Becoming the Big Dog
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the fortunes of the Wheaton Central Tigers’ football program began to morph from the two decades of mediocrity that had gripped it in the 1970s and 1980s to a perennial gridiron powerhouse.
An argument could be made that it started when Coach John Thorne was hired in 1980 and ultimately would begin a platoon system that would ensure more playing time for more players. With a chance to play, a trickle of new potential players in the early years would grow and grow, becoming a tsunami of talent that would eventually result with the Tigers making their first ever playoff appearance in 1988.
Others might say it was 1990 when a battered and bruised Tigers’ team advanced to the state championship game against all odds only to be soundly beaten, 24-0. Some contend it was actually the Tigers’ devastating loss in the 1991 state championship game – a contest they had led 14-0 only to fumble it all away in an 21-14 last-second loss.
Thorne, however, knows exactly when it happened – the 1991 playoff match up against the Richards Bulldogs. All that occurred before had laid the foundation for future decades of Tiger football greatness and all that happened after was mere icing on the cake, Thorne said.
“The ’91 team, from the beginning wanted to get back to state championship game and play better,” Thorne said. “To do that, we needed to get past Richards.”
While the Tigers were gaining respect statewide as an up-and-coming program, Richards was already more than just the local bully. The Bulldogs were not only the No. 1 high school football team in Illinois but also the No. 2-ranked team in the nation. The experts in such things didn’t give the Tigers much chance.
And who could have doubted the experts. Considering how the Tigers had been handled the year before by Mt. Carmel in the state championship game, it was obvious to many that the Tigers were a now good football program, but it takes more than “good” to compete with the state’s elite squads. With Jeff Thorne, the coach’s son and record-setting quarterback taking his talents to Eastern Illinois University, where he would be a four-year starter, the Tigers were now being led by Jeff Brown, a quarterback who had never taken a varsity snap.
Brown had come from a talented soccer family. His twin brothers would later play for Wheaton College when the school won a national soccer title. While Brown was an excellent good soccer player himself, his true love was football. After playing quarterback as a freshman and sophomore, Brown decided to go back to soccer. The switch would only last a few weeks.
As a practice, Thorne didn’t chase players who had left the team. Some had other interests, some were afraid of the time commitment or else.
“We wanted guys who were hungry,” Thorne said. But Thorne broke that tradition with Brown. He called him and wished him the best with soccer.
“I let him know he was welcome to come back, but that if he came back, he would only be able to play in junior varsity games since he hadn’t been with the team from the beginning,” Thorne said. “He agreed, and the next year, he won the quarterback job handily.”
Brown’s stewardship had led Wheaton Central to a 8-1 regular season record in 1991, it’s best since 1968. But an 8-1 record by a team whose greatest claim to fame, Red Grange, had graduated nearly 70 years before wasn’t even in the same universe as Richards.
“They were undefeated, ranked second in the nation and had all these guys with college scholarships. These guys were monsters,” Thorne said. “We weren’t given much of a chance.”
Throughout the season, the Tigers had learned that they were one of the better programs in the state. Yet with 5,000 fans crammed into every nook and cranny of Bulldog Stadium, the Tigers looked to face a daunting, if not impossible, task.
With a defense anchored by one of the state’s best linebacking corps and all-American lineman Anthony Jones, the Bulldogs had won every game by at least 12 points, hadn’t given up a point in the first half. In fact, the Richards defense had only given up only 33 points all season and had nabbed 27 interceptions, third best in state history.
The teams would battle through a scoreless first half in which both defenses played huge, such as Wheaton Central’s first-quarter stop of the Bulldogs on fourth down at the Tiger 21 and Richards’ two timely sacks of Brown with the Tigers driving later in the first half.
The game would be toughest on Wheaton’s Jeff Burke, who was hobbling on the sideline on crutches after breaking his right ankle against Oak Lawn the previous week. In Burke’s absence, Chris Johnson would play receiver in addition to his defensive back and kicking duties.
After a Richards’ drive into Central territory to open the third quarter was thwarted by a sack, the Tigers went to work from their own 18.
Three plays later, Brown, with the wind at his back, lofted a pass down the sideline that Johnson somehow hauled in with the Bulldogs’ Marvin O’Neal draped all over him. Johnson would shrug off O’Neal, eluded another defender at the five-yard line and step into the end zone with a 64-yard touchdown catch. The Tigers had a 7-0 lead with just under five minutes left in the third period. It was the first time that Richards had trailed all season.
After a Bulldog fumble, the Wheaton Central offense went right to work, doing what the experts said couldn’t be done: running down the gut of the Bulldog defense.
Starting from the Tiger 43, junior fullback Phil Adler picked up eight yards and senior Adam Clemens did the rest, including a 28-yard burst that put Wheaton Central ahead of the second-best team in the nation by 14 points with just under 11 minutes to play.
The Tigers had just become the first team all season to score more than one touchdown on the vaunted Bulldog defense.
It was just the jolt the Bulldogs needed to shake them from their offensive doldrums as quarterback David Kenebrew finally found his passing touch and marched his team downfield. Kenebrew connected on three consecutive passes before workhorse running back Jesse Jackson (42 carries for 172 yards in the game) did the rest, putting Richards on the board with a one-yard dive. A two-point conversion would make the score 14-8 with just under nine minutes remaining.
After a Wheaton Central punt after only three conservative plays, Richards would drive on the Tigers again.
With Wheaton Central’s linebackers dropping deep to foil the long pass, Kenebrew began to dink the Tiger defense to death with quick, short strikes as the Bulldogs ate up yardage and time. Fighting through three third-down and one fourth-down conversions, the Bulldogs moved the ball to the Tiger five. Kenebrew would sweep around right end on a broken play and dive into the end zone for the score. The extra-point kick would give Richards its first lead of the day at 15-14 with 33 seconds remaining.
