Friday, November 16, 2012

The last time Neuqua Valley...

...played Mount Carmel* they were led by a kid named T. J. Rhattigan, above. Tomorrow night, the Wildcats will be led by his younger brother, Joey Rhattigan.

So who are these Rhattigan brothers, anyway?

Well, T. J. is now a linebacker at Penn State, which is also known as "Linebacker U." A preferred walk-on, he turned down a number of scholarship offers to play for Joe Paterno. In addition to linebacker, he played wide receiver and running back as a true freshman. This past spring, however, T. J. tore his ACL during the annual Spring game. He's currently rehabbing and is expected to see time on special teams next year.

Oh, and in that playoff game against Mount Carmel? T. J. had 25 solo tackles. In fact, he holds several defensive records at Neuqua, including most career tackles, solo tackles and forced fumbles. As a senior, T. J. was named All State by the Illinois High School Coaches Association.  No wonder the Nittany Lions wanted him.

As for his younger brother, Joey, Penn State has also shown interest in the star running back. But the younger Rhattigan is considering a number of Division I programs, including Indiana, Western Michigan, Boise State and South Carolina. And the straight "A" student, whose GPA has never dipped below 4.0 since elementary school, is also looking at three Ivy League schools -- Princeton, Cornell and Harvard -- as well as Army, Navy and Air Force. (He got a taste of New England last summer when he spent a week at Harvard's senior select camp.) His dad told me that Joey is a voracious reader who usually goes through ten or fifteen books each summer. He seems to put more effort into his studies than sports and is taking such classes this term as Advanced Placement macroeconomics, genetics and calculus. (Sounds a little like my high school career -- not!)

But it's for his performance on the gridiron that Joey has become so well known. In twelve games this year, Rhattigan has rushed for over 2,000 yards and scored 31 touchdowns. He's averaged 12 yards per carry and has yet to fumble this season. But what's really remarkable is that Joey played in only the first half (and in many cases only the first quarter) of six of the Wildcats' games this year. After scoring twice, coach Bill Ellinghaus would often sit the 6' 200-pound senior and give someone else a chance to play. (And that also speaks to Neuqua's depth.) But Rhattigan never complained; it seems he's a selfless player who thinks only of his team. In fact, his dad told me, Joey often doesn't even remember how many touchdowns he scored in a game. (I can relate. After the Bolingbrook contest, I couldn't remember if he had scored four, or five. It was five.)

Rhattigan's nickname, "The Bus," dates back to his days in Naperville Youth Football when he wore a Pittsburgh Steelers' Jerome Bettis jersey to practice. Unless I have my facts wrong, Joey was not in the same backfield in grade school as Waubonsie star Austin Guido (as I had previously been told), but did play on the same traveling baseball team. The two are friends off the field, though, and work out together in the off-season. Apparently, Rhattigan was quite the baseball and lacrosse player but gave them up to concentrate on his first love, football.

Joey did, however, play on a seventh grade traveling football team with current Neuqua quarterback Dylan Andrew, Waubonsie tight end (and Wisconsin recruit) Troy Fumagalli and Waubonsie middle linebacker Austin Lacke. (How would you like to have been that coach?)

His father also tells me that Joey is "the most unselfish person you may ever encounter. He wants for nothing. We ask him every year at Christmas and on his birthday what we can get him and the answer is always the same: 'I don't need anything.' "

After every home game, Rhattigan makes a point to stop and greet the younger kids who wait for him by the gate. He seems to relish taking the time to talk to them, giving them high-fives and having his picture taken with them.

Sounds like a nice kid, doesn't he? Regardless of what happens tomorrow night (and I think the Wildcats will win), Rhattigan should have a bright future ahead of him.

* In an earlier post, I wrote that the 2010 game was played in Chicago. Apparently, it was in Naperville; my bad.

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