Northwestern football will lean on DuPage County connection
NU's Jackson, Thorson turned prep experience into college success
Northwestern, the school that bills itself as "Chicago's Big Ten Team," now holds practices on campus, with Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline in full view, weather permitting.
The heart of Chicago-area high school football, however, sits a few miles off the lake in DuPage County. That's where NU's starting quarterback and leading rusher learned to love the sport.
Running back Justin Jackson, from Glenbard North High School, is well on his way to becoming Northwestern's all-time leading rusher. He ran for 1,418 yards last season and needs just 1,881 more over the next two years to pass Damien Anderson for first place.
Quarterback Clayton Thorson, from Wheaton North, won the starting job last year as a redshirt freshman and led the Wildcats to a 10-3 record. The list of freshman QBs who won at least 10 games is a short one, and includes three recent Heisman Trophy winners: Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota and Johnny Manziel.
"We have a lot of guys from Texas, California, and they're like, 'Illinois football isn't good, blah, blah, blah,' " Jackson said. "But I'm like, a lot of our leaders and best players are from Illinois, so you can't say much about the football here.
"It's great. We come here and we ball out. That's kind of what the motto's been."
As the Wildcats prepare for the 2016 season opener Saturday against Western Michigan, Jackson and Thorson talked about how their DuPage football background set them up to be early contributors in college.
The future teammates played against each other in youth football, Thorson for the Wheaton Rams and Jackson for the Carol Stream Panthers.
"I think (that area) is full with a lot of really good players, so I think that creates a lot of good competition," Thorson said. "The bar just keeps getting raised higher and higher. You see a lot of good players, a lot of good teams and it motivates you."
Thorson continued Wheaton North's legacy of producing great quarterbacks. In the 1980s, the school boasted two future NFL signalcallers in Chuck Long and Kent Graham.
The history of football success in Wheaton dates to Red Grange. As a whole, DuPage County grew into a football powerhouse in the late 1980s and early '90s. Since the 1990 season, a DuPage team has played for the state high school championship in 22 out of 26 years.
"At least in my town, we always had that goal, 'We want to be on varsity,' " Jackson said. "That's kind of what drove everything. When we were in fifth grade, sixth grade, we'd go to the football games and that's what we wanted. That just drove us; it gave us that hunger."
Northwestern graduated another DuPage star last year in tight end Dan Vitale from Wheaton Warrenville South. He was a sixth-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and his younger brother Tommy is now on Northwestern's roster.
Dan Vitale had a similar story. Both he and Jackson were heavy contributors as true freshmen. Thorson surprised many observers by winning the quarterback job in his second year on campus, beating out a few older teammates.
"That experience (from last season) is second to none," Thorson said. "Experience leads to confidence, in running the offense and just leading these guys."
Jackson has a theory about why the three DuPage natives played right away at Northwestern.
"Every time I look at a player on our team from that area, he's just very hard-nosed, willing to outwork other people, even if they're not necessarily as talented in certain areas as other people," Jackson said. "So I think that's kind of where we get our edge."