Growing up in Rockford, author John Gile had always admired the fabled Rockford West High School basketball teams that won back-to-back championships in the 1950s. But his journey to tell the story about the Warriors took an odyssey all its own. Paul Anthony Arco tracked down Giles for a look at the local author’s new book.
Growing up on the west side of Rockford in the 1950s, John Gile loved playing all sports. Not even Rockford’s harsh winters could stop the 10-year-old. With a shovel over his shoulder and a basketball tucked under his arm, Gile made his way to the nearby Roosevelt Middle School playground, shoveled snow off the outdoor basketball court and played until the winter cold deflated his basketball and made his hands numb.
With every shot, Gile imagined being Nolden Gentry, Rex Parker, Johnny Wessels or another member of the fabled Rockford West High Warriors, winners of back-to-back state championships in 1955 and 1956 in what Chicago-area sportswriters described as the most fabulous two-season success story in the history of Illinois prep basketball.
“The players were like rock stars,” says Gile, who listened to most of the games on the radio. “They were a group of players everyone looked up to.”
A 1962 West graduate, Gile made a successful career as an author and publisher. His books, on a variety of topics, have made and topped bestseller lists, been published in Chinese and Spanish, and have become book club selections. He never imagined he’d pen one about his beloved Warriors.
Then last July, after nearly a decade of intense research and countless interviews, Gile released “Warriors Forever,” a behind-the-scenes look at those two memorable basketball teams that captured the hearts of Rockford and the entire state.
“This book was a labor of love for me,” says Gile, seated in the living room of his Harlem Boulevard home, about a mile from where the Warriors made history. “I saw tremendous inspirational potential in the qualities of the players and the wisdom of the coaches. They served as an inspiration for so many people.
“At the time, basketball was the focus of the entire state, from November to March. There was only one class, one Illinois state champion. The Warriors put Rockford on the map during those two years. They were on the front pages of newspapers from Chicago to Peoria to St. Louis, and everywhere in between.”
The idea for a book was hatched in 2005, when one of the stars of the team, Rex Parker, huddled with some of his former teammates. They were in town celebrating the 50th anniversary of the championship teams.
More than 70 players, cheerleaders and fans from all over the country gathered at Rockford Country Club to reminisce, celebrate and share a few laughs. There, they kicked around the idea of writing a book. One of the players knew an author in California, but the group really wanted someone who knew the real story they hoped to tell. When Dave McClelland, a reserve center on the 1955 team, heard Gile speak at a Rotary luncheon, the Warriors had found their man.
Not everyone was on board initially. “My first question was, ‘Who is going to buy a book about us?’” asked Gentry. “We were talking about something that happened back in the mid-1950s. It wasn’t something I thought would garner much attention. Most of the people who were around were on the other side of the grass.” Gile agreed it wouldn’t attract much attention unless he was able to unearth behind-the-scenes details of the championship seasons.
Initially, Gile thought the project would take about six months to write, but the story kept expanding. Despite being interrupted by open heart surgery, being forced out of his 30-year location on North Main Street when the State of Illinois razed his building for a road-widening project, and undergoing emergency surgery for a strangulated hernia suffered while moving his business twice, Gile stayed focused. The entire process took nearly nine years.
“It was frustrating,” says Parker. “There were 26 people who financially supported the book. Many of them didn’t think the book would happen. I understood John’s health issues, but I had 25 other guys who were calling me and saying to give up the project. But we hung in there and now we have an outstanding story to tell.”
At first, Gile thought he’d simply chronicle those two magical years of championship basketball. But it didn’t take long to realize there was more to the story than wins and losses.
“It was a conversation with Rex one day that made it clear ‘Warriors Forever’ was not going to be a story narrowly focused on basketball, but a story encompassing the social challenges faced by Rockford and cities throughout the nation,” Gile says.
“‘Warriors Forever’ is a microcosm of what has been happening in America for decades and is peaking today,” he says. “It’s the story of a remarkable confluence of people coming together in the right place at the right time. Black players came to West High from Washington Middle School, white players came from Roosevelt Middle School, and together they joined forces under a coach, Alex Saudargas, the son of Lithuanian immigrants, whose experience as a victim of prejudice made him sensitive to and resolutely opposed to racial and ethnic discrimination.”
Gile’s research came from a number of sources. Using a magnifying glass, he pored over box scores found in old, tattered Illinois newspapers and scrapbooks people voluntarily dropped off at his office. “So many of the newspapers were yellow and disintegrating,” he says.
And, of course, he interviewed dozens of players, fans, family members – anyone who was connected to the championship teams.
“Researching and writing the story was like putting together a puzzle with thousands of pieces and no box-top to show how the puzzle was supposed to look in the end.”
