It was, as one participant noted, a "classic state championship matchup between two DVC giants in their prime."
It was a playoff run in Wheaton dedicated to a former teammate afflicted by a rare disease, who made his first public appearance since the diagnosis at that final game.
It was the climax to a weekend of close football games at Hancock Stadium in Normal, and the beginning of a remarkable run at Wheaton-Warrenville South, three state championships in four seasons.
Twenty-five years ago this weekend, Wheaton-Warrenville South beat favored rival Naperville Central, 22-21, in the Class 6A final, the first state championship game meeting of two teams from the DuPage Valley Conference, in a game that came down to a two-point conversion in the final minutes.
Here is a recounting of Wheaton's run, and championship, by those who lived it:
Wheaton-Warrenville South entered the 1995 season three years removed from climbing the ladder from quarterfinalist to semifinalist to twice state runner-up to winning the school's first state title, in double overtime over Joliet Catholic in 1992. But the Tigers in 1995 had just graduated an All-State quarterback, Tim Lester, All-State receiver Kasey Klaas, All-State offensive lineman Josh Romberg and All-State linebacker Ron Grego.
John Thorne, then Wheaton-Warrenville South head coach: I don't think really anybody was expecting us to be that good. We graduated a lot of really good seniors. But the players believed we could do it, the coaches kept trying to make them believe, they worked awfully hard and made it happen.
Tim Brylka, then Wheaton's junior quarterback, now a teacher and football coach in Mauldin, S.C.: Talking to some friends that didn't go to South, we never had any special athletes, any stud D1 recruits. Larry Moeaki and Devon Finn and Gene Beard were great, but we didn't have any studs, or many at least. But the expectation established before us was that you would compete for a state title.
Naperville Central, led by quarterback Tim Lavery and running back Jim Tumilty, was ranked nationally, and No. 1 in the state. But in the teams' first meeting, Wheaton led into the fourth quarter of an eventual 21-16 loss.
Tom Schweighardt, then Wheaton senior defensive back, now a retail banker in Plainfield: That was huge for us. I think we were both undefeated at the time. They were No. 1 in the state, had all the big-name players, and it was a close game. We knew we could play with them after that. We earned their respect.
Wheaton-Warrenville South went on to a 7-2 regular season finish, third in the DVC, but was beaten badly by Naperville North in the regular-season finale.
Brylka: We had a little meeting in the wrestling room after that game. The coaches left, and the seniors kept us there. They said we're not going to go out like this, not going to let it happen, and we had to refocus and get on track. That's something that stuck with me. You're not going to be perfect during the year, you need those losses sometimes to refocus you. That was a help for us, to kick us in the butt.
Wheaton beat St. Charles, 28-7, in a first-round game, avenging a playoff loss from the previous season, then Palatine, 21-18, and Glenbrook South, 28-21, in a cold, snowy quarterfinal, hanging on to what was a 28-0 lead despite losing Brylka at halftime to a concussion, as Schweighardt intercepted two passes and a line anchored by Moeaki cleared the way for Kelly Crosby's 131 yards. The Tigers beat York and All-State tight end Tim Stratton, 29-7, in the semifinal, setting up the rematch with Naperville Central.
Thorne: We won the semifinal and getting on the bus coach [Ron] Muhitch is on the defense's bus and sees the tail lights from our bus that's in front of us. He jumps up and hollers 'I see red' and the guys went nuts. They knew exactly what he was talking about, who we were playing next.
Thorne secured a Wheaton practice on Northwestern's game field Thanksgiving week. Muhitch, then Wheaton's defensive coordinator, kept the bus – and Thorne – waiting in Evanston to work a few more times through practicing to defend Naperville Central's two-point conversions.
Muhitch, now Wheaton's head coach: [Naperville Central coach] Joe [Bunge] was a master of trick plays and two-point conversions. As a defensive coordinator you tried to practice all of those before you get to that moment in the game. I had a sense when the bus was delayed to leave Northwestern that we put in an extra 45 minutes of practice. I was still practicing two-point plays, preparing for Joe Bunge. I don't think I've ever practiced it that much in any game I've ever had. I remember John specifically being so upset at us not beging ready to go to get on the bus on a cold freezing November Thanksgiving weekend day.
The Tigers also spent extra time lining up on the field to form a "31," for good reason.
Ron Grego, Wheaton's All-State linebacker in 1994 who earned a scholarship to Northwestern, came down in March 1995 with a rare disease, encephalitis, and pneumonia that put him in a coma. Eight months after laying near death, Grego made his first public appearance to attend the state championship and cheer on his former teammates.
