Naperville Central’s Hughes completes run from walk-on to national champ

A connection that began in a Kansas fraternity house ended at the greatest venue in college football.

Former Naperville Central running back Danny Hughes decided to walk on at Michigan in 2019 and helped the team win a national championship earlier this month.

How he ended up at Michigan is an interesting story, especially considering his other college offers were mostly from non-scholarship FCS schools. Let's let him tell the story:

Danny Hughes UM Photography, A. Thomason

“My brother Jack, he was in a fraternity at Kansas and one of his fraternity brother's dads worked at Michigan (coaching analyst Pat Perles),” Hughes said. “My brother just texted him my highlight tape, and he gave the tape to Jay Harbaugh, who at the time was the running backs coach, and (Harbaugh) reached out to me. He asked me if I would be a preferred walk-on at Michigan and I told him I'd love to.”

Hughes played on star-studded Naperville Central teams with current Auburn QB Payton Thorne and current Green Bay Packers receiver Jayden Reed. Neither of them played in bigger college games than Hughes did this month. Hughes was a regular on kickoffs, kickoff returns and sometimes punt returns since 2021, when the Wolverines began the run of three straight trips to the College Football Playoff.

He was on the field for the opening kickoff of the Rose Bowl against Alabama. Later in the game, the overhead camera hovered above Hughes as he raced downfield and helped make a tackle at the 15-yard line. Making a big play is a big deal for guys on the kickoff teams, because kickoffs result in touchbacks probably 90% of the time.

“I was just pumped up to be playing in the Rose Bowl,” Hughes said. “You dream about it as a kid, then you're out there. It was an electric environment. I had a blast running down there.

“We haven't had many returns against us. The touchbacks are pretty boring, but when you get an actual rep, it was so much fun to be out there.”

Hughes had another highlight in the championship win over Washington. After Michigan scored late in the game to take a 34-13 lead, the Huskies' return man was swarmed at the 17-yard line by a number of tacklers. What followed was basically a walk-on celebration as Hughes and several teammates enjoyed the moment near an on-field microphone.

“I think our special teams units all have a lot of fun when we make a play,” he said. “That's one of the best parts of being on the field, being happy for the other guys' success and jumping around after the play.”

In one sense, football walk-on is a thankless job. You put in the same amount of work as scholarship players but typically receive none of the recognition.

Hughes put together a highlight tape, which can be found on YouTube. It includes his 9 career carries for 49 yards, but it also shows him making plenty of plays in practice. In one clip Hughes breaks loose for a touchdown run and players sprint off the sideline to celebrate with him in the end zone.

“That was in one of the scrimmages,” he said. “Normally, if there's a long touchdown or an interception, either the whole offense goes and mobs the guy who scores a touchdown or the defense gets the guys who got the interception. Practices can be a lot of fun when that happens.”

Michigan's walk-on list included a couple others from the area — Benet linebacker John Weidenbach and Yorkville tight end Josh Beetham. Weidenbach was a freshman this season, while Beetham, a senior, appeared in nine games.

The rest of the world may see them as mere walk-ons, but Hughes knows he made a significant contribution to the 15-0 season.

Danny Hughes (37) assists on a special teams tackle during the Wolverines’ College Football Playoff National Championship game against the University of Washington Huskies at NRG Stadium in Houston on Jan. 8. Photo by ERIC BRONSON / University of Michigan Photography

“I for sure believe I was part of the team, just like the rest of the walk-ons think,” Hughes said. “We're in the building every day. We're doing practice just like the guys on scholarship. We don't really mind the lack of attention or people not betting on us. We just go out there and work. I think that's why a lot of walk-ons play at Michigan.”

Hughes is wrapping up classes in Ann Arbor this semester. He got an undergraduate degree in communications and media and is working on a graduate program in management. He said he's been interviewing for a variety of jobs, but at this point, his career path is undetermined.

“Having my whole family at the Rose Bowl and championship game, that was special to hang out with them after the game and reminisce about the five years of football,” he said. “I had a blast playing but am ready to be done.”

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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