CHAMPAIGN — Dillan Cazley and Keithan Hedrick chuckle at the memory.
Tyson chicken strips. DiGiorno pizzas. Hot pockets.
Lots of hot pockets.
“If you look at us, it’s no credit to what we eat,” Hedrick said with a laugh while his finely-tuned biceps peeked out of the gray Illinois T-shirt he was wearing. “It’s more God-given body structure because we didn’t get our body from the nutrition,”
Sitting in two caramel-colored leather chairs with a glass paned window showcasing Memorial Stadium in front of them, it was easy for the two to laugh. A mural of former Illinois greats was a mere 50 feet behind them.
Cazley, the first commit in Tim Beckman’s Class of 2013, had on his No. 8 Illinois navy blue jersey top. He was one of Illinois’ 10 early enrollees who started competing in spring practices Tuesday. Hedrick, who played three seasons of football at Eastern Illinois, made sure the form-fitting jersey looked immaculate before he and his brother stepped out onto the Memorial Stadium turf to get the accompanying photo taken on a cold, gray weekday afternoon.
See, the 21-year-old Hedrick isn’t just an older brother to the 18-year-old Cazley. Legally, he’s his father.
How did this happen, you might ask? Start with the streets of Markham.
Violence. Drugs. Peer pressure. Gangs. Hedrick said the culture permeated the south suburban town that rests a half-hour from Chicago.
“The surprising thing about our neighborhood is it’s a suburb,” Hedrick said. “But it was far from a suburb. We had our negative influences around us. There were few and far between in terms of positive role models to look at. We had way more drug dealers and thugs than we had straight-A students.”
In the summer of 2010. Cazley had just finished his freshman year at Bremen High School in nearby Midlothian. Hedrick was home for a week after his freshman year at EIU, which he redshirted. Ever since he set foot in Charleston and on EIU’s campus, Hedrick had toyed with the idea of having Dillan and Josh, Dillan’s younger brother by a year, head south, away from Markham and away from the bleak circumstances.
Circumstances that became bleaker when the boys’ father, Lee Hedrick, died in February 2010 of a heart attack at home.
“I knew that when I left for (college), I wanted to be able to get my brothers out of that situation,” Hedrick said. “I can’t say that I knew exactly when I was going to do it or how it was going to happen, but I knew I wanted to make it happen. I got to a point where I got fed up with it. Before one of my brothers ends up becoming the next casualty on the evening news, I wanted to take them out of the situation and make it better for them.”
Especially since their father had died.
“Initially I always thought that after school I would be able to reach back and grab them, but when my father died, that gave me a stronger sense of urgency,” Keithan said. “You never know what tomorrow holds, so if you can do something, do it now. Reach out when you can reach out because that person might not be there the next day.”
Hedrick acted. After discussing the situation with then-EIU defensive coordinator Roc Bellantoni and EIU athletic director Barbara Burke, along with Dillan, Josh and their mother, Geneva Cazley, they packed up their belongings a few weeks before the 2010-11 school year started to move to Charleston.
“I knew I didn’t have all the answers,” Hedrick said. “It was more of an uncertainty. I didn’t know how I was going to make it work, but I was going to make it work. I just took it day-by-day, had faith and did a lot of praying. I was hoping things would work out, and they ended up working out, but initially it was just make it through that day. Forget next week or next month. Just make it through the day.”
Take out the EIU campus and Charleston is a far cry from the bustling lights and busy atmosphere of Chicago. The main attractions are driving down Route 16 to see a movie in Mattoon or going to a local bowling alley. Perusing the town square is another option.
“Growing up near Chicago wasn’t the ideal or perfect environment,” Dillan Cazley said, “but at first, Charleston is a culture shock.”
A culture shock that, with time, the brothers accepted and adjusted to.
Hedrick lived on campus his freshman year at EIU. He had to get permission to move off-campus with his two brothers before his sophomore year. Once he did that, the three brothers settled into a one-bedroom apartment at Campus Pointe on the edge of Charleston near the town’s Wal-Mart and within close proximity of Charleston High School. By the time Dillan’s senior season arrived at Charleston, each brother had his own space in a three-bedroom apartment at Campus Pointe.
“I had a say in the move,” Cazley said. “At first, I was kind of unsure about it, but then I thought, ‘Why not?’ It was a fresh start. I wasn’t necessarily lost academically my freshman year, but sports-wise, I wasn’t playing with a purpose. Coming to Charleston helped me get that hunger that I needed.”
College coaches soon noticed, with offers from Illinois, Kentucky and Purdue. When Beckman ventured to Charleston to visit with Cazley in person, he was greeted by a sight he said he hasn’t seen in more than 20 years of college coaching.
“I’ve been to a lot of high schools, and he was the first one I remember where he took me around and introduced me to almost every single teacher in the building,” Beckman said. “He was the first (commit), and we told him to get the word out to others.”
Shortly after he committed last February was when Cazley decided he wanted to try to graduate early after looking at Illinois’ roster.
“We saw some (defensive backs) leaving,” he said, “so we saw a chance just to come and play.”
Hedrick is a type-A personality. He has a booming voice that should come in handy for his future profession. Hedrick wants to pursue either sports law or intellectual property law, and is currently halfway through his first year of law school at Illinois after he graduated last May from EIU in only three years.