Saudargas, the architect of the championship teams, was an affable coach and teacher. Gile knew Saudargas from his days at West. “He had a special relationship with players and other students,” Gile says. “He was built like a fireplug, but he wasn’t threatening when you got out of line. You always knew he was on your side.”
“Saudargas was the type of coach I would want my kids to play for,” says Parker. “He was cool, calm and collected. He got his message across in a polite yet firm way.”
Gentry agrees. “Alex was a very mild-mannered person,” he says. “I don’t remember him ever getting angry. He just worked us pretty hard in practice. He was a softhearted person who I enjoyed playing for.”
The 1955 team was a special one. West was ranked No. 1 in the state throughout the season. It was a comeback victory over LaSalle-Peru on the road that gave the Warriors some reassurance that they could actually win the state title.
“We knew we had a good ballclub,” says Gentry. “Everyone knew their role. John Wessels was one of the finest high school shooters in the country. Fred Boshela was rugged around the boards. Rex Parker did a great job defensively and scoring; Rod Coffman was the ideal shooter with a soft touch.”
“There was no jealously of one another,” says Parker. “There were no prima donnas. We never felt one guy was getting more publicity than the other guys. It was a family. People looked out for one another. There were reserves who would have liked to play more, but they realized the team success was the ultimate goal.”
Members of the Big Eight Conference, the Warriors suffered only one defeat during the season, a non-conference loss to Rock Island. In the playoffs, West beat Decatur, Lincoln and Pinckneyville before facing Elgin in the state championship game at Huff Gymnasium in Champaign.
The Warriors were down most of the game, trailing by as many as 16 points. But West regrouped in the third quarter and pulled within one, only to fall behind again by six points, 57-51, with 2:19 left. That’s when West did the seemingly impossible, scoring six points in one second to tie the game.
First, Gentry scored on a basket and was fouled on the play. He made both free throws for the four-point play. Then, Parker was fouled when Elgin threw the ball in. He made two free throws and the game was tied. The Warriors hung on for a 61-59 win and claimed the first championship for a Rockford school since 1939.
When the game ended, the crowd erupted. West’s fans rushed the court. Wessels fainted and had to be helped off the floor. Meanwhile back in Rockford, fans celebrated in the streets, while others piled into their cars and roamed the city, honking horns and waving banners.
The next day, the players and coaches arrived home to a royal celebration. Despite a steady rain, city officials estimated that more than 75,000 people came out for a parade to honor the team. Over the next few months, members of the team were in demand, speaking before Rotary clubs and other service organizations.
Winning one championship is tough enough, but winning a second is nearly impossible. Boshela, Parker, Rod Coffman and sixth man Don Grabow had all graduated.
“Sixty percent of his 1955 championship team was gone,” Gile says. “Alex had to rebuild another championship team. He built a system around the talents of the new players he had.”
In 1956, West rolled through the postseason, beating Galesburg, West Frankfort and Chicago Dunbar before defeating Edwardsville 67-65 for the championship. Wessels led the tournament in scoring and made the all-tournament team along with Don Slaughter and Gentry. For the second straight year, West finished 28-1 and hoisted another state trophy. They were greeted by more than 125,000 fans on their victorious return home.
“The first title was a wonderful experience,” says Gentry. “We were expected to do it our second year. It was our mission. Edwardsville came to our hotel and told us they were going to beat us in the championship game. People were gunning for us the second year. We had to be prepared for each game.”
Never Gets Old
According to Parker, about half of the players from those championship teams have passed away. The surviving members are 79 and 80. They’ve drawn closer in the past decade, mostly due to the book project. Gentry and Bobby Washington get together a couple of times a year and Gentry exchanges emails with Rod Coffman. They talk about life. The glory days seldom come up.
For some, however, the stories live on. “I never get tired of talking about it,” Parker says. “People always ask me about the six points in one second. Was that really true? How did it happen? It never gets old.”
The Warriors’ legacy extends well beyond the basketball court and the championship seasons. Saudargas, whose wife Alice was a respected educator in her own right, always emphasized the importance of education for his players and other students. Following the 1955 championship, he brought four-time Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens to Rockford to speak at the West High sports banquet. Owens reminisced about his Olympic glory and revealed during his speech that he couldn’t find a job when he came back home. “He warned us that trophies will have dust on them in a year and that people will forget,” Gentry says. “He took the wind out of our sails, but the message was clear: get your education.”
Saudargas’ players took that message to heart. Following high school, the players went their separate ways to colleges in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and North Carolina. They’ve lived all over the country and have had successful careers in education, law, manufacturing, medicine; they’ve been leaders within their communities.
These days, Gile is busy teaching writing at schools, speaking at education conferences and promoting the book, along with some of the key players. He says a Hollywood producer has expressed interest in the story.
“It was a privilege to write ‘Warriors Forever,’” he says. “It was an experience that I’ll never forget.”