s face.

Doug MacLeod field goal to tie the 1992 Illinois 5A state title gameWhen the official signaled for play to resume, the Hilltoppers called a time out to give MacLeod a few moments to think about making the kick one more time.

“How lucky for Wheaton that there is one second left for them to get another chance at this kick, this time from 26 yards,” the television announcer said.

MacLeod tried not to let too many things run through his mind as he waited during the time out. The kick would represent all that the Tiger football program had been through in the past five years. His mind no doubt swirled around the 21-yarder he had just nailed only to have it taken away just as swiftly. Now he would have to kick it again with one second left from 26 yards – the same distance he had short-legged a chip shot from with 10 minutes left in regulation.

Perhaps senior lineman and co-captain Pete Economos could sense the nerves bouncing around in the junior’s head, or maybe RearCover01the team’s resident prankster merely saw an opportunity to lighten the moment as he approached MacLeod.

“Don’t worry,” Economos grinned. “If you miss it, we lose.”

MacLeod laughed as the official blew his whistle. It’s not like he had a choice. It was crunch time. MacLeod took a last look at the goal posts and then focused his stare on the tee one more time.

Jan 07

The Ghosts of Wheaton — Fathers & Sons

RED GRANGE HAD PUT WHEATON football on the map, but he had hardly saved it. Wheaton High School had already been tearing up the gridiron in the six years it had been playing football before Grange’s arrival in 1918, sporting  a 29-10-4 record (a 73.4 winning percentage) during that time. In Grange’s four seasons, meanwhile, the Tigers would compile a record of 21-6-3 (a 77.8 winning percentage). Discounting his freshman 2-4 season when he rarely touched the ball, the Tigers were 19-2-3 (a 90.5 winning percentage) once Grange had become the integral part of the offense as a sophomore.

After Grange had moved on to the University of Illinois and Nelson cover FINALthe NFL, the wins kept coming for Wheaton as the Tigers amassed a record of 269-101-13 (a 77.2  winning percentage) in the next 45 years (from 1923 through 1968) with eight undefeated seasons and only six losing seasons.

But by the late ’60s, however, a moribund predictability had begun overtaking the once-proud program as it began a two-decade slide from gridiron greatness to unremarkable mediocrity. Perhaps it was simply a matter of a diluted talent pool with Wheaton North coming into existence in 1964 and Wheaton Warrenville in 1973. Or perhaps it was something else.

Since becoming Wheaton Central in 1964, the school had won only 58 percent of its games through the 1987 season. From 1969 through 1987, the program was a mere six games over .500 (89-83), winning 51.7 percent of its games. The Tigers would suffer through six losing seasons during that period while never winning more than six games in any single season.

The Tigers had become a middle-of-the-road program with an annual record hovering between 5-4 and 4-5 with uncanny regularity. In the midst of this malaise, the greatness of Wheaton football embodied in the spirit of Red Grange seemed to have become a mere apparition – a ghost of greater times lost to history’s fond remembrances.

The Ghosts of WheatonJohn Thorne had grown up in tiny Milford, Illinois, where he starred at quarterback at Milford High School, graduating ninth in a class of 60 students. He began his teaching career at tiny Stanford-Minier (now Olympia High School) in Danvers, 11 miles northwest of Bloomington, in downstate Illinois, where he coached basketball because the school was too small to field a football team.

Thorne would soon learn that coaching was more than an occupation; it was in his blood.