At the beginning of the game, the Wheaton players aligned on the field in a ceremonial outline of a "31," pointing to Grego and his parents in the press box. Grego wrote a letter to the team that Muhitch read before the game.
Muhitch: Ron Grego, he was a kid who was headed to Northwestern about the same time as Pat Fitzgerald, he would have been a teammate of Pat's. That was an experience that we had never even heard of this [disease], a D1, high-profile, academically-gifted kid, President of his class, who never got to play college football because of this disease and to this day is still battling the effects of the disease. We committed that state championship run to him. It was such a big part of the school endeavour to help him and his family.
Schweighardt: Ronny was a big part of our program. For him to be able to get there, we did the 31 on the field, to be able to talk to him afterward, it was great. I remember Mr. Grego, Ron's dad, his big thing was "not today, Redhawks."
The Tigers took a 14-7 lead into halftime on Brylka's 61-yard option keeper and Jordan Workman's 17-yard TD run. Wheaton had switched from a Power-I offense back to its Houston veer late in the season after losing a couple running backs to injury. Brylka, who Thorne called "an amazing quarterback with unbelievable vision," helped make it happen.
Thorne: Naperville Central thought nobody can switch to an option offense at the end of the season. They had put in a lot of different wrinkles to make it totally confusing for our guys. Tim on that play read the option beautifully and went 61 yards for a touchdown. From that time on it was a dogfight. It gave the guys confidence and told the other team we were here, that we're not going to roll over and just let you win a state title.
Brylka: I didn't outrun many people in my career, but that was one where I did not get caught.
In a back-and-forth game, Wheaton went ahead for the last time with 9:42 left in the fourth quarter on a 20-yard pass from Brylka to Joey St. Meyer. Crosby ran in the two-point conversion.
Naperville came back to pull within one on Lavery's 27-yard TD pass to Todd Grotbeck.
Schweighardt: I was part responsible, blowing the coverage. I was pissed. They shouldn't have scored. I take the responsibility. I was playing deep safety. He scored a TD right in between me. Thankfully I had the opportunity to redeem myself.
Bunge, with 2:13 left, went for two, and the win, a halfback option pass from Tumilty.
Bunge, after the game: He [Tumilty] has the option to run or pass on that play. We've been having trouble kicking extra points, and we felt like going for two would be our best chance.
Thorne: Now all they had to do was tie kick the extra point, and tie the game, and we told Devon Finn, our great defensive end, to line up in the middle to get a big push, to try to block the extra point and he moves over there. They line up, the kicker is not out there, and Devon stayed in the middle of the field and doesn't go back to defensive end. They pitched the ball to their good tailback, it was a run/pass option, where Devon was supposed to be and he's not there. I don't know how he didn't walk right in. Our corner and strong safety both had to react up, here's a receiver that's open, they come forward and Tommy flies from his safety position to get to where they're throwing to.
Tumilty broke toward the line before stopping and lofting a pass intended for Brad Grulke. Schweighardt, who played through a slight concussion suffered in the first half, stayed with his assignment on the halfback pass, batting it down to preserve the lead.
Schweighardt: If I remember correctly the first game they got us on a two-point conversion play. I saw Tumilty come up. Had we not practiced that a bunch of times we would have all been flying up thinking he was going to run. Thankfully I stayed back. Had I come back anymore, it was going to be completed.
Muhitch: I'll never forget Joe Bunge coming across the field and shaking hands and he says his fullback went the wrong way. At the time I didn't know what it meant, but look back on film it's a toss sweep and the fullback did go in the opposite direction, and Tumilty didn't have anyone to protect him. The thing that Joe didn't understand was we practiced all his bag of tricks for 45 minutes on that Northwestern field. The pass seemed like it was up there forever. Tommy came flying across on coverage and knocked it down.
The championship was the second of Wheaton's seven, with Thorne winning two more before taking the reins at North Central College. Muhitch, Wheaton head coach since 2002, has added three more. Schweighardt's three younger brothers played after him at Wheaton, and all won state titles.
Schweighardt: I look back on the old tape from that 1995 game, and my youngest brother Christopher, he's on the field jumping around, he's 8 years old. I show that picture to my kids, tell them here's your uncle.
Thorne: We had a wonderful, wonderful group of players and great families, and the coaches did such a good job in each of their positions to get their guys to believe in themselves and believe in the system, and fight hard for each other.
Then you add to it all the emotion of Ronny Grego, his first day out of the hospital going into the public. They just refused to lose that game.