From Big Ten to Big Apple

Giants left tackle David Diehl stands on the sidelines with his wife, Nikki, after playing in Super Bowl XLII. Photo courtesy of Kaitlyn Eisner-Poor

Giants left tackle David Diehl stands on the sidelines with his wife, Nikki, after playing in Super Bowl XLII. Photo courtesy of Kaitlyn Eisner-Poor

By Laura Hettiger

In 2001, the Fighting Illini football team won the Big Ten Championship and secured a spot in the Sugar Bowl against Louisiana State University.

In 2008, the New York Giants finished the season 14-6, defeating the then-perfect New England Patriots en route to becoming Super Bowl Champions.

And during both of these “unbelievable accomplishments,” David Diehl, the current starting left tackle for the defending league champions, was commanding both offensive lines, first for the Illini and now for the Giants.

But five years ago on draft weekend, Diehl returned home to Chicago, having no idea a Giants jersey, let alone a Super Bowl ring, was in his future. Then, in the fifth round on the second day of the draft, he received a phone call from Jim Fassel, former Giants head coach, welcoming him to the organization.

“I had no idea that I was going to be a New York Giant,” Diehl said. “I had no clue. If you would have asked me before the draft if I was going to be a New York Giant, I would have said, ‘There is no way, there is a 100 percent chance that I’m not going to be …’ then sure enough, here I am, I’m a New York Giant going into my sixth year.”

The 6-foot-5, 319-pound lineman graduated from the University of Illinois early, in just three-and-a-half years. He then enrolled in the Human Resource Education graduate school while training for the draft. Diehl has one class left to complete – an educational psychology course – before obtaining his master’s degree. But the self-proclaimed “alumni of the University of Chief Illiniwek” knows he can always finish his degree; he can’t always play in the National Football League.

“I need to go back to finish that one class to finish my master’s,” Diehl said. “It’s something I can always do, but the opportunity to play in the NFL at that point in time, I thought, was more important. I can always go back, but I felt preparing for the draft and combine and stuff was more important.”

During the spring of 2003, Diehl went to Phoenix to continue conditioning for the draft. He then attended the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, where he talked with various teams, including the Cleveland Browns, Minnesota Vikings, St. Louis Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

In his and his agent’s minds, the combine was a success because it gave Diehl the opportunity to get his name mentioned among the other draft hopefuls.

However, when draft weekend arrived, Diehl’s nerves were on end.

“You just try to stay as relaxed as possible, but it’s pretty much beyond your control,” he said. “I mean, you’ve done everything you can do; you played your years in college; you’ve interviewed with almost every team more than one time in the NFL at the combine, and … it’s pretty much out of your control.”

To keep his mind occupied, on the first day of the draft, Diehl went golfing with some friends. Not expecting to be a first-round pick anyway, he knew the real action would take place Sunday. His friends, family and his current wife, Nikki, all gathered around the television, ate pizza and kept all of the phone lines open in anticipation of the big, life-changing phone call that was sure to come.

After 159 picks, Diehl finally received the call that changed his life forever.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling to get to talk to the head coach, talk to the offensive line coach,” Diehl said. “It’s just a tremendous accomplishment because you know what it took to get there and how hard you worked to get to that point.”

But, as he explains, the real work began after players were assigned to their respective teams. Regardless of what round each of the rookies were drafted, all had to prove themselves.

“When you’re in (the draft), whether you are a first-rounder or a third-rounder, they don’t care where you’re from,” Diehl said. “If you practice hard and prepare hard, your chances at making the team are great.”

Looking back at his own draft experience, Diehl is pleased with his career as a professional football player. Not only is he a Super Bowl champion, but he has kept great friendships from his days wearing the Orange and Blue.

Throughout his NFL career, Diehl has faced numerous ex-teammates and created college rivalries with some of his fellow Giants. When the Illini play the alma mater of one of his teammates, they bet a lunch or dinner on it – loser’s treat.

“This season was the first year I’ve been getting a lot of dinners bought for me, unlike in the past,” laughed Diehl, referencing the Illini’s unexpected run to the Rose Bowl. “They had a great year, and to be able to get all those (free) meals I had, to be able to show off to other people, it was great.”

With the draft now just minutes away, Diehl would love for more Illini to play alongside him in the Big Apple.

“It would be awesome, for me, (because) my first five years here, I was the only person from Illinois on our team … I’m glad that we could get to have another Illini on the team, someone to side with me, it would be awesome to have another guy on the team, you know? When you play, or somebody who is there now who was with you (in college) … As a football player and alumni, we want as many Illinois football players as you can in the league, let alone on your team and the rest of the NFL, that’s the route you want to go.”