A ticket to witness not only the 1992 Wheaton Warrenville South Tigers Beat Joliet Catholic Academy 40-34 in double overtime in the Illinois Class 5A state title game for the program’s first state title in the school’s 80-year history as well as Naperville North’s 21-11 victory over Chicago Loyola Academy in the 6A title game cost only $6. Talk about a bargain!
THE GHOSTS OF WHEATON: HOW THE RED GRANGE TIGERS CONQUERED ILLINOIS HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL, the inside-the-huddle story of Illinois high school football at its best, is scheduled to be released Sept. 5 by Dog Ear Publishing.
WHEATON, Illinois – Two decades ago, the unsung Tigers of Wheaton Warrenville South High School shocked the Illinois high school football establishment by upsetting the seemingly invincible Joliet Catholic Academy Hilltoppers to win the 1992 Illinois Class 5A state football title.
At 250 pages, The Ghosts of Wheaton offers a play-by-play adventure of how a once-proud football program resurrected itself to win its first-ever state title 70 years after its most legendary footballer, Red Grange, last wore the Orange and Black.
The Ghosts of Wheaton is the story of football done the right way – the Wheaton way. It’s an examination of how the sport – when approached with class, sportsmanship and compassion – can shape not only the present and future of young athletes but also reinvent past glories and a resurgence of school and community pride. It’s the story of a coach who simultaneously exemplified the truest attributes of hard-nosed football general, spiritual guru and caring father figure.
From the minefield competition of the powerful DuPage Valley Conference against talented programs like the Glenbards (North, West and South) and the Napervilles (Central and North) to epic and tempestuous battles with Tiger archrival Wheaton North, The Ghosts of Wheaton is the story of Wheaton and DuPage County, Illinois, as seen through the lens of the highest levels of Illinois high school football.
The Tigers’ amazing 40-34 double overtime victory over Joliet Catholic Academy in the 1992 Class 5A Illinois state title game stands today as one of the most exciting and talked about championship tilts in the state’s vaunted high school football history.
Thanks to the insightful observations of two dozen coaches, players, administrators and fans on the resurgence of Tiger football that would result in the program becoming one of the most successful in Illinois high school football, The Ghosts of Wheaton is the story of how champions are made.
Author Thom Wilder, a journalist, teacher and sports fan based in Chicago, earned a journalism degree from Indiana University and a law degree from Loyola University Chicago. Wilder also wrote “The Road to Paradise: How the 1982 Castle Knights Upset Indiana’s Football World,” published by Dog Ear in 2012. His work has been published by state, federal and international news organizations. For additional information, please visit www.thomwilder.com.
ISBN 978-145753-960-2, 250 pages $16.95 US
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 made 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.
“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 the 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.
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 the 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.
John 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.