“The day I started law school, I thought, ‘What am I getting myself into?’ ” Hedrick said with a laugh. “I’m more of a lively guy. I can’t sit down for too long or stay in one place for too long. Here I go in this profession where it’s a lot of reading and a lot of reviewing, so it’s a big adjustment because it doesn’t fit my personality.”
Dillan Cazley is a bit more reserved, a bit more laid-back in his actions. Just not on the football field. Ask Charleston coach Brian Halsey about the 5-foot-10, 175-pound defensive back and you get the following scouting report.
“He plays big,” Halsey said. “He isn’t much size-wise, but he plays like he’s 6-2 and 225. He’ll bring it. He’s a physical player and the motor’s always running.”
Despite missing the first four games of his senior season with a broken left ankle, Cazley made 70 tackles and had three interceptions in seven games for a 9-2 Trojans team last fall that made it to the second round of the Class 4A playoffs before losing to eventual state champion Rochester.
The laid-back personality may suit Cazley well, though. For every highly-touted recruit who hasn’t yet played a snap of college football, the NFL is the ultimate goal. Cazley smiles when the topic is brought up, but his serious face soon returns.
Medical school and plans to become an anesthesiologist are on his mind in case he doesn’t become the next Vontae Davis or Eugene Wilson at Illinois.
Hedrick is all for thinking ahead to life after football.
“We’re going into college with the mind-set of, ‘You’re going to be a doctor, and if the NFL happens, we’ll take the opportunity,’ ” Hedrick said. “The biggest thing I preach to him is control what you can control. You can control being a doctor. You still really can’t control whether you’ll go to the NFL.”
Seeing the success Cazley had at Charleston and knowing he can pursue a career after his time at Illinois ends leaves mom gratified.
“It’s the best joy,” Geneva Cazley said. “I’m just overflowed with joy.”
He didn’t have to adopt Dillan and Josh. But Hedrick wanted to.
“I’ve always been the one that helped them with homework when my mom was working, and I coached them in pee-wee football from when they
were little up until I left for college,” he said. “I tell people all the time it wouldn’t work if we had a traditional brother relationship prior to me adopting them. Then you go from laughing and complaining about mom being strict, and now I’m trying to tell them what to do. It would never work that way. The reason why our situation worked is they always treated me with that parental respect and as a parental figure.”
Hedrick said the adoption process took about a week after he filled out the necessary paperwork and let the family’s attorney handle all the legal requirements.
Geneva Cazley said she missed having Dillan and Josh around, but called the brothers frequently to check in.
“Oh yes, did I miss them,” she said. “But it was excellent seeing a big brother step up and get them into a different environment where they could succeed. He gave (Dillan and Josh) everything he had.”
The schedules coincided the first fall while the three adjusted to the living scenario and established a daily schedule. Hedrick was usually at O’Brien Stadium by 6 a.m. for a morning workout and arrived back in time to make sure Dillan and Josh were at Charleston High School for their day. Carpools helped transport Dillan or Josh either back to their apartment after Charleston’s practice or to practices at O’Brien Stadium, where Hedrick would take them home once he was done practicing with the Panthers.
“The people in Charleston have been great to him and those boys,” said Bellantoni, now an assistant coach at Villanova. “It’s the whole reason why we coach. The wins are nice and the money can be nice, but it’s very, very rewarding when you see someone like Keithan, who has influenced two lives already. He’s going to have kids of his own someday and have the same mark on them.”
Bellantoni still keeps in touch with Hedrick 2-3 times a month and is kept abreast of what his younger brothers are up to.
“He’s like Waldo or Forrest Gump,” Bellantoni said of Hedrick. “He’s going everywhere and meeting everyone. Things could have went the other way for that family. He and his brothers had every reason to go the opposite way of what they did, and the fact that they didn’t, that’s awesome.”
Halsey had similar sentiments for Dillan and Josh, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards his junior season with the Trojans and has numerous Division I schools interested in his talents heading into his senior season.
“Those boys fit in from Day 1,” Halsey said. “Not only were they embraced by their teammates, but by the school and the community. Dillan is a special kid, and I am so grateful that I got to spend three years with him. He’s a great role model for the people of Charleston, and I use him with my own two sons as an example.”
Dillan Cazley said it might start to sink in this spring that he is playing football at Illinois and not preparing for graduation at Charleston. The feeling will start to settle in more by late August when Illinois braces for its home opener against Southern Illinois.
“It’s just time to prove myself,” he said. “It’s time for me to make a name for myself.”
He has, to an extent, with the journeys he has already taken to arrive at Illinois.
“It’s moving fast,” Cazley said. “Just the other day, it seems like I was a junior in high school talking about how hard chemistry was. Now I’m taking college courses at Illinois. It’s a dream.”
A dream that has become reality. Just don’t expect any of the brothers to celebrate it with a home-cooked meal. Settling in around a DiGiorno pizza is a more likely scenario if Keithan, Dillan and Josh want to reminisce about where they’ve come the last three years.
“I always go back and say that I get too much credit,” Hedrick said. “They’re just two great kids who make it easy on me. I just try to be a positive example of what to do and what not to do. There wasn’t a time where I ever sat back and said, ‘Why am I doing this?’ They’re my brothers. I understood that part of my responsibility of taking them on was to make sure I provided them with what they needed to be successful.”