What is it About Wheaton Football?
Why is football so big in Wheaton? Heritage, committed coaches, strong youth programs and powerhouse high school programs, coaches say.
The Wheaton North and Wheaton Warrenville South teams on Friday will meet for their annual cross-town matchup. North has beaten South once since 1988 (that win was in 2002), but has been a powerhouse this season that will be tough to stop, Soutch coach Ron Muhitch said. Their 7-1 record has them seeded second in the Class 7A playoffs.
To continue their run of playoff appearances since 2002, the Tigers need to win Friday. Before 2002, the team made every playoffs since 1988.
Wheaton high schools have been the starting points of football greats for generations, starting with a pioneer of the sport, Pro Football Hall of Famer Harold (Red) Grange.
Jim Juriga, a former guard for the Denver Broncos who started in Super Bowl XXIIV, said in a 1991 Chicago Tribune article about the 25th anniversary of Wheaton North football that some of his best moments in sports happened as a Falcon.
Chuck Long is a College Football Hall of Famer who was a runner-up for the Heisman Trophy and quarterback for the University of Iowa, Los Angeles Rams and Detroit Lions. He's now the former offensive coordinator at the University of Kansas.
Kent Graham was an NFL quarterback for 11 seasons after playing at Notre Dame, Ohio State and Wheaton North. In 1986, he was named National High School Quarterback of the Year at Wheaton North. His brother, Dan Graham was a lineman for North's 1981 state championship team before he was a starter for Northern Illinois and a Tampa Bay Buccanneer for one season in the NFL, according to a 1986 Chicago Tribune report. Dan Graham's son, Ryan, is now the starting quarterback for Wheaton Warrenville South.
A few recent Wheaton Warrenville South grads making headlines playing college ball include Dan Vitale at Northwestern, Reilly O'Toole at University of Illinois, Luke Luhrsen at the University of Kansas and Titus Davis at Central Michigan University.
What is it about Wheaton football?
Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part series about the Wheaton North-Wheaton Warrenville South football game and players', coaches' and others' perspectives on what makes football so big in Wheaton.
Wheaton Warrenville South head coach Ron Muhitch has coached the Tigers for more than 20 years. He's coached seven state championship teams and four runners-up.
“Wheaton is a hardworking community," he said. "I think football is a team sport that displays and requires discipline and excellence.
“Families like what it teaches their kids… They like what they see football represents in the community."
It Starts With the Rams
The Wheaton Rams youth football program is like a youth football factory preparing kids for high school. A lot of the coaches were once Rams themselves, Muhitch said.
Run by the Wheaton Park District, the Rams program is part of the Bill George Youth Football League, which includes teams that feed into Naperville, Carol Stream and other area high schools.
"It's no accident that a lot of the programs in the league have highly successful high school football teams as a result," said Ken Selle, who has coached Rams teams for over 20 years.
The organization's expert coaching, structure, prices, board and energy surrounding football have allowed the program to grow, Selle said.
He said the organization conducts coaching clinics on a monthly basis and works with Wheaton high school programs to develop how they teach the game year-round.
Rams kids start playing as early as 4th grade, learning the fundamentals of the game and a winning attitude. By about 7th grade, Selle said, coaches shift gears to teach more technique to prepare future high school players.
"We build them up, they (the high schools) refine."
Regardless of skill or size, he said, "The most important thing you can develop with kids is passion for the game. All 8th graders want to play in high school because they want to wear the shirt on Friday, but to do that they have to understand that requires work, passion and sacrifice... We do a great job of (teaching) that."
Respect the Game
Rams players who start in high school have been in the program for years, and are ready for the competitive high school arena, Selle said.
"They have been well-coached... It's a seamless transition."
Muhitch said he thinks Wheaton families appreciate the value of their sons' football experiences because of the respect they learn for the game, for the sport, for playing the right way.
“I think we’ve tried to play with respect for our opponents and how we play, and we don’t play cheap shots. So we’re known for that,” he said.
Muhitch is proven right when players return to sign on as coaches and staff for the Rams or the high school teams. “People want to be a part of it because they respect what it did for them as an individual.”
He said eight of his coaches at South are former Rams players, and estimated at least three of the coaches at North were once Tigers in high school.
“That means they all had a good experience. It’s a healthy sign for the program—both of them.”
"Any time you can get a DVC guy, you know you're going to have a good college football player."
Wheaton College head coach Mike Swider said he “recruits heavily” from the Wheaton area, where players understand the importance of training year-round and have experience with a high level of competition.
Again—players who make a seamless transition.
This season, Swider has 15 players from Wheaton high schools, including 2011 South graduate Adam Dansdill, and 2011 North graduates Jack Nussbaum, Mike Swider, Micah Penn and Christian Hollinger.
“We recruit from those two schools very, very heavily and each year we get a number of players… And we count on those players to be good.”
The DuPage Valley Conference (DVC) overall, he said, is one of the best and most competitive football conferences in Illinois.
“It’s fun to see them join forces, whether it was North or South… I know they were combatants for four years at high school,” he said. “Every year, it’s great to see them link hands and link arms and come together.”
Tim Lester, a Wheaton Warrenville South grad who broke 17 records as a quarterback at Western Michigan University is now head coach at Elmhurst College.
He too has a handful of players from Wheaton and other parts of the DVC, a “phenomenal league.”
“To them, that’s just high school football—that’s what we’re used to… But having spent time around all different conferences… It’s a really, really high brand,” he said.
“So any time you can get a DVC guy, you know you’re going to have a good college football player.”
Joe Kish, assistant principal at Franklin Middle School on the north side and volunteer coach for the Tigers, said he was able to see Northwestern play Indiana a few weeks ago, and Wheaton South grad Dan Vitale and North grad Mike Trumpy on the field together for several plays.
“It made me reflect on how fortunate we are in Wheaton with our schools, programs and kids. There are dozens of kids from Wheaton that go on to play football at different levels ranging from Division III schools like Wheaton College to Notre Dame," he said.
"While only a handful of kids such as Kent Graham or Tony Moaeki play professionally, football in Wheaton has been the nexus that produced doctors, engineers, teachers and well-rounded people. That is a tribute to our two great high schools and the Wheaton Park District (Rams).
“As I went through North’s roster this week, there are kids that I worried about as 6th graders that now have a chance to achieve success in life largely because of football.”
Red Grange was a pioneer in sports, particularly in football, said Muhitch earlier this month. He was a Wheaton native with humble roots and a 1920s work ethic—life lessons that are passed down to generations of athletes.
"The Red Grange mystique, we embrace that still... How we approach the hard work of getting your team ready... I think we embrace the fact he was a kid from our community, that he was excellent at what he did and (was) a pioneer of the generation we now know (as) modern day football."