CHAMPAIGN — No reporters surround Mason Monheim.
No microphones or recorders are shoved in his face.
No trip to Chicago for Big Ten Media Days.
Sitting down at a rectangular table covered in an orange plastic tablecover, in front of plaques of NFL logos indicating where former Illinois players are currently playing, hardly anyone is paying attention to Monheim.
Media Day has just concluded at Memorial Stadium.
All of his teammates are walking down the hallway and into the team’s squadroom for a brief meeting. Monheim is about to join them on one of the padded blue cloth chairs set up like one would expect at a movie theater.
Before he does, though, the 6-foot-1, 235-pound linebacker from Orrville, Ohio, with the long flowing brown locks and freshly trimmed beard touts the advantages of his hometown.
And its most well-known product.
Just like former Illinois men’s basketball player Meyers Leonard is connected to Hershey chocolate because his hometown, Robinson, has one of the company’s plants, Monheim is tied to Smuckers.
The company best known for its jelly and jam has its headquarters roughly 1 mile from the Monheim household in the small northeast Ohio town of 8,380.
"My aunts work for Smuckers," Monheim said. "My mom worked there when she was younger. When I go to the store, I’m not getting Welch’s. I’m getting Smuckers. I used to be more of a grape jelly guy, but I turned into a strawberry jam kind of guy lately."
Every college football program has its kind of guy.
The guy fans can relate to when it comes to their favorite teams.
For Texas A&M, it’s Johnny Manziel. Alabama, AJ McCarron. Ohio State, Braxton Miller. South Carolina, Jadeveon Clowney.
Nathan Scheelhaase is perhaps most easily identified with Illinois. In 2013. Start at quarterback four consecutive seasons, like Scheelhaase will do, and the label fits.
But Scheelhaase will throw his final pass at some point this season.
Who fills the role after that? Who’s next?
"The celebrity part of it, he’ll handle OK," Orrville High School head coach Doug Davault said. "But he’s not looking for that. He loves being the guy in charge. He didn’t hesitate to voice his opinion and speak to the team when he was in high school. He wants to play football, and he wants to win. He will grasp that leadership part of it with both hands. He’s such a class kid. He’s going to represent the program the right way."
◆ ◆ ◆ ◆ ◆
Whatever Monheim likes to put on his bread, toast or bagels — he said he can lather the fruit spreads on almost anything he eats — the fabrics of the blue-collar town he grew up in are evident.
With the way the 20-year-old talks in an even clip, voice never too loud with excitement or too soft with a mumble.
With the way he deflects praise about his standout first season at Illinois, when he led the Illini with 86 tackles, tops among freshmen in the Big Ten.
With the way he discusses his upbringing.
With how he wanted to be an Orrville Red Rider.
And play in the Big Ten. From an early age.
"I was a ball boy for the varsity team from fourth grade on to my eighth-grade year," Monheim said. "It’s a small town. A slow town. I loved growing up there. People are laid-back. Everybody knows everybody."
Everybody in Orrville knows about the Monheims.
Mason’s dad, John, starred for the Red Riders football team. Captained them. And married the head cheerleader, Jan, whom he has raised five children with.
John is a dentist these days. Has been since 1986. Owns his own practice on the main drag in Orrville. Right next to the VFW.
"You can either drown your sorrows before or after you come see me," John joked.
College coaches flocked to Orrville on Friday nights in the fall. Monheim caught the attention of them early on, joining the Red Riders’ varsity program his freshman season.
"I was always hesitant to play freshmen," Davault said. "He was just a stud in junior high, and when he got to us, all the hype was for real."
Monheim showed it. Early.
A two-way starter for Orrville, Monheim ripped off a 25-yard run on his first varsity carry. He hardly ever left the field the next four seasons.
"We were trying to ease him in," Davault said, "but from that point on, he was a fixture."
◆ ◆ ◆ ◆ ◆
Recruiters were in Orrville to check out another linebacker before Monheim.
Chase Hoobler, a redshirt junior now at Indiana, was two years ahead of Monheim.
But Monheim’s play on the field made sure college coaches came away from Orrville with video on Monheim, too.
Illinois, in fact, was the first school to offer Monheim a scholarship.
From Ron Zook, whose first coaching job was at Orrville High as an assistant, when Monheim was a junior.
"At the time, I was like, ‘Wow. I’m going to see how this plays out and what offers I have,’ " Monheim said. "I didn’t really jump on it right then. I just kept going (through the recruiting process), and a lot of schools were telling me a lot of different things. Ohio State and Michigan State were wanting to see what other players would do. I chose to stick it out and see what happens."
