By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD — A Rockford author has made sure that a group of local legends won’t fade from memory any time soon.
Not that anyone has forgotten the 1955 and 1956 state basketball championship teams from the old Rockford West High School. The inside of the now middle school still dawns a life-sized shrine of the accomplishments. John’s Gile’s book, “Warriors Forever,” broaches more than just the feats on the hardwood. Gile touches on the titles and how they weaved their ways into the Rockford community.
To say Rockford got behind the team, led by iconic teacher and coach Alex Saudargas, is an arguable understatement, as 75,000 people welcomed the victors as they returned from Champaign with the first championship trophy. March was filled with more madness in 1956 when the team rolled back into town to more than 125,000 basketball fans that came from all over the region.
“It was a time when the river dividing the city seemed to disappear and every neighborhood and every socioeconomic constituency in the city came together in community unity that no person who experienced it could ever forget,” Gile said.
Sportswriters at the time took notice, too. It was the 1950s and athletics were still one of the only vehicles that erased racial divisions. The boys from West were known as the “comeback kids” throughout the state—black and white athletes ignoring anything but love of a game, of their coach and for each other.
Members of that team, Rod Coffman, Jay Heath, Nolden Gentry, Rex Parker, David McClelland and Bobby Washington joined Gile last Saturday at Barnes & Noble in Cherry Valley, for a signing of the new book.
Part of the book’s proceeds benefits area educators through the Blanche Martin Mini-Grant Fund at the Community Foundation of Northern Illinois. The fund provides grants to teachers in early childhood through grade 12, special classroom activities, educational materials, workshops, and other projects aimed to enhance academics and creativity in students in a range of activities.
The fund was created by Zeta Chapter of Delta Kappa Gamma Society of Professional Women Educators from Boone and Winnebago Counties.
“What attracted me to the story most powerfully was the character of Coach Saudargas, [his wife] Alice, the players, the West High family, and Rockford’s community unity behind those sensational accomplishments,” Gile continued.
Gile said he considers “Warriors Forever” a “how-to book” for building champions, an antidote for divisiveness and an opportunity for creating positive media attention for the people of Rockford.
Gile founded The North End Times, The Rock River Times’ predecessor, in the 1980s. He later sold the paper to focus on what has been a storied book-publishing career. He is also the author of “Oh, How I Wish I Could Read;” “The First Forest;” and “Keeping First Things First.” His company has presented programs to more than 500,000 students, teachers, business and organization leaders in 39 states, Europe, and New Zealand. R.