Signing day: A tale of two future Big Ten players
It’s a 10-minute walk from Cary Quadrangle to John Strauser’s classes. If he gets hungry during the day he can stop by the Purdue Memorial Union for a burger using his “Boiler Bucks.”
Tuition is taken care of. So are his books. And dorm expenses. And food. For the next four-plus years.
Fresh off a banner season at St. Thomas More, Strauser is living a dream. One he will share this year with 3,000 other newly minted Division I-A football scholarship winners.
It is select company. Coaches hoard their scholarships like a squirrel hoards nuts for the winter. They don’t throw them away. You don’t get one because you come from a good family or you are nice to your neighbors. Talent and potential determines who goes to school for free.
“It’s an honor,” Strauser said. “It’s something that you can’t take for granted. I don’t think all of the kids who are on full scholarship realize how nice it is. When you stop and really think about it, it’s pretty amazing.”
Kevin Carroll spent a late-afternoon hour Wednesday in a theology class at St. Thomas More. After a quick stop at his locker, Carroll was off to basketball practice. A team captain, he is an important part of Matt Kelley’s team.
A News-Gazette All-State receiver in 2012, Carroll has Big Ten football plans. Just like Strauser. But his college route is just a bit different.
After a recent conversation with Illinois coach Tim Beckman, Carroll accepted an offer to be a preferred walk-on. It means he is being counted on to contribute.
On the practical side, there is no free tuition. Or “Illini Bucks” to buy a burger at the Union. If he wants something to eat while in college, it will come out of his own pocket. For now.
Each year, the school rewards productive walk-ons with scholarships. For former St. Joseph-Ogden standout Zach Becker, it came early in his career. The same could happen for Carroll.
Carroll likes Beckman’s ideas about walk-ons.
“He talked about his history,” Carroll said. “When he was in college he got D-II and D-III looks, too. But he wanted to go D-I and prove himself.”
Beckman went to Kentucky as a preferred walk-on. During his time in Lexington, the walk-ons were separated from the scholarship players during weight lifting. They had a different locker room.
As coach at Illinois, Beckman doesn’t separate the walk-ons from the scholarship players. Receivers work out with receivers.
“That really got me,” Carroll said.
Carroll is fine with paying his own way. His dad Mike is a doctor at Carle. His mom Susan is a teacher. They have the means to pay for their youngest to go to college.
Carroll had opportunities. Some from Division II. Some from Division III.
“Illinois is more at home,” Carroll said. “I grew up going to all the games. It’s been a childhood dream of mine to wear the Orange and Blue and play for Illinois.
“My Dad played for Illinois back in the ’80s. I wanted to follow in his footsteps.”
Strauser had other options too, but picked Purdue in late June. Illinois offered a scholarship. So did Pitt and Northern Illinois.
“He really liked Purdue,” St. Thomas More coach Dan Hennessey said. “He fell in love with the school.”
When Purdue fired Danny Hope, Strauser could have re-opened his recruitment. But with the promise of a scholarship from Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke, he stuck to his original choice.
The decision was confirmed when new coach Darrell Hazell let Strauser know the new staff wanted him, too.
“I think the team morale is high,” Strauser said. “Kids are buying into what Coach Hazell is telling us to do and we can get so much better. Kids are seeing it. He knows what he’s doing. He wants to win and that’s what I want do, too.”
Strauser’s dorm is conveniently located next to Ross-Ade Stadium. While he has a short jaunt to classes, it doesn’t take Strauser much time to get to daily workouts.
“The food’s good,” Strauser said. “It’s not as good as Mom’s, but it’s good.”
Until spring practice starts in March, Strauser’s days are pretty much the same. He wakes at 6:30 a.m. to get ready for classes, which end at 11 a.m. After lunch, he does homework for a couple of hours. He has weight lifting at 2 p.m., followed by more homework, training table and study hall. He’s in bed by 10 or 10:30 p.m.
“Then, I start it all over,” Strauser said.
Strauser is taking five classes for 16 credits. He is studying operational leadership supervision, part of the College of Technology.
“It’s more like a business degree,” Strauser said.
His long-term goal is to become an athletic director.
Strauser’s and Carroll’s worlds will collide Nov. 23. That’s when the Illini visit Ross-Ade Stadium for a game with the Boilermakers.
“When you play your hometown school, there’s probably a little extra motivation,” Strauser said. “It’s a Big Ten game. I don’t think you can get anything bigger than a conference game, where you could have Rose Bowl implications on the line.”
It’s going to be a bit on the strange side for Strauser, who has lived in the same city as Illinois, where his dad Dave is a professor. “I don’t think anyone on the team is going to say ‘Strauser’s from Champaign. We’ve got to win this one for him,’ ” Strauser said. “We need to win it because we need the Big Ten win.”
He has already heard about Brian Cardinal, another local-turned-Boilermaker.
The Purdue-Illinois game is also going to be strange for Hennessey.
“It will be a little different,” Hennessey said. “I’ll pull for John at Purdue. I don’t know what I’ll do when they play each other. I may have to stand in the middle of the field.”
Carroll can’t wait.
“I’ve thought about that,” Carroll said. “I’m going to be excited to see (Strauser) play and to play against him.”
St. Thomas More, a school of 280, has sent its fair share of athletes on to college. But two football players in the same year to the Big Ten? That’s news.
“I’m ecstatic over it,” Hennessey said. “These two kids have just went above and beyond. It’s a big thing for our football program and for our school.”
Strauser’s ability to leave St. Thomas More a semester early and enroll at Purdue gives him an advantage, Hennessey said. Both academically and athletically.
“I think it’s huge for him,” Hennessey said. “He loves it.”
Strauser had to adapt from being at a small school to one with 40,000 students.
“It’s weird to think about when I go into a lecture and there are more people in my lecture than in my entire high school,” Strauser said. “I’m getting used to it.”
Hennessey is disappointed more schools didn’t come after Carroll with scholarships. He points to an ultra-productive receiver and talented athlete.
“I was a little confused that there weren’t as many other schools looking at him,” Hennessey said. “I think it was probably just a numbers game.”
What’s the difference between scholarship-athlete Strauser and walk-on Carroll?
“It could be the want and the need of the university they are looking at,” Hennessey said. “Purdue looked at John and saw the defensive ability.”
No matter the path, Hennessey said both Strauser and Carroll will be contributors at their schools.
“Just because of the mental aspect of what they bring,” Hennessey said. “John is a student of the game and Kevin is the same way. He works at his pass routes, his makeup, day in and day out. He really goes after it to be that 100 percent receiver.”
Carroll will also have a heavy load away from the football field. He’s following his dad into the medical field, majoring in biology.
“I’m not sure what kind of doctor, I just know I want to be a doctor,” Carroll said. “It’s a pretty good job.”