Talk softly and carry a big hit
Pass by Joey Rhattigan in a Neuqua Valley hallway, it's been said, and you might not notice him except for a little smile and a soft hello.
There was nothing soft about Rhattigan on the football field. As the going got tough in the Wildcats' best season in history, Rhattigan got tougher. He ran, as offensive line coach Clayton Figi said, "with reckless, punishing abandon."
There certainly were other elements that drove 12-1 Neuqua Valley to its first Upstate Eight Conference title, this time in the Valley Division, since 2006, and its first undefeated regular-season record and state semifinal appearance in its history.
The defining individual wearing navy and gold, however, was No. 36, tailback Joey Rhattigan. The captain of the 2012 DuPage County All-Area Football Team left an indelible imprint.
"I have a son (Michael) who is a junior running back at Joliet Catholic," said Bolingbrook coach John Ivlow, whose Raiders allowed 5 often-unbelievable Rhattigan touchdown runs in Neuqua's 44-33 Class 8A second-round win on Nov. 2.
"He told me, 'As of Nov. 5, I am Joey Rhattigan.' Is there a bigger compliment than for someone wanting to be like you?"
The 6-foot, 200-pound Rhattigan definitely created admiration. Three touchdown runs in that Bolingbrook game displayed the range of his abilities that earned Wildcats game, season and all-time rushing records.
There was an 84-yard model of offensive execution. Left tackle Andrew Geers, left guard Jason Vandermyde and center Nick Bilgri cracked down, right guard Kyle Bryant and right tackle J.P. Quinn trapped left and fullback T.J. Scruggs scraped the backside tackle. Patiently -- in split-second football time, of course -- Rhattigan let that all happen, burst through the line untouched and outran five defenders on the way to the end zone.
There was the scrum. Rhattigan took the handoff at the Bolingbrook 5-yard line and was hit shoulder-high, a mistake, at the 6. He shrugged that off but encountered one, two, three Raiders at the 3. They lay sprawled at his feet as Rhattigan (with assistance from behind by Geers and fullback Andrew Fraczek) pushed a 12-man pile across the goal line for the go-ahead score.
"I thought to myself, just keep driving myself and good things will happen," Rhattigan said.
Then there was the 53-yard touchdown Wildcats coach Bill Ellinghaus called "the best high school football run I've ever seen."
Rhattigan went up the gut, broke an arm tackle at the line and stepped out of an ankle grab only to fall into the grasp of two other Raiders. Seemingly stalled, he kept the legs churning till the tacklers fell off just as another Raider whacked him full speed. That guy bounced off, Rhattigan veered to the sideline and beat pursuit to dive in for the final score.
"I felt like clapping for him," Ivlow said. "I hear he is a real classy kid also, which is what I like to see."
Rhattigan -- Figi called him "a humble and hungry young man" -- said that was a play he won't forget. He assessed it honestly and shared the wealth.
"It was a really good effort by me, but if you watch the play I'm kind of getting tackled by three, four guys and one of my linemen (Bryant) just kind of cleans house. It's really cool."
This fall Rhattigan cleaned house of Neuqua Valley rushing records. He established career marks with 536 carries, 3,703 yards and 56 touchdowns.
Those 5 touchdown runs against Bolingbrook tied a school record and his 346 yards rushing set another. His 294 carries for 2,226 yards and 33 touchdowns this year all established new marks, the carries record dating to the Wildcats' first year as a varsity program in 1998. Rhattigan also caught 2 touchdown passes and had 2 kickoff returns for touchdowns, of 85 and 99 yards.
"I'm more motivated to win a football game than to set a record. You're proud of yourself and you're proud that you can contribute to a big aspect of a team," Rhattigan said. " ... My goals coming in as a senior were just win as many games as possible and be the best team Neuqua's seen. I think we did pretty well at that."
The Bolingbrook game obviously wasn't in isolated incident. Rhattigan ran for 261 yards against Naperville Central, 228 against Naperville North in the first round of the playoffs and 292 yards on 40 mud-caked carries against Waubonsie Valley in the quarterfinals.
"He basically put us on his back and said let's go for a ride," Ellinghaus said of the Wildcats' second win over Waubonsie.
"He will run 4.6 in pads after breaking seven tackles and running the ball 35 times. That is something you just won't see."
A two-year varsity tailback who also got some starts at fullback as a sophomore, Rhattigan earned Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Class 8A All-State honors. He was the Upstate Eight Conference Valley Division's co-offensive player of the year with another wonderful tailback, Waubonsie Valley's Austin Guido, who set 12 of his own program's rushing records.
"He has tremendous power, he has incredible balance on his feet," said former Neuqua coach Bryan Wells, now an assistant at Aurora Christian. "He also has a very high football IQ, but more than that, he's a lot like his older brother, T.J. (now at Penn State), in that the ability to play fast, aggressive and tenaciously combined with that competitive greatness makes him a special player."
Big numbers off the field
Joey Rhattigan's numbers are special. A bench press of around 320 pounds, squat of 420, a 250-pound power clean -- and a 4.0 grade-point average. He's gotten straight A's throughout high school, which earned him an official visit to Princeton this weekend and one to Cornell the next.
"It is pretty time consuming," Rhattigan said of academic and athletic demands. "You've just got to set your priorities straight and manage your time well and get the job done."
Harvard, Penn State and Boise State are also on the radar, and Rhattigan, who has a younger brother, Jon, in eighth grade, has applied to the Army, Navy and Air Force. Both his grandfathers were Army men.
"I think there are appropriate times to be real serious and appropriate times to kind of relax yourself," Joey said. "I think my personality would work fine being at one of those schools."
Perhaps his personality, described by those who know him as a combination of earnestness, confidence, humility and respectful regard, was forged by his family starting in his birthplace of Pittsburgh. Shortly thereafter Father T.J. (Thomas Joseph) moved the family to another football hotbed, Ann Arbor, Mich., before settling in Naperville when Joey entered the first grade.
"He's got that workman's mentality that, I'm going to go to work and do my dead-level best no matter if it's a Thursday practice," Ellinghaus said. "He was going to give us his best each and every time he was out there. Coaches can say that, but when you've got your best football player working hard each and every time on the field, that's going to do volumes for the team."
Figi said Rhattigan's success never got to his head.
"It's really easy for a teenage boy to get excited about his status as a player and to be disrespectful," Figi said. "People in the hallways just flocked around him. And he could abuse that power, but he doesn't.
"I'm inspired by it. It's pretty darn impressive."
Rhattigan kept his head, kept his feet, kept his will to win and kept Neuqua Valley moving toward the best season it's ever had.
"I can't stress enough how much of a team we became through that season," Rhattigan said. "It's easy when you're winning games, but win or lose I built some great relationships with some people I didn't know very well before the season, and I'm very thankful for that. It was just a fun year. It gives me a lot to reflect upon over my high school years."