By Cassidy Thornburg, Sports Editor
MCCULLY STADIUM — If you haven’t followed Wheaton football for an entire season, you may be unfamiliar with the Wheaton Thunder vs. North Central Cardinals football rivalry — a rivalry almost 170 years in the making.
It began in the early 1800s, when the cities of Wheaton and Naperville couldn’t settle on where the DuPage County Courthouse would be located. Wheaton residents raided the courthouse one night and left with important documents and a little brass bell — a symbol of revolt. Years later, the bell resurfaced on a farm located between the two cities. The farm owner passed away, and the bell was inherited by one of his sons who attended North Central. The younger and somewhat disgruntled son went to Wheaton College. Through friendly night raids and college shenanigans, the bell was passed back and forth between the two schools. Out of that sibling rivalry, the Wheaton Thunder vs. North Central Cardinals football rivalry emerged.
In 1946, the “Bell” became the official prize awarded to the winner of the cross-town football game and a symbol of the history and rivalry between the two cities and schools.
“Remembering the history is the biggest thing to knowing how big the game is and how important it is to a lot of people,” cornerback and this week’s CCIW Defensive Player of the Week Spencer Rowland shared. “Being a part of it for the past four years means a lot. ‘Bell week,’ is super intense. We’ve been looking at the bell every day, knowing it represents all the people who have played for it before us.”
Since 1946, the rivalry’s importance to the Thunder has only increased.
Former Wheaton football player and now Head Track Coach Scott Bradley doesn’t remember the rivalry being as important in years past. “When I was a player, neither team was as good as we are now,” he said. “I think it’s grown in the past few years as North Central and Wheaton have grown into football powers.”
Looking ahead to the weekend, offensive lineman Luke Rogers said, “We’re just trying to get out there and dominate every play and every rep.”
In 2016, the Thunder lost the bell to the Cardinals, then came back and beat them in the second round of the NCAA Division III playoffs 31-14. The Cardinals took an early 7-0 lead, one the Thunder didn’t let them carry into halftime. With just over three minutes on the clock, cornerback Marcus Smith recovered a fumble, allowing the Thunder ample time to score. Quarterback Andrew Bowers connected with Chase White on a 17-yd. pass. The game was tied 7-7 going into the half. Bowers again connected with White to start the third quarter with a seven-yard touchdown. The Thunder took the lead for the first time, but didn’t hold it for long. The Cardinals quickly scored to tie the game at 14-14. Finishing the game stronger than they started, the Thunder put up 17 points in the fourth quarter, and held the Cardinals to zero. Defeating the Cardinals sent the Thunder to the Division III Quarterfinals in Belton, Texas where the Thunder’s playoff run came to an end after they lost 38-16 to Mary-Hardin Baylor.
In 2017, Wheaton won 42-20 in a postponed second half at McCully Stadium due to lightning and thunderstorms. The total time of play, split between two days, almost reached five hours, and that didn’t count the 45 minutes the Thunder sat in the locker room beneath McCully Stadium waiting to be told when the game would resume. In the first half of the competition, amid stormy conditions, the Thunder fell behind early when the Cardinals took a 13-0 lead. With just over a minute on the clock before halftime, quarterback Spencer Peterson found wide receiver Carter Roberts in the end zone to cut the Cardinals lead to 13-7.
Peterson entered the game in wildcat formation just when a new offensive look was needed. “It was awesome,” he said. “It was right before the half, where we weren’t playing a good football game, especially offensively. To get that touchdown was huge, and obviously it helped to get everyone prepared for that next half of the game played on Monday.”
When play resumed Monday, there wasn’t a trace of rain in the sky. The Thunder piled on the points and held the Cardinals to one touchdown.
Last year, the Thunder beat North Central, getting the “Bell” back in a thrilling 52-30 victory. Quarterback Curtis McWilliams led the charge. He was 22-of-27 for passing with 347 yards, two touchdown passes and a rushing touchdown. Running back Jacob Cretin carried the ball 16 times for 144 yards with one touchdown run. Roberts closed out the first half with an 80-yd. touchdown pass. Tight end Tyler Pace caught a 16-yd. pass from McWilliams and walked it into the end zone for the final score of the night, allowing the underdog to prevail. Fifty-two points is the highest either of the two teams have scored since 1993 and winning three games in a row is the longest win streak since 2004.
“It was insane,” linebacker Nate Gerze said. “We were playing to stay alive and keep our chances open at the playoffs, we came out with a chip on our shoulder, and we wanted to show that we were the best team in the CCIW.”
Now the freshmen from 2016 are seniors, and as Gerze said, “It’s [their] turn.” Will the Thunder get their fourth victory in four years? Although the question lingers, the hype surrounding the game continues to build. After the Thunder trounced Milliken 62-0 last weekend, they moved up in D3football.com Top 25 polls to be the ninth ranked team in the nation while the Cardinals remain at No. 5 on the list, heightening Saturday to a Top-10 battle.
“It’s a really intense rivalry,” linebacker Daniel Herber said. “Every year when we take the field there’s this silence before the game. Everybody’s just into it, ready to go and you know everyone’s coming to play because it’s the game we want.”
Defeating North Central would put the Thunder in prime playoff position, assuming they stay consistent and healthy the rest of the conference season.
The eleven guys taking the field and those on the sidelines are not the only ones who care deeply about the game’s outcome. Wheaton football alumni scattered across the country make their way back to revel in the excitement and cheer on their alma mater. Last year, Wheaton took over the Cardinals’ parking lot to reunite over burgers and games. If the alumni were tailgating through the rain last year at North Central’s campus, expect it to be hard to find parking in the Billy Graham Center parking lot this year as alumni, families and the Wheaton community tailgate before filling up the stadium seats.
“Obviously every game and every year is important, but [the rivalry game] is just the one you look forward to,” safety Corey Kennedy said about this weekend’s game. “It’s so much bigger than getting the bell for this year, it’s for Wheaton football and it’s for everyone who has gone before and everyone who’s going to come after.”
“It’s always a big game,” Peterson said. “There’s a lot of animosity with both teams. We don’t really like each other, and we’re both good. So we are just going to play our hardest out there.” Peterson concluded.
The biggest rivalry in Division III football — this year a Top-10 matchup — and the “bell game,” is not something you want to miss. Put on something orange and blue and come support the Thunder in the Homecoming football game. Kickoff is at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 5.