Former Naperville football stars compete on the big stage

Mark Gronowski at QB
Donate Today Buy This Video

The 2022 college football season was a thrilling campaign to many teams. However this year was one to remember for several former stars from the Naperville area. For some it was the conclusion of an exciting career, while others were able to emerge into the national spotlight. Mark Gronowski from South Dakota State and Sam Jackon at TCU both got that championship experience. 

Former Players in the big stage

The most captivating storylines came from two former area rival quarterbacks, who were able to experience National Championship competition at the FCS and FBS level. Those gunslingers are former Neuqua Valley QB Mark Gronowski and Sam Jackson, the wide receiver turned signal caller from Naperville Central. 

“You never would’ve thought that stuff and it’s just so awesome to see everyone have the success around the Naperville community and it makes me happy and I know it makes a lot of people from back home proud of us as well,” said South Dakota State QB Mark Gronowski. 

Journey for the Jackrabbit QB

After graduating from Neuqua in 2020, Gronowski experienced extreme highs and lows as a freshman at South Dakota State. After winning the starting quarterback job that fall, the former Wildcat led his team to the 2021 FCS National Championship game against Sam Houston State. However, early in that game, Gronowski suffered a torn ACL that forced him to miss the following season. The Jackrabbits made it back to the FCS semifinal but fell to Montana State. That just fueled Gronowski for an exciting 2022 season. 

“So just learning a lot in that offseason of just not playing for a year really helped me go into this year learning a lot about the quarterback position, learning about the mental side of it and just seeing it ending this way there’s really just no better feeling. There’s really a true story book ending especially playing North Dakota State in the Championship,” said Gronowski. 

Old Teammates on their side

Gronowksi also had former Neuqua teammate Patrick Hoffman and Naperville North 2021 graduate John Bell by his side this season. The Jackrabbits made it back to the championship game where Gronowski led the team to a 45-21 win over arch rival North Dakota State. The victory resulted in the program’s first National Title as Gronowski was named the game’s Most Outstanding Player, completing 14 of 21 passes for 223 yards and three touchdowns

From FCS to FBS

The very next day, Sam Jackson and his TCU teammates stepped onto the national championship stage to face defending FBS champions Georgia. The Horned Frogs had stunned the college football world with a Semi Final upset win over Michigan the week before. Unfortunately, Jackson and TCU did not have the storybook ending the team hoped for, but seeing the former Redhawk and Gronowski get these opportunities on the big stage brings excitement back home. Especially after some classic battles on the gridiron between the two back in 2018 and 2019.

 “For all of us it’s like dreams come true and a lot of us always thought this was gonna happen eventually at some point in our lives. We dreamed of it and just to see everyone work so hard to get to this point and actually come true is just a special feeling for all of us,” said Gronowski. 

Another former Neuqua player crowned national champion

Gronowski is now the second former Neuqua Valley quarterback to win a college football National Championship. In 2019 Broc Rutter led North Central College to the Division III Championship in a rout of Wisconsin-Whitewater. To add more excitement, former Wildcat defensive end turned tight end at NCC, Matt Quinn, got that championship experience once again with the Cardinals winning the 2022 National Title over Mount Union. Neuqua Valley head coach Bill Ellinghaus has been thrilled to follow the success of his former athletes and see them continue to develop as leaders.

“I’ve coached quarterbacks on and off my whole career as the offensive coordinator and head coach. It’s been incredible to watch young men lead other men and that’s where I think the quarterback position does, that’s what Broc Rutter and Mark Gronowski obviously have been able to do with their respective teams,” said Neuqua Valley Football Coach Bill Ellinghuas. 

More success to come

Now with the season in the rear view mirror Gronowski will have three years of eligibility in Jackrabbit country. For Jackson, he has created a new chapter of football career, transferring to Cal-Berkeley earlier this month. Regardless of what happens in the coming seasons, the experiences of the 2022 campaigns for many local athletes has been unforgettable. 

“Just everyone from Naperville being successful makes me prouder from where I came from and just being from Naperville and everything like that. It’s just so special.” said Gronowski. 

For Naperville Sports Weekly, I’m Patrick Codo