Naperville natives reflect on being National Champions with Michigan

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Naperville natives Danny Hughes and John Weidenbach share their experience of being National Champions.

“We accomplished our main goal; we beat Ohio State, beat Michigan State, won the Big Ten, won the Rose Bowl, and then won the whole thing. It was awesome, I wouldn’t want to go out any other way,” said 2024 College Football National Champion, Danny Hughes. 

Hughes and Weidenbach have a lineage at the University of Michigan, and both celebrated with their families after being named NCAA FBS National Champions of college football. 

The number one-ranked Michigan Wolverines beat the number two-ranked Washington Huskies 34-13 on Jan. 8, to give the program its first National Championship since 1997.

Naperville natives and walk-ons for the Maize and Blue

Hughes, a standout running back at Naperville Central who graduated in 2019, finished on top in his last ever football game, as he’s now a graduate student at U of M. Weidenbach, a 2023 Benet Academy Academy grad, is just a freshman on campus. Still, both share a connection of being Naperville natives, National Champions, and preferred walk-ons for the Wolverine football team. Preferred walk-ons have a spot on the roster, but don’t receive a full athletic scholarship. 

“I mean guys like Danny (Hughes), they laid the foundation for what it means to be a walk-on at Michigan,” said Weidenbach.

Hughes wraps up his playing career with Michigan

Over the past five seasons in the Michigan football program, Hughes earned a varsity letter in four of them. He went from being on a team that went 2-4 in 2020 during the COVID-19 season, to undefeated National Champions. 

“I think the biggest thing that’s changed a lot from that team that went 2-4 during COVID, to the last three years has been the culture,” Hughes explained. “Coach Harbaugh and Coach Herb and all the other coaches have done a great job of flipping the culture.”

Hughes was on the special teams unit during the College Football Playoff and made his moment count in the final minutes of the Natty, by finishing a tackle on a kickoff.

Weidenbach’s family history with Wolverine Athletics

“I was just really happy that they decided to bring one out [The previous six kickoffs resulted in touchbacks],” said Hughes. “All game I was waiting for one because I was only playing on kickoff in the championship. So I wanted a little bit of action, you know? They brought it out and I was happy that the ball was kind of by me, so I could jump in and get in on the play.”

Only a few years before the 1997 championship, John Weidenbach’s great-uncle Jack served as the Athletic Director from 1990 to 1994 at Michigan. There’s even an athletic building on campus named in honor of him. 

“So he’s 99 (years old) now, he helped Bo Schembechler out there. He (Schembechler) asked Jack to help with the Title IX, and everything going on with women in sports,” said Weidenbach. “He was also the athletic director, but yeah, Jack’s still around, I saw him in the summer.”

Since he was a child, Weidenbach has been attending games, and although other schools were recruiting him, it was impossible to turn down his dream.

“When this option and opportunity came forth, I knew I had to take it,” said Weidenbach. “I remember talking to my brothers about it, they would have done anything to be at Michigan.”

Weidenbach, an All-Conference linebacker at Benet, now plays the same position for Michigan. It was an unforgettable way to begin his collegiate career, embracing the moment with Hughes and his family during the post-game celebrations.

“It was awesome, especially with my family watching that happen in the stands. Seeing the confetti come down, Harbaugh holding up the trophy, it was awesome.”

Hughes’s grandfather, Carl Jahn, graduated from Michigan in 1967 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Landscape Architecture. Hughes was cutting the grass during his time as a Wolverine running back.

Walking away from the game as a National Champion

He finished his career with nine rushes for 48 yards, an average of 5.3 yards per carry, and one reception for three yards.

This spring, Hughes will finish his master’s degree in management from the Stephen M. Ross School of Business.

A handful of graduate students and seniors will be leaving the U-M program, but the culture they set will be felt next season.

“I’m going to miss guys like Danny, I’m going to miss all these seniors,” said Weidenbach. But, the foundation has been laid, and Coach Herb, Coach Harbaugh, all the coaches, we’re going to keep it going, and try to get another one.”

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