North Central football means a bit more to Naperville's mayor

As a kid growing up in Naperville, Scott Wehrli knew it simply as "The College."

Dick Wehrli, Scott's dad and a 1956 graduate of North Central College, took Scott to many events at "The College" in downtown Naperville. The strongest memories, though, involve the games they attended and Dick's many friends from there.

"That was the one college," Scott Wehrli said. "That was it."

With North Central's Division III football team in the midst of a national title defense, the Cardinals have no bigger backer than Scott Wehrli, a superfan known better as the mayor of Naperville following his election in April.

How invested is the 1991 North Central grad? The campus stadium - Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium - is named after his father and Dick Wehrli's business partner, Al Benedetti, a 1948 North Central grad.

While the stadium was at one time the home of the Chicago Fire soccer club and has hosted more than 10,000 fans for the annual Naperville Central-Naperville North football game, the North Central football team has become the most popular tenant after winning national titles in 2019 and last year.

North Central (12-0) hits the road to play in the quarterfinals at noon Saturday against UW-La Crosse (11-1), taking with them one message from the mayor: Go Cards.

"Knowing the history and the cast of characters involved in building that stadium, it's really special to me," Wehrli said.

Dick Wehrli and Benedetti, through their DuKane Precast concrete company now headed by Scott, built the stadium after a 1996 flood severely damaged the southern end of campus.

But Harold Wilde, the college president at the time, didn't just want an athletic stadium. His vision was to blend academics and athletics. That's why classrooms coexist with locker rooms and weight lifting equipment behind the home stands.

"There was a time where you wouldn't go south of Chicago Avenue unless you were an athlete. There was no reason," Scott Wehrli said. "President Wilde had this vision that there wasn't going to be a jock side of campus. Athletics wouldn't stand on its own. It'd be intertwined with academics.

"It really put North Central on the map with the community and residents seeing the activity there," he said. "Because for the longest time, you didn't even know it was there. That stadium was built and had a true presence."

The funny thing is, Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium wasn't even the first stadium built by the men at that spot.

In 1976, in an event known as "The $18,000 Miracle," Dick Wehrli and his crew drove to St. Louis to pick up several sections of Sportsman's Park, the home of the Major League Baseball Cardinals from 1920 to 1966 and the National Football League Cardinals from 1960 to 1965.

They loaded rusted steel structures on trucks and hauled them to Naperville, where construction workers mixed with North Central athletes to create a makeshift stadium for the football and track and field teams.

Scott Wehrli, only 6 or 7 years old at the time, never will forget the image of the ragtag group building a stadium from scraps.

"It was just a bunch of guys who loved North Central," he said. "They got the track and field team, and the cross country team, and basically every team they could find to get the rust off these things and reassemble them."

Dick Wehrli, now 89, and his son stayed connected to North Central through the years as members of the board of trustees and by embarking upon a number of other endeavors for the college.

For all Naperville landmarks bearing the Wehrli name based on family roots dating to the 1840s, the stadium holds a special place in their Cardinal red hearts.

"When you drive down Washington Street and you see that stadium and those lights, you realize the college is alive," Scott Wehrli said.

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