Geneva's Pat Schiller remembers the digs.
"People always told me I wasn't big enough, wasn't fast enough, played at the wrong high school," said the former Vikings and Northern Illinois University linebacker. "I've kind of lived my life trying to prove people wrong."
After the 6-foot-2, 235-pound Schiller signed a free-agent contract with the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday he received a text message from an old naysayer. In part, it said, "I laughed at you."
No one's laughing now. On May 10 the 23-year-old Schiller, who last fall registered 115 tackles, 10 for loss and 2 sacks for the Huskies, will report to the Falcons' rookie minicamp.
"It just shows that anybody can really do it if they really put their minds to it," he said.
Mental toughness was crucial to come back from a torn ACL suffered in practice before the spring game of his sophomore year, which held him out of NIU's first four games his junior season. Schiller recorded 18 tackles as a backup linebacker then hit it big last fall, NIU's linebacker of the year and a second-team all-Mid-American Conference.
"Coming back my senior year, having as good of a senior year as I did, I think that's kind of a good comeback story," said Schiller, whose former opponent at Batavia, Eastern Illinois offensive lineman Mike Garrity, signed a workout contract with the Bears.
"Now it's just more icing on the cake, I'd say," Schiller said. "I feel a hundred percent and I don't even notice my knee anymore. It's more just to show I was able to overcome that and (despite) missing the majority of my junior year I was still able to get a shot at the NFL."
Schiller had a workout with the Bears on April 13, hit it off with the staff and then, he said, "the rest was kind of word-of-mouth."
He perhaps has a brother in arms with Atlanta regional scout Ran Carthon, son of former NFL running back Maurice Carthon. Ran Carthon was an undrafted free agent who played three seasons with the Indianapolis Colts.
"When I talked to the scout he said he really liked how I was able to get around the field, how I was able to be all over the field as far as a sideline-to-sideline player. He felt I could move really well as an inside linebacker," Schiller said.
No longer small or slow, the long-ago Tri-City Charger bench-pressed 225 pounds 25 times, ran the 40-meter dash in 4.68 seconds, recorded a 36-inch vertical leap and did a 10-foot broad jump.
"They like both my speed and my versatility, and that I could make an impact right away on special teams and potentially competing at linebacker," he said.
On April 26, the first day of the NFL Draft, Schiller got a call from the Falcons "asking a few questions." He didn't hear back from them until 9 a.m. Saturday, as the last day got under way.
"Just be by my phone and they'd be getting in contact with me," he said. "Basically, I was just waiting around my phone hoping they didn't take a linebacker."
Surrounded by family and friends, shortly after Schiller's college roommate, quarterback Chandler Harnisch, was selected with the 253rd and final pick of the Draft -- Schiller regards him as anything but "Mr. Irrelevant" -- he got two phone calls. The first was from his agent, Dave Lee, noting he'd been offered a free-agent contract; then a follow-up call from Ran Carthon.
"I was ecstatic," Schiller said. "I was real fortunate that I didn't have to wait a long time to see what was going to happen. I almost felt like I got drafted. It was almost like I was the 254th pick."
Along came the deluge of congratulations, some from those who once ridiculed his prospects and goals. But no more.
"I've been told my whole life that I couldn't do it," Schiller said. "If anybody wants to do it, they could do it -- if you put in the effort and the work."
Game for a cause
Wheaton Academy's baseball game May 7 against Aurora Christian is not your normal game.
To be played at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark in Geneva starting with the sophomores at 4:30 p.m. and varsity at 6:30, it will serve as a fundraiser for Wheaton Academy's Project Lead (Leadership Education and Development), which branches into global, local and campus concerns.
Monday's fundraiser supports a global cause -- sponsoring 20 orphans in the small town of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, rocked by a January 2010 earthquake.
Wheaton Academy outfielder and Batavia resident Mike Kuppler, second baseman Drew Sandberg and outfielder Karsten Hultgren are ballplayers affiliated with Project Lead. On Friday, they're going to Aurora Christian to provide an overview of the project. Proceeds from concessions, collection stands and admission fees -- $5 for adults, $3 for students -- will go to "The Haiti 20," as Warriors coach Brad Byrne called the orphans.
"It's kind of interesting," Kuppler said, "that a lot of people see high school people being in an awkward phase, kind of in the position where they're still learning but don't really know how to influence. I think it's really cool that a bunch of high schoolers are able to help out and raise a bunch of money in support of a community across the ocean, and show the love of God to this community in Haiti."
This is the most recent major undertaking for Project Lead's global branch, which is led by boys soccer coach and Bible teacher Jeff Brooke and English teacher Margaret Becker. The seven-year Zambia project raised more than a million dollars to construct a high school, among other things, in the Kakolo Village in Zambia. A book on that project, written by former Warriors soccer coach Chip Huber, was released Tuesday.
One project rolled into another. To date $27,000 has been raised toward the sponsorship of the 20 orphans, working with a company called World Orphans.
"The primary goal is to empower these 20 orphans," Brooke wrote in an email. He said a goal is to fund buildings for improved orphan care. During Wheaton Academy's Winterim break in January, 40 students went to Haiti to meet the orphans, conduct medical clinics, a youth rally, Bible classes and water distribution projects, Brooke wrote.
"We will return to Haiti next January with more students in hopes that the passion for these people continues to spread throughout our campus," he wrote, adding a May 10 home girls soccer game against Andrew will also promote the cause.
"Obviously we're all for helping out in whatever way we can, especially for the less fortunate whether it be countries or children," said Aurora Christian baseball coach Andy Zorger, whose own team will be doing community service at Feed My Starving Children in Aurora.
"Definitely we're on the same page with Wheaton Academy with having that be a goal of our program, our school," he said.
On and off the baseball diamond, it seems to be catching.
"I think we have three, four guys who went to Haiti, so they know it firsthand," Kuppler said. "They along with our whole community at Wheaton Academy have gotten on board this year and have made this project ours and not Project Lead's. It's Wheaton Academy's project, and they get that they help people by playing this game.
"So it's bigger than just a baseball game between two schools. It's two teams competing to help support this community in Haiti."