For Naperville Central's Kennedy, this game has a family feel

Updated 10/4/2017 9:18 PM
  • Naperville Central center Joe Kennedy (55) and his teammates take on cross-town rival Naperville North on Friday night.

    Naperville Central center Joe Kennedy (55) and his teammates take on cross-town rival Naperville North on Friday night. McAll-Star Kids Sports Photography

Joe Kennedy stands, and then crouches, at the intersection of Naperville civic and football traditions.

When the Naperville Central senior center straddles the ball Friday in the annual "Wes Spencer Cross Town Classic" against Naperville North at North Central College, he'll assume two positions.

He'll reprise the football role played by his grandfather, Don Wehrli, a center for Naperville Community High School, Class of 1946.

Then there's the Wehrli part. Throw a spiral about anywhere from Diehl Road to 75th Street and chances are the football will land close to a Wehrli-owned business, a Wehrli home or, simply, a Wehrli.

According to Joe Kennedy's mother, Annette Wehrli, her descendants settled in Naperville in 1846. The facility in which Naperville Central and Naperville North will play on Friday, Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium, is named for former business partners and football teammates Al Benedetti and Dick Wehrli -- Don's brother.

It can get confusing discussing this sequoia-sized family tree, which includes Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback Roger Wehrli of the St. Louis Cardinals. Joe Kennedy is grandchild No. 108 out of 121 born to 63 parents, themselves the product of 13 siblings.

Consider all those Facebook birthday notices.

Joe was only one of Don Wehrli's 14 grandchildren, but the two created a fast bond well before Wehrli's passing in March 2015. Every day while his mother was at work, Joe said, he and his grandfather convened in the basement where Wehrli would toss a football and the little boy would dive on a couch to catch it.

"We called it the 'Grandpa Game,'" Kennedy said.

"He was an inspiration to me," said Kennedy, also distantly related to late DuPage County and 16th Circuit Court Judge Win Knoch, for whom Naperville's Knoch Knolls Park is named.

"I never saw my grandfather in a bad mood no matter what. He always told us attitude was everything and he really stuck to that concept," Kennedy said.

Now 5-foot-11 and 225 pounds, Kennedy started playing football with St. Rafael in the first grade. He played offensive guard and on the defensive line until his sophomore year when he switched to center -- the year his grandfather died.

Until then they'd go to football games together and get a particular rise out of the Cross Town Classic in the stadium that bears the family name.

Kennedy thinks about those kinds of things till right before kickoff.

"Usually after the national anthem I take about 30 seconds to reflect about him," he said. "Just how I'm going to play the game for him and how I'm going to perform to the best of my abilities for him and the whole family."

More to come

The monthly Interstate Eight Conference meeting was scheduled for Wednesday in Morris. A joint meeting of principals and athletic directors including those from Lisle and Westmont high schools -- held past deadline for this article -- it'll likely formalize the withdrawal of eight schools from the conference effective in the 2019-20 school year.

To review, in late August Lisle, Coal City, Herscher, Manteno, Peotone, Reed-Custer, Streator and Wilmington informed Westmont, Sandwich and Plano they would be pursuing other options.

Lisle principal Jeff Howard said this decision was based on school size and geography, or travel time. Though its official 2017 enrollment of 484 is the fifth lowest of all the IEC schools, Howard said Lisle's ability to compete athletically, an overall reduction of travel time and familiarity with league opponents makes it a good fit.

On Sept. 25 at the Lisle Community Unit School District 202 monthly Board of Education meeting, administrators recommended withdrawing from the Interstate Eight. The board approved the measure and also to continue with the group of eight, which at this point would comprise one conference rather than current Large and Small divisions.

An Interstate Eight member since 2006, Westmont is between a rock and a hard place. If it looks to the Metro Suburban Conference, its 2017 enrollment of 448 students will be larger than only Chicago Christian, Guerin and incoming Aurora Christian. Possibilities also include the faraway River Valley and Sangamon Valley conferences.

"We're still just exploring options," first-year Westmont athletic director Rainy Kaplan said in September. "I've got a lot of phone calls out right now trying to figure it out."

Welcome to the club

If there are any students reading this, hopefully you have a teacher like Joe Gerace at Wheaton Central and Wheaton Warrenville South from 1972-2002.

Yeah, he was tough. You don't win seven state speech titles with 11 other top-10 finishes underselling your subject. But with droll humor, a raised eyebrow, a smile, a cackle laugh and eyes flashing mirth and magic, he drew you in.

"I coached softball the same way I coached speech, and that was to make them believe in themselves," said Gerace, whose softball success puts him among six to be inducted into the Wheaton Warrenville South Athletic Hall of Fame on Friday.

A 4 p.m. meet-and-greet in the WW South Commons kicks off events, which include a ceremonial coin flip by the honorees before the homecoming football game against Metea Valley.

A 2004 inductee into the Illinois Coaches Association Softball Hall of Fame (along with Glenbard South's Bill Voves), Gerace had direct ties to two other members of this class, which also includes Wheaton Central baseball star Burgess Watts and Wheaton Warrenville wrestler Bruce Nordstrom.

Charles "Chuck" Baker presided over 21 athletic state team medals as principal at Wheaton Central and WW South between 1988-2004. Sarah Baumgartner was twice all-DuPage Valley Conference in softball, basketball and volleyball before excelling at the University of Illinois, where she was a two-time Big Ten Sportsmanship Award winner. Baumgartner now is Rutgers University's deputy director of athletics.

Retired track coach Ken Helberg is the final inductee. A 2006 inductee into the Illinois Track and Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame, Helberg is the brother of another ITCCCA inductee, Wheaton North's Don Helberg, and the son of another, Ron Helberg.

Ken Helberg said when he got hired in 1988 as Wheaton Central's track coach his goal was to have a team that competed for a DVC title. He was way off: Helberg's Tigers won 14 of them as well as the 1996 and 1999 Class AA championships.

A star football receiver and 800-meter runner at Glenbrook South, Ken Helberg said his father initially denied his son's desire to go into education. That is, until Ken spoke the magic words -- helping people.

"That was kind of my underlying current, was being able to help parents raise their sons to become outstanding young men," he said.

Gerace was like that. As softball coach he went 447-253, won six DVC championships, placed third in state in 1981 and won 75 straight DVC games between 1980-86.

Great stuff. Not the point.

"The trophies I have that are the best for me are the kids who are teachers or doctors, the best mothers and fathers," Gerace said. "We have one kid who's a nuclear scientist. Those are the trophies that are important to me, not the ones that we have on a wall."

Follow Dave on Twitter @doberhelman1

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