“They just went bam, bam, bam and score,’ Thorne said. “They just shoved it down our throats.”
This wasn’t supposed to be how it ended. No, this Tiger team was better than the previous year. It had more talent, more balance, it had been there and knew what it would take to win. They had the second-ranked team in the nation on the ropes for 47-and-a-half minutes. But now, another last-second, heart-breaking loss would end the Tigers’ season in crushing fashion.
“The kids were really down,” Thorne said at the time. “You just can’t give up. We have a saying: ‘I am a champion and I refuse to lose,’ and this was the chance to see if they believed in themselves.”
There comes a point in any football program that defines it for eternity. Give up or fight back? The answer would come from quarterback Jeff Brown. Never a demonstrative leader, Brown preferred to lead by calm, cool example. But not on this day, not against this team.
Thorne couldn’t believe it was the same quarterback who was now marching up and down sidelines screaming encouragement to his teammates.
“It’s not over!” Brown shouted to all who would listen. “We can do this!”
“I never ever saw him do that,” Thorne said. “He just wanted it so bad. He was always a good leader, but that was the most vocal I ever saw him. And you know what, he got his teammates to believe.”
The Bulldogs tried to squib the ensuing kickoff down the center of the muddy quagmire of a field to avoid the speedy Clemens, but instead a line-drive kick hit Tiger Joe “Coleslaw” Stanislao right in the chest. The ball ricocheted off Stanislao’s chest and bounced to the turf. In reality the ball barely sat there for only a split second, but for Thorne, his Tigers and the entire stadium, it seemed like an eternity in slow motion. Then Stanislao fell on the ball at the Tiger 47-yard line. With 36 seconds remaining, the Tigers would get another chance, no matter how remote.
“We got a break when he didn’t kick it deep. It gave us a chance to try and win it,” Thorne said.
Brown brought his Tigers to the line and surveyed the Bulldog defense. If nerves had made his stomach queasy before the first-round playoff game against Stagg, butterflies were surely turning his stomach upside down now. But this time, Brown didn’t have time to think about it.
“I am a champion and I refuse to lose,” he told himself.
Brown would hit senior receiver John Ellsworth for 13 yards to move the chains and would connect with Johnson two plays later for 11 more, giving the Tigers another first down at the Bulldog 29-yard line with seven seconds remaining as the injured Burke watched anxiously on the sideline.
Thorne called one more play to get closer to the end zone, and Brown lofted a pass toward the sideline for Ellsworth. The strategy would pay off as the Bulldog defender dove into Ellsworth prematurely, drawing a 15-yard pass interference penalty.
With a first down at the 15 with two seconds left, Thorne would send Johnson into the game to attempt a 32-yard field goal. Could it really come down to this? Could the Tigers have the game solidly in hand, only to let it slip away with 33 seconds left so that they could get one last chance to stun the entire state?
The distance was enough to make the kick difficult, but close enough to give Johnson a lifetime of nightmares if he missed. He cleaned the mud from his spikes, then set the tee in the middle of the field, measured his steps, shrugged his shoulders and waited for the ball.
With a gale blowing right to left on the snap, Johnson kicked the ball as hard as he could toward the right pole, expecting the wind to bring it back.
“The ball was gorgeous as it went up,” Thorne said, “but then the wind caught it.”
The ball would rise toward the right upright as the strong crosswind slowed it and pushed it left. For a moment the ball seemed to hang in the air, then started coming down and drifting faster and faster to the left before it squeaked through the goal posts just inside the left upright.
The referee’s signal would send the Wheaton Central bench and sideline into jubilant celebration as Wheaton Central had survived an impossible come-from-behind 17-15 victory and a earned spot in the state semifinals.
“That was the game, more than any other, that gave the whole program confidence,” Thorne said.
In the middle of the celebratory scrum on the field, Thorne was approached by one of his best buddies, kicking coach David Brumfield. With an ear-to-ear grin, Brumfield pulled up his sweatshirt to show Thorne the t-shirt he was wearing underneath that simply stated – kicking coach.
As the Wheaton players danced in jubilation at midfield, the chant of “I am a champion … and I refuse to lose” filled the air. The words inspired by the legacy of Red Grange were never more true.
Johnson did more than kick the Tigers into the semifinal game against Joliet Catholic Academy and its future NCAA and NFL standout fullback, Mike Alstott. Filling in at wide receiver for Burke, the defensive back snagged four passes for 111 yards, including a 64-yard touchdown. Thorne would hand a rare game ball to Johnson for his efforts.
“He just came through with a great kick,” Thorne said. “The whole ballgame was a great game for him. He has more talent than every player on our team, but we’ve always been waiting for it to come out and have him really do this great thing. We always knew he could.”
Perhaps Richards failed to strike as much fear into the Tigers as it should have, but maybe the plethora of big-time football programs Wheaton Central had faced in the past four years – teams like Belvidere, Niles Notre Dame, Deerfield and Mt. Carmel – had prepared them for this moment, prepared them to take the next step.
“We knew (Richards was) a great team but we weren’t awestruck,” Thorne said. “We worked hard to make our guys believe they could play with them.”
But Thorne wasn’t going to let his troops spend too much time celebrating, not with Joliet Catholic – one of the most successful high school football programs in the state – coming to Wheaton the following Saturday for a semifinal playoff game that would determine which of the two would play for a state championship.
Standing on the field watching his players celebrate, Thorne was already looking ahead.
“We had to get back to work because Joliet Catholic was awfully good,” Thorne said. “This wasn’t where we wanted to stop. The previous year we had made the mistake of just wanting to get to the championship game. This team wanted to get back there again. They had some unfinished business.”