WHEATON – In recent memory, Wheaton Warrenville South High School has been high school football royalty with seven state championships, four second-place finishes and several trips to the semifinals.
All that success has come since 1988, the year after the school was opened to replace Wheaton Central.
Bensenville author and one-time Wheaton newspaper reporter Thom Wilder’s new book, “The Ghosts of Wheaton,” traces the program’s successful run dating to its heyday of Red Grange in the early 1900s through its rise to prominence in 1992 with its first state title.
He recently spoke to Suburban Life Reporter Nathan Lurz about his book and the process for researching the stories.
Lurz: So what does this book actually cover?
Wilder: It’s really two stories: the 1992 championship game, which was a great game – double overtime, back-and-forth, the kicker had to kick a field goal not once but twice to tie the game. ... It’s also a story of how the program got there. From 1988 to 1992 is where the program really turned itself around. For the 19 years before that they were really lackluster and mediocre – really, 4-5 one year and 5-4 the next, never really got out of that range.
[In the 1988 season], there came a truly seminal moment in the program’s history. The team started 0-3, fumbled in each of the first three games and people were calling for [Coach John Thorne’s] head, and he even thought about quitting. But a player stood up in the locker room and said enough is enough. They won the rest of the games that season and went 6-3 ... and made the playoffs for the first time.
Lurz: How did you come upon the story?
Wilder: I’ve never been a sports writer, and especially never been a football writer. I made my entire journalism career out of politics, life, business – what my mom would call “the truly boring things.” But I’ve always done things on my own creatively ... and my first book, “The Road to Paradise” was written from my own firsthand knowledge, because it was my high school and my senior class.
I didn’t plan to do another football book, but this fell in my lap because of people who read my first book and it really grabbed me.
Lurz: Obviously some of the storylines can be gleaned from box scores, but how did you track down the actual players and coaches?
Wilder: The first two people I reached out to were Chuck Baker, the former principal, ... and Coach Thorne.
Then I literally buried myself in the library for several months, burying myself in newspapers going back to Grange’s day. That gave me the framework for the story I wanted to tell, then I started calling players, coaches, administration. ... I ended up talking to about two dozen people for the book.
Thank goodness for Facebook, that was a huge start. Through that I met a handful of players through a Facebook Tiger Alumni site. Through that connection I found more and more people, word spread and somebody always knew how to get a hold of somebody. And I got some incredible personal stories. ... I think that’s what makes the book a little bit special. It’s more than a football book. They all really opened up about growing up in Wheaton in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Lurz: It obviously might have appeal for those on the team, alumni or in the Wheaton and Warrenville communities, but why might others want to read it?
Wilder: It’s very much a DuPage book. Each time the Tigers played a community, I talk about the community and the school and what rivalry there was if there was any.
But what makes it a special story ... is that it was about that first championship. Now today the Tigers have won seven and it’s old hat. But then they were still the underdogs and still the team expected to lose the title game. And they found a way not only to meet that goal but exceed it with a lot of titles over the years.
Thom Wilder’s new book, “The Ghosts of Wheaton,” will be released Sept. 5 and will be available at thomwilder.com and select bookstores.