Other offers filtered in. Mostly from Mid-American Conference programs. No other Big Ten schools, though.
"I wanted to play in the Big Ten," Monheim said. "I knew I could play in the Big Ten."
A fortuitous series of events set in motion have enabled him to do so.
◆ ◆ ◆ ◆ ◆
Alex Golesh usually has recruits fill out a standard questionnaire when they come on a visit.
Items like potential major. Any food allergies. Their parents’ names.
The second-year Illinois recruiting coordinator had the answers from Monheim in early December 2011. At Toledo. Which is where Monheim nearly went.
"I literally took the same sheet and just went off of it," Golesh said with a laugh. "That’s the first time I’ve ever had a family on an official visit at two schools in the same recruiting class."
Illinois coach Tim Beckman and Illinois inside linebackers coach Mike Ward went hard at Monheim during his recruitment. When both coaches were still at Toledo.
"He was in my area, so I was the recruiter there," said Ward, who grew up 45 minutes from Orrville in Mansfield, Ohio. "He had an offer from Illinois with the previous staff. When the staff changed, things kind of fell through the cracks. They had communicated with me throughout the whole Toledo recruiting process that, ‘Hey, we’ll commit to Toledo, but if a Big Ten offer comes, we’re probably going to take that.’ At the time, we were fine with that at Toledo. Who thought what happened would happen."
Mike Thomas summons Zook for a morning meeting Nov. 27, the day after Illinois ends its 2011 regular season with a loss at Minnesota. Fires Zook.
Spends the next 11 days searching for a coach.
Settles on Beckman, who is introduced Dec. 9.
A week later, Monheim gets a phone call. From Beckman.
On his way to his younger sister Madison’s swim meet.
"He called me up and said, ‘It’s Coach Beck. We just want you to know that your offer here still stands,’ " Monheim recalls nearly 20 months later. "I said, ‘All right.
I’m jumping on it. I want to be an Illini.’ "
Just like that, the stresses involved with the recruiting process had ended.
Needless to say, the Monheim family was ecstatic.
"They wanted to just shout for joy," Mason said with a smile.
So did Beckman. Monheim was one of the first recruits who committed to the new staff at Illinois.
"As soon as I got the opportunity to coach here at Illinois, we knew Mason was the type of young man we wanted in our program," Beckman said. "It was really a no-brainer. We wanted he and his family involved in the program."
◆ ◆ ◆ ◆ ◆
Monheim almost never became the first true freshman to lead Illinois in tackles.
Growing up, he had a better chance at becoming the next Michael Phelps than the next J Leman.
"I’ve been swimming since I was 6 years old," Monheim said. "I stopped in high school because I couldn’t keep weight on, and I knew I wanted to play football. Football was my sport, but I was definitely a pretty good swimmer."
Good enough to place in the top eight at the Division II state meet in Ohio his first two years at Orrville.
Before he dropped the sport to focus solely on football.
Jan Monheim had a good indication early on that her second-youngest child would make sure football played a prominent part in his life.
Every Halloween, it was a safe bet Mason would go trick-or-treating dressed up either as a Cleveland Browns football player, an Ohio State football player or an Orrville High School football player. Complete with jersey, pants and pads.
Monheim was a fan of Jim Tressel’s Ohio State teams.
He really didn’t have a choice. Jan and John are Ohio State graduates. But walk into John’s dentist office now, and Illinois apparel is out in full force.
"The kids were crazy Ohio State fans growing up," John said. "People come in my office now, look at me and say, ‘Who you going to root for this year?’ "
The question is typically met with this response from John.
"Seriously?" he asked with a laugh. "You really have to ask me that?"
◆ ◆ ◆ ◆ ◆
Mason calls it the 43 Crew.
A band of Monheims is apparent at every Illinois football game.
Aunts. Uncles. Grandparents.
Mason’s older sister, Ally, 23, and his twin brothers, Victor and Vincent, who are both 22. The baby of the family, 19-year-old Madison. Second cousins.
"I am truly, truly blessed to have that support from my family," Mason said. "It’s very comforting."
The family usually departs from Orrville on Friday afternoon for the six-hour trip to Champaign when Illinois plays at home. In an RV. Or a caravan of cars if they all can’t fit in the RV.
"It’s a minimum of 10-20 people," Jan said. "He’s got the biggest fan base for a kid that’s six hours away from his hometown. My husband looks up several hotels in the cities Illinois plays in. I look at him some days when he seems preoccupied and I know, in his head, he’s making travel plans."
