D3 football players with ties to Naperville sign NFL rookie free agent contracts

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Most Division III athletes simply play for the love of the game, however, two football players with ties to Naperville are among the few D3 stars this spring to sign NFL rookie free-agent contracts.

Naperville native Justin Blazek and North Central’s DeAngelo Hardy look to break through in the NFL

Neuqua Valley alum and UW-Platteville defensive lineman, Justin Blazek, along with North Central wide receiver, DeAngelo Hardy both signed their contracts shortly after the 2024 NFL Draft. Only five D3 players out of the thousands competing across the country managed to secure rookie contracts.

“It means everything, especially coming from the Division III level,” said Blazek. “You know, you always believe that you can play with anybody, and to finally get that opportunity, it just proves that other people are starting to believe the same thing.

Blazek signed his deal with the Cincinnati Bengals, while Hardy signed with the Baltimore Ravens. Naperville North alum turned Air Force Falcon, Bo Richter, also signed an NFL rookie free agent contract with the Minnesota Vikings, but his path to the league is a little more common after playing D1.

The road to making the NFL roster will be difficult for the former All-Americans, but the first step is a positive one. It’s rare for D3 players to play in the NFL, but it is possible. It shows that if you simply can get on the field, you can be found at the next level.

“I think it does help young men see that you don’t just have to be at a U of I or Minnesota or Wisconsin to have the opportunity,” said Brad Spencer, Head Coach of North Central College Football. “It’s more important that you’re worrying about yourself and your controllables and making yourself the best football player that you can be so that you’re putting yourself in a position to be seen and be recognized.”

What the All-Americans accomplished at their schools

After graduating from Neuqua Valley in 2019, Blazek excelled as a standout defensive lineman at UW Platteville, earning All-American honors in 2022 and 2023. The two-time WIAC Defensive Player of the Year was also selected as a Gagliardi Trophy semifinalist last season.

Hardy is also a two-time D3 All-American and was a key part of North Central’s National Championship teams in 2019 and 2022. NFL scouts have been keeping an eye on the Cardinal program since Hardy’s first quarterback, Broc Rutter, was signed as an NFL free agent following the 2019 season. As a sophomore, Hardy started to gain interest from those at the next level.

“It’s been different for each player, whether it’s Brock Rutter or Andrew Kamienski or any of the guys that we’ve had recently,” said Spencer. “For DeAngelo, it was a little bit ahead of the game because when teams were coming in, in 2021 to see Andrew Kamienski at receiver, every single scout would notice D’Angelo and ask who number six was.”

Number six finished his career with an NCC program leading 58 receiving touchdowns, breaking Kamienski’s record, to go along with 246 career receptions for 4,253 yards. His stats were eye-popping, but the person he is in addition to the talent, made life easier for Spencer and the Cardinals

“One of the first things I noticed about him early on whether was his freshman year or sophomore year was that he’s very coachable and that it didn’t take a lot of time to correct things,” said Spenser. “He could take a rep, do a little bit of it wrong, you could tell him, and then the very next rep, he did it right.  So when you have an athlete that’s that talented, has that size, that speed, and then he can also understand football and correct things, you know, you have something unique.”

Blazek goes through rookie camp with someone North Central College is familiar with

Blazek heads to rookie camp with another former D3 player, and someone that North Central and Hardy are certainly familiar with.

“The craziest part about it is there’s actually another guy that the Bengals signed, a wide receiver out of Cortland, It’s another D3 school up in New York,” said Blazek. “So I’ve been in touch with him, his name’s Cole Burgess. It’ll be really cool, both of us get an opportunity on the same team.”

Burgess and his Cortland Red Dragons defeated Hardy and the Cardinals in a thrilling 2023 Stagg Bowl by the score of 38-37. 

Despite signing free agent deals, Blazek and Hardy’s journey to play in the NFL has only just begun. They have to make the team through rookie mini camps, OTA’s, and other mandatory camps before getting a shot during training camp and the preseason. Blazek looks forward to the opportunity and shares some advice for those looking to make it to the highest level.

“You’re going to have to work, I mean, everybody’s going to tell you that,” said Blazek. “You’ve got to believe in yourself. Just start doing the work and make it meaningful. Believe in the work that you’re putting in and that it’s making a difference and you’ll see that it truly is.”

Hardy is already hard at work at the Ravens rookie mini camp which began on May 3rd, while Blazek will report to the Bengals camp on May 10th.

Former and Current NFL players who played high school football in the Naperville area include:

  • Jack Haman (Naperville High School)
  • Sean Payton (Naperville Central)
  • Dave Garnett (Naperville North)
  • Fabien Bownes (Waubonsie Valley)
  • Chris Ziemann (Waubonsie Valley)
  • Glenn Earl (Naperville North)
  • Chris Brown (Naperville North)
  • Justin McCareins (Naperville North)
  • Babatunde Oshinowo (Neuqua Valley)
  • Owen Daniels (Naperville Central)
  • James O’Shaughnessy (Naperville North)
  • Matt Lacrosse (Naperville North)
  • Cameron Brate (Naperville Central)
  • Troy Fumagalli (Waubonsie Valley)
  • Jonathan Harris (Waubonsie Valley)
  • Jon Rhattigan (Neuqua Valley)
  • Jayden Reed (Naperville Central)

The last North Central Cardinal to play in the NFL was Ron Selesky in 1987 with the Minnesota Vikings. NCC alum, Levert Carr had a five-year career in the league as well from 1969 to 1973.

For more sports stories and highlights, visit the Naperville Sports Weekly page!