With another successful college football season in the books, former Naperville area standouts stepped into the spotlight on the big stage to end this year. One of the top names is former Neuqua Valley quarterback Mark Gronowski, the signal caller of the now back-to-back FCS National Champions South Dakota State after a 23-3 victory over Montana earlier this month.
“It’s a special feeling, and it’s a weird deal for me, obviously, because I don’t know how to feel about it. I’m almost speechless, but it’s awesome, and i’ve done it with two different head coaches as well. That meant so much to this program and everything,” said South Dakota State QB Mark Gronowski.
Mark Gronowski’s roller coaster with the Jackrabbits
The Jackrabbits have appeared in three national title games in the last four seasons, with Gronwoski as the quarterback. However, in the spring of 2021, Gronowski suffered an ACL tear in his first National Championship appearance, which forced him to miss the 2021 season. Despite the setback, he was able to rehab and return, fueled by a desire to get back on the field and finish what he had started after falling just short as a freshman. Just over two years and two National Championships later, Gronowski now stands on top of the FCS football world as the Most Outstanding Player of the title game in back-to-back seasons.
“If you told me two years ago after that ACL tear that we were to go back-to-back National Championships, I probably would have laughed in your face just as I mean, at that moment, it was such a low for me and to see how everything is gone now, it’s just really just a dream come true,” said Gronowski.
Multiple former area athletes represent Naperville on the national stage
Gronowski is not the only former Naperville area athlete to take part in the Championship glory on the gridiron. His old Neuqua Valley receiver Patrick Hoffman was also a member of the last two Jackrabbits title teams, along with former Naperville North QB Jon Bell and former Huskie offensive lineman Jackson Kerstin. To add more local excitement, the University of Michigan had two former area standouts in former Naperville Central running back Danny Hughes and Benet Academy linebacker John Weidenbach, who became FBS National Champions when the Wolverines defeated Washington.
“It’s really cool, especially having just guys that, you know, are from back home, which makes it relatable as well. It’s always a great thing to always try and encourage them to continue to get better as well, and just having those guys around that you can they’ll hold you accountable and that you can hold them accountable is a great thing,” said Gronowski.
Gronowski takes home more than a national title
This season, Gronowski passed for 3,058 and 29 touchdowns while adding over 400 yards and eight scores on the ground. Those numbers not only helped him to another national title but it also helped him win the Walter Payton Award, which is handed out to the top offensive player in FCS football. As a former three-sport athlete during his time at Neuqua Valley, the accolades and championship pedigree come as no surprise for Gronowski’s high school football coach, Bill Ellinghaus.
“He’s a super hard worker. He’s always going to continue to improve each and every year. He doesn’t take anything for granted. He takes every team seriously, and he strives to get better every single day. That’s what makes them great, and it’s an awesome feeling for me to be able to say that I was a small part of his journey,” said Neuqua Valley Football Coach Bill Ellinghaus.
With the 2023 season now in the rearview mirror, Gronowski still has two more years left of eligibility with an opportunity to capture another FCS championship and could possibly declare for the NFL draft in 2025. But for the time being, a chance to compete for a three-peat at South Dakota State as one of the most decorated quarterbacks in FCS history is an exciting opportunity.
“It’s going to be great to see guys that don’t have names in the media and FCS that people haven’t of. It’ll be exciting to see them grow and how they take advantage of the opportunity that’s in front of them and give the look that we don’t have many guys, but will come at you every single play,” said Gronowski. For more prep sports stories, visit the Naperville Sports Weekly page!