The Monheim clan usually tries to drive to all of Mason’s games but will fly at times. Getting to Nebraska and Illinois’ game against Washington at Soldier Field in Chicago are two priorities for John Monheim’s travel itinerary this fall.
"We’re not too sure how well an RV would fit in with traffic in Chicago," Jan said with a laugh.
◆ ◆ ◆ ◆ ◆
Mike Svetina is good friends with Monheim.
They’re both in the same class at Illinois. Play the same position.
And lived an hour apart during their standout high school careers.
Svetina starred at St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland.
So when he visited Orrville earlier this summer for a few days with Monheim, culture shock soon settled in.
Monheim showed him the town. Didn’t take very long.
"It’s not really what I’m used to," Svetina said. "I went to high school in the city. His house is right in the middle of two farms."
A farmhouse with cows on the right. Cornfields to the left and in front of the family house. And woods behind the Monheim residence.
"I’m not way out in the boonies," Mason said with a smile, "but I’m definitely in the country."
Orrville is the type of town that essentially shuts down on Friday nights in the fall.
The Red Riders have made the state playoffs 22 times, winning state in 1998 and finishing second on three occasions. But the school of roughly 425 students plays in the Division IV football playoffs (fourth-largest classification in Ohio) and will play in Division V should the Red Riders make the playoffs this year under Ohio’s new seven-class system.
"He might get mad at me for this, but they’re pretty low," said Steve Hull, an Illinois wide receiver who played his prep football at Sycamore High School in Cincinnati, which plays in the largest class in Ohio. "That speaks nothing about Mason because he’s a very instinctive, very strong and aggressive football player. He’ll be really good during his career at Illinois."
And he’s playing at Illinois wanting to prove himself.
Some coaches felt he was too slow coming out of Orrville to play in the Big Ten.
Or not big enough. Or that he didn’t face enough serious competition in high school.
"Everybody tries to downplay us because (Orrville is) a small school, but we’ll get after guys," Monheim said. "We may not be big, but we’ll hit hard."
Monheim still uses those doubts to push him at Illinois.
And will likely rely on those extrinsic motivations the rest of his college career.
"Everyone has always kind of doubted me in some way," Monheim said. "I came in with a little chip on my shoulder."
◆ ◆ ◆ ◆ ◆
The list of standout linebackers at Illinois is lengthy.
Dick Butkus. Dana Howard. Kevin Hardy. Leman. Martez Wilson.
"That’s Illinois," Monheim said. "We’re Linebacker U. We’ve produced so many great linebackers. I looked up on the wall at the All-American linebackers, (and) all those guys came out of here. I definitely look up to them and strive to be a better linebacker each and every day."
All players who can relate to what Monheim might go through the next three years.
The media glare. The autograph requests. The pressure from fans, coaches and teammates to perform at a high level. Every game. Every play.
"When you talk to him, he’s a very grounded kid," John Monheim said. "When he tells you that it’s not the personal accolades that juice him, it really isn’t. He wants to play well, don’t get me wrong. He wants to play well for his teammates. He wants to win. He had sent me a text a week or two ago, and it’s one of his favorite quotes out of the Bible, and it says, ‘For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required.’ "
The 12th chapter and 48th verse in the book of Luke epitomizes how Monheim is approaching his future at Illinois.
He’d rather talk about a teammate’s strengths than his own.
He’d rather give credit to defensive linemen like Tim Kynard, Austin Teitsma, Jake Howe or Houston Bates getting a solid surge to allow him to make a tackle than boast about himself.
He got a taste of the spotlight in Orrville. Not just on the football field.
A few years ago on the Fourth of July, a young family and its newborn baby came up to Mason. Wanted to take a family photo with him.
"The guy handed Mason the baby," John Monheim said. "Turns out they had named the baby Mason after him. He’s been a good role model for the kids here in Orrville."
But he is known to pull a practical joke or two on his family.
Mainly his mother and two sisters.
Like putting a rubber band on a sink sprayer and having the water spray his mother.
Or acting like he did poorly on a test in high school to get under their skin, even though Monheim had almost a 4.0 GPA at Orrville.
"Most people only knew Mason as a football player," Jan Monheim said. "A lot of them were not fortunate to know that side of him because he is pretty quiet. I think some people were intimidated at times by how he played on the football field.
He’s really not that way at all. He’s a very approachable kind of guy."
A guy who isn’t the face of Illinois football. Yet.
But if he keeps producing like he did last fall, his time in the spotlight will arrive.
"Mason is just one of those kids that the bigger the spotlight or the bigger the stage, the better he’s going to do," John Monheim said. "Some people are the opposite. He enjoys that responsibility."