Scheelhaase’s time at Illinois nears its end
Nathan Scheelhaase sits alone at a table eating a lunch of beef brisket with a side of potato wedges and a brownie for desert. Nobody disturbs him. It’s not time yet.
Television reporters and newspaper writers hound Illini offensive coordinator Bill Cubit and defensive coordinator Tim Banks. They ask the same questions they ask every week: How’s this week’s opponent look? What do you guys have to do better?
The quarterback eats his food with his back to the commotion.
As he finishes his meal, somebody finally disturbs him. He has a phone call. It’s probably a reporter from Bloomington, Ind., where the Illini will play the Hoosiers on Saturday. Scheelhaase stands and answers the reporter’s questions. His meal is gone except for the unfinished brownie.
When he’s done on the phone — and it’s a lengthy talk — he’s moved to another table, closer to the hounds. He brings his half-eaten brownie and sets it on the table.
Now it’s time.
Cameras turn toward him and audio recorders are shoved before his face.
“What have you seen from Indiana’s defense?”
“Does last week’s loss still sting?”
Scheelhaase answers every question like a professional. At this point, he is a professional. This has been his routine nearly every Monday during his fall semesters for four years. Come in, eat lunch, field questions from the media, go about his day.
He has fielded the same basic questions for four years, with a different team name inserted each week. He doesn’t always smile for the cameras, but he answers every question.
On this Monday, the circle of reporters dwindles until there is only a handful — not surrounding him, but sitting at the table with him. These reporters have watched him for four years. They know there’s only so many ways to repackage answers to the same questions. They don’t ask him about Indiana.
“Have you thought about life after football?”
“Yeah,” Scheelhaase says without hesitation. “Oh yeah.”
It’s been 1,940 days since Scheelhaase committed to play football at Illinois. And for the vast majority of that time he has been the face of the program — the poster child, as teammate and close friend Miles Osei put it — a fifth-year senior and a four-year starter.
But as the college football season enters its final month of regular-season play, the end of Scheelhaase’s career is in sight. And he cherishes every moment.
He watched another close friend, senior receiver Ryan Lankford, dislocate his shoulder on a reverse play against Michigan State two weeks ago — season over, college career over.
That’s how quickly it can end. For Scheelhaase, it was a reality check.
He has been the Illinois quarterback seemingly forever. But in the grand scheme of things, four years is not a long time.
Ron Zook, his former head coach at Illinois, remembers the day he met Scheelhaase like it was yesterday. It was at an Illini football camp when Scheelhaase was still in high school.
He watched the athletic-looking young man reach 36 or 38 inches — he can’t quite remember — on his vertical jump. It was a heck of a jump, as Zook remembers it.
“Do it again,” he told Scheelhaase.
And Scheelhaase did it again. He was an athlete, no question about it, and he was a class act. Nobody at Rockhurst High School in Kansas City, Mo., had anything bad to say about him. He committed to Illinois on July 16, 2008.
Scheelhaase redshirted that first year while Juice Williams played his final season at Illinois. When Williams left, Scheelhaase knew he could start as a redshirt freshman, and potentially the next three years.
That’s exactly what’s happened. It doesn’t surprise Zook at all.
“I never doubted Nate one time,” Zook said.
The 22-year-old quarterback married the love of his life on July 6. Morgan Scheelhaase (née Miller) met the young man that would become her husband in high school at Rockhurst. They dated for a short while.
Then they went their separate ways — Nathan to Illinois and Morgan to Texas Christian. But they weren’t apart for long. Despite the distance, they got back together.
Backup quarterback and groomsman Reilly O’Toole never doubted they would get married.
One time during spring practice after Nathan’s sophomore season, he and O’Toole were sitting in the locker room and Nathan asked, “When do you see me proposing?”
“I don’t know,” O’Toole said. “Probably after the season.”
“Oh no,” Nathan said. “Way before then. I’m thinking in the summer sometime.”
That caught O’Toole off guard. This was real. This was going to happen.
Nathan ended up waiting until February, after the season. He surprised Morgan in Fort Worth, Texas, with the help of her friends and family. She said yes, and they married five months later.
The wedding was in Kansas City, hosted by the Millers. Osei was the best man. O’Toole, Lankford and receiver Steve Hull were groomsmen, along with a friend from back home in Kansas City.
They stayed in the Kansas City area near a golf course and, on a day before the wedding, the group went to the driving range to hit some golf balls. They weren’t any good — except for Hull — and O’Toole remembers how funny it was to watch such good athletes be so awful at something.
They were college kids goofing around at a driving range. Days later Nathan tied the knot.
Morgan now lives with Nathan in Champaign. O’Toole can’t get used to Nathan wearing a ring. Morgan can’t get used to being called Mrs. Scheelhaase.
Scheelhaase’s days are numbered. Senior Day at Memorial Stadium is a little more than three weeks away. He has four, potentially five games left.
After that, it’s out into the real world.
“I’ve done some things to prepare for that and see where me and Morgan will go,” he says, sitting at the table with the reporters.
Everything is “we” now. “Me and Morgan.”
He says to his teammates all the time, “I’m going home to my wife.” They can’t quite get used to it.
One reporter notices Scheelhaase’s hair is getting a little long.
“My wife told me I need to hit up the barber,” Scheelhaase says. “I said something to her about No Shave November. It didn’t really sound like it was going to be a go for me.”
Scheelhaase wants to give life in Chicago a shot. He admits that he needs to go to the alumni center and see if he can make some connections.
“Nothing’s free up there,” he says. “I’ll probably have to have a job.”
Scheelhaase can see himself in the corporate world. He says he wants to work in some type of team atmosphere — something he’s proved to be good at. He will finish his master’s degree in Sports, Recreation and Tourism in the spring. He doesn’t want to think about his final project yet.
Because really, that’s why athletes play sports, for the same reason fans watch them — to escape from the real world.
The Big Ten Networks’ “The Journey” chronicles Big Ten football players and recently featured Scheelhaase. For part of the episode it showed Nathan and Morgan at home cooking dinner. The episode aired last week. Morgan was nervous about it.
“She let me watch it with her,” he says. He hadn’t thought she would. “That’s something we’ll look back on and show our kids some day. That will be a lot of fun.”
It’s easy to see that he really looks forward to it.
Scheelhaase turns 23 on Friday. He will celebrate with a bus ride to Bloomington. Morgan might take him to Flat Top Grill, one of his favorite spots, before the trip.
A loss at Indiana will ensure a difficult path to a bowl game. At 3-6, Illinois would need to win all of its remaining games, with undefeated Ohio State coming to town next week.
No matter what happens, it will be over soon. Scheelhaase just doesn’t want it to end too quickly.
“For us seniors, you get to that certain stage and you know regardless of how long it will be, it will be over pretty soon,” Scheelhaase says. “It’s a scary thing at times, it’s exciting at times, but ultimately we’re all going to miss it a whole lot.”
The table goes silent.
The reporters have asked all of their questions. They thank Scheelhaase and get up to leave.
And once again he is alone. He picks up the unfinished brownie and eats the last bites. Then he gets up from the table goes about his Monday like any other.
Sean can be reached at email@example.com and @sean_hammond.