Through his first two years as Illinois’ starting quarterback, just about everything seemed to go as scripted for Nathan Scheelhaase. He was winning games (14 out of 26), gaining a bunch of yards (he entered the season ninth in career total offense at Illinois) and his easy smile made him the face of the program. But an ankle injury cost him two games and the only quarterback to lead Illinois to back-to-back bowl games was pulled during last week’s loss to Louisiana Tech. He’s moved on, though, and is hopeful he’ll be close to 100 percent for today’s Big Ten opener.
How have you been handling all this new-found adversity? I’ve been good. Obviously, it’s the first time I’ve really had to deal with an injury; I’ve never missed time because of an injury in my life. It’s been something different, definitely a new test, but at the same time that’s what it’s for, learning how to respond. That’s what’s needed now. To respond, you have to be positive in whatever situation you’re in.
Your faith is really important to you, how much has that helped? You look at your life and your growth through your faith and you want to be seeking God through all things and at all times. There are times when that’s the only thing you have to cling on to. It’s been an opportunity to grow. I knew when I was laying there on that table that my ankle was really hurt and I knew it would be an opportunity.
Have you always been this way? No. It’s progressed throughout my life and really more since I started college. It would be hard to deal with certain things whether it’s an ankle injury, a coaching change or just stuff that happens throughout the season. You wonder how you would handle those things without faith and that’s what I’ve been relying on.
Have you received much backlash from that? It’s been a while since I have. I’m sure people say what they want, when they want. It’s been a lot of positive. A lot of people have learned something. People talk about my character and it’s not something I just had, it is because of my faith and the person that I’ve learned to become. I wasn’t always the way I am now. I’m not the person I want to be in every situation. I’m progressing toward a goal and that’s what it’s all about.
How tough was it making the transition after spending three years under Coach Zook and his staff? Whenever you deal with change, everyone gets nervous about it. It’s tough because those are the coaches that recruited you, they gave you the first opportunity to play Big Ten football, so you have a lot of respect for what they’re about and what they do. When there’s change, you get nervous, but that’s a doubt that you shouldn’t have. After being around Coach Beckman and being around the new coaching staff, you realize you’re sill around a bunch of awesome guys and people that you’ve become friends with. Those doubts weren’t needed at all. It’s something a lot of college players have to deal with, for good and for bad. Hopefully it works out and I know our players have enjoyed it.
You’re close with Brandon Paul and I saw him throw a football at the tailgate the other day — it wasn’t pretty. When are you going to give your guy some pointers? I’ve seen it, too, he definitely doesn’t throw the best ball in the world. He has good hands, probably can play some receiver. If you were making a football team out of those basketball players, you definitely wouldn’t put him at quarterback.
Is there anyone on that team who could play for you guys? If you went with quarterbacks, I would just guess, really based off of nothing, that Tyler Griffey could throw the football a little bit. He seems like a guy that can sling it around a little bit. Meyers (Leonard) used to be able to throw the ball pretty good. I bet Tracy (Abrams) could play because of the mentality he has on the court. That would translate. I’m sure they all think they could be the best football player in the world, but it wouldn’t be the case.
Another good friend of yours, B.J. Futrell, is an All-American wrestler. You’ve got about 60 pounds on him, but can you take him? One time, at an FCA camp, he got me when I wasn’t paying attention. I was down tying my shoe and he got me in a headlock. I was in a bit of trouble. He knocked both my earrings out, had me where I couldn’t breathe. He snuck up on me there. I’d like to say I’d have a better chance if all things were equal, but he knows some moves I have no idea how to defend. I’d try to get low and not let him get me in any crazy holds.
Who’s the best basketball player on the football team? We’ve got a lot of different styles. Supo Sanni is probably the best all-around, I think he was all-state in Illinois. He’s getting to be old where he’s got old, tired legs. Reilly (O’Toole) has the best jump shot. I like to play with him because I’m more of a banger and a slasher. I like getting to the line and kicking it out to him. Steve Hull is one of the most athletic dudes. He’ll surprise you with his athleticism because he’s a redheaded kid and he takes two dribbles and dunks on you.
Your parents moved here, but do you get back to Kansas City much? I get back here when we have breaks. Winter break, if we get a week for spring break and a couple weeks in the summer. My girlfriend goes to TCU but when she’s in Kansas City, I definitely try to make my way back there.
At the end of your football career, whether that’s here or professionally, what do you want to do? I wish I knew. I’m trying to figure out grad school right now. I like talking to people, being around people. I don’t see myself working in a cubicle for the rest of my life, although I would do it if that’s what made sense. I’m hoping there’s someone in Kansas City or here in Champaign or Chicago would have a job opportunity.
Do you have an athlete who is a role model? It’s hard to say. As an athlete, you watch a bunch of different athletes and take things from them you like and things they do you want to emulate. I’m a fan of watching athletes in a lot of different sports. I enjoyed the Olympics and seeing those athletes in their sports and how they respond: a swimmer in a relay and how he or she is around their teammates, the communication it takes in sand volleyball. You watch an interview of a football player and notice how they respond after a tough loss. You take note of a lot of different things and put them into what you do.
Who is your favorite quarterback of all time? That’s tough. I’ve thought about it, but there are so many. I enjoy watching a lot of quarterbacks. I think it’s fun watching Peyton Manning and what he does. It’s fun to see him back out there and it’s fun watching him try to get back to the point where he was. Seeing him come back into his own in that game against Pittsburgh was fun. You love watching great quarterbacks and those guys going out there battling and out-executing each other. It’s fun to watch guys from the past do great things.
Did you play defense in high school? Yeah, I was a safety. My first three offers were from Iowa, Arkansas and Nebraska. They all offered me as an athlete, but mainly as a safety. I miss being out there a little bit. But when I see those big Big Ten running backs that our guys have to tackle, I don’t know if I would be ready to hit any of those guys.
What is it like walking around campus as the starting quarterback at a Big Ten university? It’s not bad. We’re not like basketball players where they see our faces so much, but as a quarterback you get your face shown more than you should. A lot of times people just want to yell out my name and see if I react. I’m going to react if I hear “Scheelhaase.” I turn my head and they’re like “Oh, that was him.” It’s awesome being a role model, trying to lead a certain life that will show more people what you’re truly about. It’s an awesome opportunity, but you only get four years where people care about what you’re doing and what you’re all about, so you take advantage and enjoy it while you can.
Your first running back (Mikel Leshoure) just played in his first NFL game and ran for 100 yards, did you get to see that?
Yeah, I was excited for him. It’s been a long wait and we were all excited to see what Mikel was going to do in the NFL. He dealt with the injury then some ups and downs and to see him respond the way he did when he got his chance was great. That’s what you want to see. That’s the type of person he is, taking advantage of opportunities. It’s cool to watch your friends in the NFL. You never realize when you walk into college how cool that ends up being. You can watch the Kansas City Chiefs and there’s Jeff Allen and you wonder if Martez (Wilson) is lined up against him. It’s been an awesome opportunity being around some of the best athletes in the world.