Faith and football

Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase slid on his blue pants, pulled over his white No. 2 jersey, applied his eye black in the shape of a cross. He then sent a text, as usual, to his pastor before joining the team for warmups — business as usual in preparation for a football game.

But there was little chance an injured Scheelhaase would play as Illinois prepared to take on Arizona State. He was told he would only be available in emergency situations after being carted off the field a week before with an ankle injury.

It was the first time in his entire life that he would have to sit out a game due to injury — quite the feat considering that a large part of Scheelhaase’s game comes from his rushing ability.

His 27-game streak of consecutive starts was coming to an end, but if he felt any measure of doubt or disappointment, it never showed on his face.

He never even mentioned a hint of feeling sorry for himself to any of his closet friends.

“I’m sure it’s a lot harder on him than it shows,” backup quarterback Reilly O’Toole said.

“He’s really handling it great,” said Illini wrestler B.J. Futrell, one of Scheelhaase’s best friends.

“Probably a lot better than I would be handling the situation.”

On the sidelines during that game and the Illini’s next game against Charleston Southern, an unknowing observer would never have mistaken him for the injured starting quarterback.

Instead, they could’ve mistaken him for “Coach Scheelhaase,” as Illinois head coach Tim Beckman called him earlier this week.

It was fitting, considering that during a time when Scheelhaase was not able to help the team physically, he did all he could to help his team off the field.

He was often the first to greet quarterbacks O’Toole or Miles Osei with frantic questions: “What you see? What you see? I saw this.”

O’Toole said Scheelhaase felt like another coach on the sidelines but someone who was more approachable than other coaches when he struggled. He didn’t stop at the quarterbacks — he was engaged with his receivers and with linemen staying in the game without being in the game.

But has it been hard sitting out two consecutive weeks?

“Well, this past week was a little easier ­— we win 44-0,” he said without hesitation or an inkling of insincerity. “That’s what matters, getting a win.”

That kind of selflessness is part of Scheelhaase’s character. He is a devout Christian (just look at his Twitter account), and his religion has largely shaped his character. It helps him remain even-keeled about the game of football with perspective to the game of life.

That’s why it doesn’t matter that two of his best friends on the team are O’Toole and Osei — the two people competing for his job. But Scheelhaase welcomes the competition. In fact, he relishes it.

*The ultimate competitor*

It was a 2007 morning after Scheelhaase made his first career start for Rockhurst High School in his hometown of Kansas City, Mo. The team was scheduled to meet that morning at 8:30 despite playing the previous night in Oklahoma — a 21-7 victory against Edmond Santa Fe High School — and hadn’t arrived home until after 1 a.m.

When head coach Tony Severino, still exhausted, arrived at the field an hour before his team was scheduled to arrive, he was greeted with a surprise.

Scheelhaase and his father were running 100-yard dashes.

“Right there, I knew,” he said. “I said, ‘Man, we got a special guy here.’”

Everyone who speaks about Scheelhaase uses the word competitive in describing his character and how much he doesn’t like to lose.

A trait not uncommon for a Division-I athlete, but Scheelhaase just doesn’t like to lose — in anything. Football, basketball, sand volleyball, “Call of Duty,” “NCAA Football 13.” He doesn’t want anyone to outwork him or outlift him. Futrell joked that he wouldn’t even want to lose a gum-chewing contest.

O’Toole and wide receiver Ryan Lankford said they can tell even from another room when Scheelhaase and his biggest competitive rival, Osei, are playing video games — Osei said he usually wins — because of all the smack talk.

For someone who is extremely competitive, it has to wear on him inside that he can’t be out there on the field. But Scheelhaase is willing to do whatever it takes to win. He’s never cared whether he’s had the best passing numbers, has had to use his legs or has had to help from the sidelines, as long as the Illini win.

Scheelhaase has received his share of criticism during his two years as Illinois’ quarterback. His passing numbers improved from his first year, but the offense seems inept at times, especially during last season’s six-game losing streak. Illinois didn’t score more than two touchdowns at any point during that streak. And the offense’s struggles were highlighted during an abysmal performance against three-win Minnesota, a game in which Scheelhaase threw for just 15 yards.

At times, Scheelhaase’s competitiveness has been one of his biggest downfalls.

“Probably the biggest mistake that he’ll ever make is just ones that when he thinks he can make a play that nobody else can make, and he’s going to try it,” Severino said. “Now, I think what he’s learning is that sometimes you just got to know when to take your losses and throw the ball away or don’t take the hit. He’s always been one of those guys that can say, ‘Hey, I can get it done.’”

He’s never let the negativity get it to him, much because of his strong faith in God. Scheelhaase said last year that he knows he’ll have to endure some persecution. After all, Jesus Christ had to endure the same.

*A leader in Christ*

Last Sunday, Scheelhaase and Osei were baptized by water for the first time by Illini chaplain Jason Epperson. Baptism is a representation of a rebirth and cleansing of the soul.

Scheelhaase makes no secrets about his relationship with God, as he posted the photo on Instagram and Twitter. As the quarterback of the football team, and arguably the most popular current Illinois athlete, he understands that everything he does is under scrutiny.

“When you’re in a position of such high visibility, a lot of people are going to like you,” said Gary Grogan, pastor at Urbana’s Stone Creek Church, where Scheelhaase attends services every Sunday. “But there’s going to be other people that don’t like you, especially if you lose.”

Grogan and Scheelhaase text each other usually before and after every football game, even though Grogan is usually in the stands right behind the Illini bench.

And he is no stranger to Illini athletes, or quarterbacks for that matter. Former Illini Juice Williams and Eddie McGee both attended Stone Creek Church.

But Grogan notices something different about Scheelhaase.

“It just amazes me how steady he is he,” Grogan said. “He doesn’t get down emotionally like some athletes I’ve known over the years. He has a really well-balanced, mature perspective.”

So when things go wrong — like a losing streak, or when he receives backlash from his Twitter followers about his religious tweets or an injury — it doesn’t faze him.

Those qualities have made Scheelhaase the undoubted leader of the Illinois football team, the one players are always asking for reminders about meeting times and workouts and a player who is expected to get back on the field when the Illini face Louisiana Tech on Saturday.

“Illinois has a special guy,” Severino said. But he quickly corrected himself.

“No, Champaign has a special guy.”

_Jamal can be reached at [email protected] and @JamalCollier._