Keith Burlingame never saw it coming. Forty-three years later he's glad it did.
"Even today it still means something," said Burlingame, an international aluminum magnate and philanthropist.
Since 2000 he has lived in the Atlanta suburbs, but in 1974 he was the first winner of the Red Grange Award as an all-state Wheaton North lineman.
A self-described "absolutely terrible" seventh-grade football player, Burlingame matured into a dominant 6-foot-3, 230-pound offensive and defensive tackle. As a Falcons senior he made 15 tackles for loss in the first quarter against Lane Tech. He earned an athletic scholarship to the University of Illinois.
He was the first of 44 prep players out of Community Unit School District 200 in Wheaton to win the Red Grange Award. It's based on the player "who best demonstrates a combination of athletic skill, sportsmanship and scholastic ability" as prescribed by two of the award's founders, retired Wheaton clothier brothers Howard and Harold Gaede.
The list includes former NFL players Chuck Long (1980), Jim Juriga (1981), Kent Graham (1986) and Larry Moeaki (1995). Also, current Cleveland Brown Danny Vitale (2011) and Northwestern's Clayton Thorson (2013).
Two sets of brothers have won the award -- Michael (2003) and Mark (2007) LaBelle, and Dan and Tom (2014) Vitale. Only Jon Schweighardt has won it twice, as a junior in 1997 and sharing it with Jon Beutjer in 1998.
This year begins a partnership with this newspaper. The Daily Herald DuPage County Red Grange Football Captain will be featured in the Dec. 1 Sports Extra section of the Daily Herald.
"The Grange Award, while it's a great honor to win that, it connects you to people who otherwise you would not be connected with," said Burlingame, who recalled a chance meeting with Long, then in his Heisman Trophy runner-up season at the University of Iowa, at an Iowa golf course.
"Like Red Grange and George Halas," Burlingame added. "But then it also connects you with all the other winners of the award. It's those kinds of connections that otherwise you probably wouldn't have had -- and I'm sitting here talking to you. It stays with you the rest of your life."
Prefaced years prior by player-of-the-week ads run in The Daily Journal newspaper accompanied by public receptions at Gaede's on Hale Street in downtown Wheaton -- both locally revered but now sadly defunct -- the award went high-profile the season of the 50th anniversary of Harold "Red" Grange's 6-touchdown game against the University of Michigan.
"We thought, gee, we could take it one step further and name a Grange Award," said Howard Gaede, whose mother, Helen, was a schoolmate of the Galloping Ghost at Wheaton High School.
It was a no-brainer. Not only did the award salute the football skills of a thoroughbred who in 1920 led Wheaton to a county championship with a cumulative score of 253-0, it honored moral fiber to which people aspire.
It was not on a whim that when John Thorne took over the Wheaton Central football program in 1980 he sought a spark by dubbing the squad the "Red Grange Tigers." That remained even after the 1992 move to Wheaton Warrenville South, occupying the building and field formerly used by short-lived rival Wheaton-Warrenville High School.
"The reason we adopted and wrote the Red Grange philosophy was we felt at Wheaton Central we had a lot of good athletes, but we just needed a kind of real-life role model to look up to and continue to work hard and be humble. We just needed a little something extra to help these good players to allow the team to start winning," Thorne said.
"But more importantly the Red Grange philosophy was just to help support their parents to try to help give their children some great stories and good examples of what it means to have honor, dignity, integrity, be humble, be a teammate, faith, family, academics. How to overcome adversity and never give up."
John and Kathy Thorne still adorn the family Christmas tree with one of the crocheted decorations, Red's photo in the center, that Grange's wife, Margaret, made for every Tigers player and coach after Grange died in 1991 at age 87 in Florida.
Since the first award ceremony in 1974 at Grange's University of Illinois alma mater in Champaign, followed the next day by a reception at Wheaton College, the site of the event has moved around.
Abetted and archived since its inception by live wire former elementary school teacher Bernie Hurley and the late Daily Journal writer and historian Richard Crabb -- who spurred Grange's initial return to Wheaton -- most recently the presentations have been held at the DuPage Heritage Gallery in the county complex on County Farm Road, timed near or on Grange's June 13 birthday.
After the inaugural Red Grange Bowl at the College of DuPage last December, the lone bowl game between non-scholarship junior college football programs, Howard Gaede and COD coach Matt Foster, a 1978 Wheaton Central graduate and football player, met to discuss a new direction.
"I'm going to be 80 next year and I figured it'd be time to retire from things," Gaede said. "I was thinking about going countywide and Matt and I conversed, and with the Red Grange Bowl coming to COD for four years, maybe it was time."
Gaede found a willing taker in Foster.
"I said, 'Sure, I'd love to. I know how important it is,'" said Foster, who then reached out to the Daily Herald.
As a freshman he attended that first Grange Award ceremony and got to shake the legend's hand when the man returned for Wheaton Central homecoming games.
"He never forgot his roots, and what a great representative and role model for kids," Foster said. "He was a blue-collar guy from a small town who worked his butt off."
Similar to the first Red Grange Award winner, Keith Burlingame, who just celebrated his 38th wedding anniversary to his wife, Connie, and has three adult children. President of Press Metal North America, since 2009 Burlingame has served on the board of TransformAsia and has supported orphanages worldwide. This weekend he's visiting one in Cambodia.
At Wheaton North, whether on the football field, wrestling mat or track, hall of fame coaches such as Jim Rexilius and Dale Pierre helped instill in Burlingame the mental focus to succeed.
"Sports taught me a lot about how to always prepare on and off the field, how to go above and beyond expectations, how to always try to find a way to win, and I always try to drive for performance," Burlingame said.
The Red Grange Award is a great way to recognize those abilities.
"It's a meaningful thing," he said, "and I hope it goes on for a long time."
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