Nearing the end of his career, O’Toole’s opportunities dwindle

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Nearing the end of his career, O’Toole’s opportunities dwindle

Illinois’ Reilly O’Toole is sacked by Purdue’s Ja’Whaun Bentley on Oct. 4. O’Toole came in to his freshman year as the backup quarterback for Nathan Scheelhaase. Entering this season as a senior, he was slated as the backup to transfer Wes Lunt.

Illinois’ Reilly O’Toole is sacked by Purdue’s Ja’Whaun Bentley on Oct. 4. O’Toole came in to his freshman year as the backup quarterback for Nathan Scheelhaase. Entering this season as a senior, he was slated as the backup to transfer Wes Lunt.

Illinois’ Reilly O’Toole is sacked by Purdue’s Ja’Whaun Bentley on Oct. 4. O’Toole came in to his freshman year as the backup quarterback for Nathan Scheelhaase. Entering this season as a senior, he was slated as the backup to transfer Wes Lunt.

Illinois’ Reilly O’Toole is sacked by Purdue’s Ja’Whaun Bentley on Oct. 4. O’Toole came in to his freshman year as the backup quarterback for Nathan Scheelhaase. Entering this season as a senior, he was slated as the backup to transfer Wes Lunt.

By Sean Neumann

Looking out the window of the eighth floor press box at Memorial Stadium, Reilly O’Toole points out that the same field he runs onto every Saturday is the same one Harold “Red” Grange once played on.

“It definitely gives you chills,” O’Toole said, thinking about the former Illini halfback.

Grange is arguably the greatest college football player of all-time.

O’Toole has heard everything about him for most of his life, having gone to the same high school, Wheaton Warrenville South, and college as him.

He’s heard all about Grange’s legendary performance against Michigan 90 years ago. The halfback scored four touchdowns in the first 12 minutes against a Wolverines defense that previously led the team to 20 consecutive wins, earning him the nickname the “Galloping Ghost.”

O’Toole has read books on him, heard pregame speeches about him and won awards with his name on it.

But sitting above the field Grange once dominated, O’Toole’s spent the last four years feeling like a ghost of his own.

***

The senior has spent most of his college career as a backup, taking solace in any opportunity to get on the field. Even if it meant being the guy holding the ball for kicks.

“I mean, I’ve done a little bit of everything — from playing one play at a time, to one series at a time, to playing until I mess up — I’ve pretty much done it all,” O’Toole said. “It really doesn’t matter to me at all. I just want to win.”

Tim Russell, a former Illini tight end who spent much of his career holding kicks, joked with O’Toole earlier in the year about his role.

“Congratulations, you’re in elite company,” O’Toole remembered Russell tell him after holding down a kick.

O’Toole may not be in the “elite company” of historic players like Red Grange, but he’s in the “elite company” of efficiency, dedication and selflessness on the field. In an era of Illini football when the train has all but derailed, O’Toole has been one of the lone marks of consistency helping guide it along the tracks.

Illinois has been 16-28 (3-24 Big Ten) since O’Toole joined the team in 2011. He’s taken just 308 snaps during that time.

“He’s handled everything like a champ,” running back Donovonn Young said. “How do you go from thinking you’re going to be the starting quarterback to just being happy with something?”

***

The quarterback came to Illinois with big expectations after high school, having led Wheaton Warrenville South to two consecutive state titles and been named the Gatorade Player of the Year in Illinois in 2010, throwing 42 touchdowns for more than 3,000 yards.

But O’Toole was quickly slated into the backup role with quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase already secured as the starter. He played in just 10 games — the most he’s ever played in his college career — completing 40 passes for 270 yards.

The quarterback spent his first three years backing up Scheelhaase, waiting along the sideline for a chance to go in. 

Scheelhaase graduated last season, but by the time O’Toole’s senior year came around, Illinois had recruited transfer quarterback Wes Lunt, another sure starter. For O’Toole, it meant another sure year of waiting for a chance.

“This year has been the epitome of who he is,” Young said. “With Wes coming in, it’s almost like a heartbreak. It’s like, ‘Damn, Nate just left, and it’s supposed to be my turn,’ and it’s not anymore because somebody else came in.”

Young understands the feeling, fighting for a starting role throughout his college career as well, currently splitting time with junior Josh Ferguson.

O’Toole and Young are two of the closest players on the Illini roster with their friendship starting before they even arrived at camp freshman year. 

The two players have experienced a lot together at Illinois: winning the 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, a change in coaching staff, a 2-10 season, and even living together during winter and summer breaks from school — all while fighting for starting roles.

“Nobody really knows he’s going through what he’s going through,” Young said. “When you’re the backup, people don’t focus on you.”

***

This season, the focus shifted onto O’Toole when Lunt began to have injury troubles in late September, eventually fracturing his fibula against Purdue.

Illini coach Tim Beckman gave O’Toole the start against Nebraska, where the quarterback threw three interceptions and was sacked four times.

“If you ever really pay attention to Reilly and the way he plays, it’s the way he lives his life,” Young said. “He was getting the living you-know-what kicked out of him in that Nebraska game, and he got up every play. You could tell some of those hits hurt and he got up and was like, ‘What’s the next play?’”

Now, Beckman said the team will look to split O’Toole’s time with sophomore Aaron Bailey, who replaced O’Toole in the fourth quarter in Illinois’ last game — a 38-28 loss to Wisconsin.

“He maintained the course,” Young said. “I’m elated every time I see Reilly on the field. If he has 400 yards, I’m happy. If he has 100 yards, I’m happy. At least he got a chance to go out there, play and do what he loves.”

With just five games left in his career and Lunt — now off crutches — recovering more each week, O’Toole’s time is running out before it seemed to begin. Opportunities were a phantom — always in sight but never able to be grasped.

When he’s gone, O’Toole’s name won’t be engraved in any statue outside of Memorial Stadium next to Red Grange. There won’t be a sign when you enter Wheaton that reads, “Home of Reilly O’Toole.” And in 90 years, it’s unlikely Illini fans will remember his name.

In a time when the program needs positivity most, the memory of Grange’s historic six-touchdown game nine decades ago is being remembered through commemorative gray Illini jerseys they will wear Saturday. 

The senior had to think for a second earlier this week when asked what he wants out his final games with Illinois. The self-sacrificing answer was what you’d expect: a few more wins for the team. 

Because a victory, whether he’s playing or not, is “up there with the greatest feelings” in the world, according to O’Toole. And at the same time, he said that’s what makes losing so tough.

“You put in all the hard work and it doesn’t pay off. You question, ‘What more can I give?’”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @neumannthehuman.