At first Wheaton College game since hazing charges, fans support players

Fans of Wheaton College football gathered in a circle to pray Saturday before the first game since five players turned themselves in to authorities on charges connected to alleged hazing of a teammate.

The circle of dozens of friends, family members and fans prayed for the accused players and the victim. They prayed for the legal system. They prayed for truth and justice.

“Truthfully, I pray for the kids, both the victim and the kids involved,” said Thomas Smith, the father of a Wheaton College player, as he walked into Langhorst Field for the team's away game against Elmhurst College. “The truth eventually comes out. That's all I can say.”

A week earlier, James Cooksey, Kyler Kregel, Benjamin Pettway, Noah Spielman and Samuel TeBos were on the roster when the highly-ranked NCAA Division III team opened CCIW league play and rolled past Carthage College. Days later, all five had turned themselves in to the police on charges of aggravated battery, mob action and unlawful restraint stemming from what happened in March 2016.

According to prosecutors, they tackled the 19-year-old freshman in his dorm room, bound his legs and wrists with duct tape and put a pillow case over his head before dumping him half-naked on a baseball diamond at an off-campus park.

The student left the school after the incident. Attorney Terry Ekl has said his client suffered two shoulder injuries and required three surgeries.

With the players suspended for Saturday's game, their teammates showed signs of solidarity before taking the field, walking from the locker room to the sideline with hands joined. Fans cheered and held supportive signs that stated the team's season mantra of “Don't Flinch,” all the more significant in light of the hazing scandal.

“It's either going to rally them together, by bringing them closer, or it's going to break them down,” said Randy Bennett, an uncle of one of the players.

Though Wheaton fell behind by a touchdown early in the first quarter after a poor snap gave Elmhurst good field position, the team quickly answered with a score of its own and ended the game with a blowout 40-15 victory. Wheaton is undefeated and ranked fourth in the country in Division III.

After the game, coach Mike Swider declined to answer questions about the hazing.

“There's somebody at the school that's much more qualified than I to answer that question,” he said. “I appreciate all of our fans that are here today. God bless them. We have an opponent next week, and our job is to win the next game.”

Some fans asked for the players to not be judged until the court case is concluded. They questioned why the charges came a year and a half after the hazing allegations; the school and coaches knew about them shortly afterward. A third-party investigator conducted an internal investigation for the school, which resulted in “corrective actions,” but the criminal charges were not announced until last week.

Wheaton police say the investigation was complex as detectives interviewed dozens of people and was delayed by some students leaving the area for the summer. At least one of the player's attorneys has vowed to probe the reason for the delay.

“I think it's curious,” Bennett said. “I wonder why it's coming out now.”

Bennett said he's a believer there should be balance and perspective when determining whether the players are guilty.

“I've seen people be bullied,” he said, “and I've seen people make up stories.”

• Daily Herald sports writer Orrin Schwarz contributed to this report.

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  Wheaton College football fans cheer for players as they run onto the field to play Elmhurst College in the first game since hazing charges were announced against five players. Chacour Koop/
  Wheaton College fans pray before a football game Saturday at Elmhurst College, the first since charges against five players in connection to a hazing incident. Chacour Koop/
  Wheaton College football players join hands as the walk to the field to play Elmhurst College in the first game since hazing charges were announced against five players. Chacour Koop/
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