Chicago-based author Thom Wilder's newest book, The Ghosts of Wheaton
, chronicles the rise of the Wheaton Warrenville South football program, looking back to the legendary Red Grange and culminating with the Tigers 1992 IHSA state championship
. The author's first book, The Road to Paradise
: How the 1982 Castle Knights Upset Indiana's Football World
, was published in 2012. Thom talked to IHSA State about The Ghosts of Wheaton
, which will be released on September 5. Ingram
, Barnes & Noble
and fine bookstores everywhere. Numbered, signed and inscribed copies will be available at thomwilder.com
Q: You have written other books about high school sports. What appeals to you about high school sports and how did you decide on WWS as your next subject?
A: Ironically, I’m not a sports writer. I wrote my first book, The Road to Paradise, because I had a connection to a wonderful underdog tale that allowed me to see it as much more than a football story. What led me to The Ghosts of Wheaton is the same thing that led me to The Road to Paradise; it is the story of how champions are made, and that deserves to be remembered. It is a story that exemplifies the truism that the greatest victories are those that occur after being told you don’t even deserve to be on the battlefield.
I also have loose ties to the story itself. While I’m not from Wheaton, I did spend two and a half years there in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s when I worked for a local newspaper, the Wheaton Daily Journal
. During this time, I wrote Red Grange’s obituary for the Daily Journal
Q: Is there any one thing that you can point to that has set the WWS program apart from others?
: I found that a perfect storm of events and people forged the way. While Wheaton Warrenville South today is recognized as one of the premiere football programs in Illinois, it hasn’t always been that way. The Ghosts of Wheaton
begins at the end of a two-decade era of mediocrity in the Tiger football program. Coach John Thorne, along with top assistant and future Tiger head coach Ron Muhitch, had spent the prior eight years trying to rejuvenate the program and 1988 was set to be the breakout year. Tiger football under Thorne and Muhitch has stressed that developing good young men should be as important as developing football players. This is what makes Tiger football different from many programs. The Tigers also were the first team in the powerful DVC conference to go all-in on platoon football, which aided the program, particularly on the lower levels as it allowed more young players playing time and the opportunity to develop.
Q: WWS has produced a ton of great players, especially quarterbacks and running backs. Can you take a stab at a historic Top 5 list for both positions at the school?
: We could spend a day discussing linebackers as well. While The Ghosts of Wheaton
covers the wide history of Tiger football, from the early years of Red Grange to present day, the main focus of the story is from the mid-1980s to present day. As such my list would have a much more modern flair.
Any list of Tiger quarterbacks from that time frame have to begin with Jon Beutjer (‘97-‘98) and Reilly O’Toole (’09-’10). Beutjer threw for nearly 5,000 yards and 79 touchdowns, including single season records of 3,939 yards and 60 touchdown tosses for what is arguably the Tigers’ greatest title team ever in 1998. O’Toole’s numbers were just as impressive, throwing for 5,300 yards and 65 touchdowns with two state titles.
The next quarterback never won a state title but had a huge impact on the program nonetheless. Jeff Thorne quarterbacked the Tigers for three years (87-89), including 1988 when the Tigers made the playoffs for the first time ever and 1989 when he led the Tigers to within a field goal of playing for the state title. Thorne threw for 4,800 yards and 60 touchdowns in his three years as a starter.
Tim Brylka (’95-’96) would follow Tim Lester (’93-’94) and his 3,500 career passing yards and 38 touchdowns with an impressive career of his own – 3,300 yards, 34 touchdowns and back-to-back state titles. I would also have to throw Jeff Brown (’91) into that mix. Brown’s steady arm (1,900 yards and 18 touchdowns) took the Tigers to within 47 seconds of the state title.
Running back is just as difficult a decision. Grange is obviously first. Aside from the numbers he put up at Wheaton (75 touchdowns and 532 career points), his aura of Midwestern graces has been carved into what is expected of today’s Tiger athletes. Granges exploits and records stood for years, until Dan Dierking came along. If there were Tiger rushing records to be broken, Dierking (’04-’06) had eclipsed them by the time his reign of 6,000 yards and 86 touchdowns was over.
Next on the list would have to be Phil Adler (’91-’92), the diminutive fire plug of a fullback (3,055 rushing yards and 40 touchdowns) that led the Tigers to their first-ever state title. Corrice Burns’ numbers (3,300 yards and 44 touchdowns) were equally impressive as was his ’98 title. Speedster Bobby Nelson (’92-’93), meanwhile, rushed for more than 2,500 yards (8.8 yards a carry for his career) and 32 touchdowns and was a quality contributor to the ’92 title.
Q: Tell me something about Red Grange that I may not know?
: While Grange is deservedly famous for many exploits, I believe it was his junior year in high school that really shines. Wheaton started that season with a 41-13 victory over Wauconda in which Grange ran for 310 yards and three touchdowns, along with kicking five extra points. Despite losing the following week 38-0 to LaGrange, Grange amassed 259 yards rushing. While the loss to LaGrange was a tough pill to swallow, it would spur Wheaton, and Grange, onto one of the most dominating runs in state history.
After scoring four touchdowns and six extra points in Wheaton’s 42-0 victory over Geneva, Grange scorched Batavia for 501 yards and seven touchdowns, while adding 10 extra points, in the 7-10 victory. Grange scored five touchdowns in Wheaton’s 51-0 win over Downers Grove and in an 83-0 victory over Naperville the following week, Grange scored eight touchdowns and 11 extra points, tallying 59 of Wheaton’s 83 points all by himself. Following a dominating four-touchdown performance in a 41-0 win over Hinsdale, Grange once again ran wild in Wheaton’s 73-0 victory over Glen Ellyn. After losing to LaGrange, Wheaton had gone on a six-game winning streak in which Grange scored 36 touchdowns and 39 extra points.
Q: Any interesting stories that happened along the way while writing this book?
: Talking to former Tiger running back Marvell Scott was a treat for me in researching The Ghosts of Wheaton
. Scott was set to have a breakout season his senior year, rushing for 561 yards (187 yards per game) and 11 touchdowns in the first three games (it would have been 717 yards; 239 yards per game and 14 touchdowns if not for penalties). Grange-like numbers. During a slippery, rain-soaked game against Naperville Central, Scott would tear a stomach muscle – an injury that wouldn’t be properly diagnosed for years – and would never be the same. Ironically, it would be a young sophomore named Phil Adler who would be promoted to the varsity as Scott’s injuries limited him for the rest of the season. Scott would take Adler under his wing, teaching him, as Adler said, how to be a captain.
Q: What else can you share with readers about the book?
A: The Ghosts of Wheaton
is the story of the 1992 Illinois Class 5A state football title game, a 40-34 double overtime victory over powerhouse Joliet Catholic Academy (watch the game here on IHSA Archives
). But it is also the story over how the Tigers got there – on and off the field. Amid the minefield competition of the DuPage Valley Conference, the Tiger program would find both tremendous glory and excruciating growing pains on their journey to greatness. This story of how champions are made, however, wouldn’t be complete without the thoughts and recollections of many of the pioneers who blazed the trail for the 1992 Tigers – players like Jeff Thorne, Marvell Scott, Greg Shelby, Jeff Brown, Christian Wing, etc.