Wheaton high school carries football legend in their hearts
The Red Grange legacy didn't mean much to Danny Vitale when he arrived as a freshman at Wheaton Warrenville South High School. But as he heads into his fourth year with the football team, he says he now understands what the legendary Wheaton son means to the school.
With Grange's image and name so ubiquitous on campus, along with constant reminders from head football coach Ron Muhitch, the starting running back says it is hard to elude.
"You walk through the halls and you see his face everywhere," said the 17-year-old senior captain. "It is like he's always watching over you. As you get older, you respect that this is what our program is built around."
Grange, who grew up in Wheaton, helped transform professional football. His success, his drive and his attitude continue to motivate Wheaton Warrenville South players decades later.
Nowhere is the Red Grange connection more apparent than in Wheaton Warrenville South High School's powerhouse football program. With seven state titles in the last 20 years, the program has gained national notoriety.
The Tigers kick off the season in a Sunday morning tilt with the Glenbard West Hilltoppers, a game that will be televised nationwide at 11 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 28, on ESPN2.
It seems fitting that a high school game played on what is traditionally an NFL game day will be played at a field named Red Grange Field Memorial Field.
Harold "Red" Grange was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963 after a career with the Chicago Bears. His induction came, in part, because of his effect on professional football's popularity during its infancy.
During that time, college football players rarely played professionally. But Grange had had a stellar career at the University of Illinois, and some pro owners saw potential in Grange's appeal. He debuted with the Bears in November, 1925, at what is now Wrigley Field before 36,600 screaming fans.
"That's the pioneer of modern-day football," Muhitch said. "You had a red-headed kid running around with ice on his shoulder for a summer job. Who can't relate to that?"
In a 1994 Wheaton history book by local historian Jean Moore, the author says Grange moved to Wheaton in 1908 at the age of 5. For two separate nine-year stretches between 1914 and 1939, Grange's father, Lyle, served as Wheaton's chief of police.
It's unclear where Grange's nickname, "The Galloping Ghost," came from. Many people attribute it to famed sports writer Grantland Rice. But Grange once gave credit to a local Chicago sports writer.
But the man who would dominate football's early years had another nickname in town: "The Ice Man." Grange spent most of his summers delivering feed, coal and 75-pound blocks of ice.
Grange earned 16 varsity letters at Wheaton High School, excelling in football, basketball, track and baseball.
In the late 1970s, the football field at Wheaton Central High School, now the former Hubble Middle School site, was named after Grange. When the school moved to its present location and changed its name in 1992, then-Principal Chuck Baker said he fought to take the name with him.
"When we were ready to leave Wheaton Central, we became rather insistent that we were taking Grange Field with us and the legacy of Grange," Baker said.
Later in 1992, the school won its first state title. Unfortunately, the championship came nearly two years after Grange died in a Lake Wales, Fla., hospital on Jan. 28, 1991.
But Grange's wife of 50 years, Margaret, continued to follow the team and knitted individual orange-and-black Christmas ornaments for each of the players on the championship team, complete with a small picture of Red.
Baker said it was important to take the name to the 1993 Tiger Trail location because of what the name stands for.
"Grange's legacy was ultimately a sense of modesty," he said. "He always talked about, not his accomplishments, but the accomplishments of the team."
When the school made its move, a small patch of sod was brought over to the new site. Even though the field is now artificial turf, Baker said that patch remains.
Former football coach John Thorne, a local legend in his own right who led the Tigers to their first title, drove Grange's legacy into the minds of his players.
Today, Muhitch does the same. Each player wears a No. 77 decal on his helmet and jersey. Also, Grange's philosophy gets repeated often.
"'I am a champion and I refuse to lose,'" the 17-year-old Vitale said. "That's the huge philosophy our school and program follows. His number is over our heart and it's in our minds."
"We are proud of the program," ex-principal Baker said. "We are proud of what the school has stood for and how the athletic teams have kept his memory there."