Warren's De La Cruz shows off his versatility
A high school junior with mostly As and a 3.7 grade-point average, Juan De La Cruz is ahead of the curve with a career plan, too.
Unlike most kids his age, he is fairly certain about his future. He already knows he wants to be a psychologist.
"I was reading an article about psychiatry and psychology and the way the brain works and it was really interesting," De La Cruz said. "I'd really like to study that in college.
"I like helping people with their problems, and making sure they are happy and calm."
Of course, this football season, many of the people De La Cruz came into contact with were neither happy nor calm. And he certainly wasn't helping them with their problems, he was causing them.
De La Cruz terrorized opposing offensive players this season.
As the hammer in Warren's top-shelf defense that allowed just 7.6 points per game, De La Cruz rolled up a team-high 63 tackles, a team-high 20 tackles for loss and a team-high 12 sacks, not to mention an interception for a touchdown.
Because De La Cruz also caused problems for opposing defenses by making big plays for Warren as a wide receiver (he was the Blue Devils' leading receiver and caught 5 touchdowns), he became one of the most valuable players in Lake County this season.
In fact, De La Cruz was named the player of the year in the North Suburban Conference, and he is also the Daily Herald's 2018 Lake County All-Area Team Captain.
"Juan was our do-it-all player," Warren coach Bryan McNulty said. "It is no surprise that he was named the conference player of the year by the other coaches."
And yet, the postseason awards are certainly a surprise to De La Cruz himself.
Shortly after learning that he had made the varsity last year as a sophomore, De La Cruz suffered a serious injury that kept him out nearly the entire season. He broke his collar bone.
After all the rehab, he was just happy to be playing this season. He could have never dreamed that he would play so well.
"I couldn't believe it at first when I heard (about the awards)," De La Cruz said. "Being injured last year, I would have never expected this. But I just think people really liked my effort this year. I played pretty hard this year."
De La Cruz said he got good at football because of basketball.
"Playing basketball has made me a lot more athletic," De La Cruz said. "Ever since I started playing basketball, I can run faster and jump higher and cut easier. It's made me a better football player."
The 6-foot-3, 210-pound De La Cruz has always been on the tall side, but he didn't grow up playing basketball.
He tried it only because friend and teammate Josh Turner convinced him to go out for basketball in seventh grade at Viking Middle School.
"It was the very first time I even played basketball," De La Cruz said of his seventh grade tryout. "I didn't want to do it because I was so bad. I didn't know how to shoot. I couldn't even make a simple layup. But I made the team, probably because I was one of the biggest guys there and I think the coaches needed someone to rebound and box out."
De La Cruz quickly figured out basketball. His natural athleticism carried him and he has played basketball all through high school and is now a starter for the 3-1 Blue Devils.
"I was really slow when I was younger," De La Cruz said. "But I think because of basketball, I'm not slow anymore."
Besides using basketball as a form of training for football, De La Cruz also became a weight room junkie. And he spent countless hours training with his older cousin Niko, a native of Kenosha who is now playing Division II football as a cornerback at Upper Iowa University.
"Niko actually introduced me to football when I was like 7 or 8," De La Cruz said. "We would always play 1-on-1 tackle football in the backyard every Sunday after church. We'd also work out in the basement. I loved it. That's when I fell in love with football."
De La Cruz was on the freshman football team as a freshman but by the next season was promoted to the varsity along with six other sophomores, including Turner, Willis Singleton, Seamus Mellican, Adam Saul, Matt Rich and Torris Childs.
"It's been quite a ride with us seven guys," De La Cruz said. "We don't like to lose and next year as seniors, we want to make sure we create a good experience for the younger guys and keep the momentum going from this year."
De La Cruz helped Warren put together one of its most successful seasons in years, a North Suburban Conference championship for the first time in 10 years and a trip to the quarterfinals for just the third time in school history.
"I'm pretty sure we're going to be good again next year," De La Cruz said. "We want to win conference again and we want to win state for our school. But we have a lot of work to do before then."
In the meantime, De La Cruz says he will be working on his highlight tape from this season for recruiters. He's already gotten interest from Michigan State, Michigan, Northwestern and Notre Dame.
Working ahead of the curve, De La Cruz can already picture how good a diploma from any of those colleges would look on the wall of his future office.