The following is an excerpt from Illinois State Redbirds Football (published by NIU Press in 2016). It features Colton Underwood, known to most as "The Bachelor" but once upon a time a football player from Washington, Ill. and Illinois State University.
His father Scott played football for ISU in the late 1980s. His mother Donna was on the Redbird volleyball team during the same era. His coach at nearby Washington High School also was an ISU graduate. Yet, it wasn’t a given that Colton Underwood was destined to wear the red and white.
“I did not feel any pressure to attend ISU,” Underwood said following the 2013 season. “Along with my parents, my high school head coach played there as well and they did a great job of keeping an open mind for me and not pushing me in any direction. They were happy with the end choice but never forced it upon me.”
Those other options for the talented Underwood included Northern Illinois, then led by head coach Jerry Kill, and the University of Wisconsin of the Big 10.
“As far as the other schools, the offers were for other positions and that was the main reason,” Underwood explained.
Underwood played in the defensive line for the Redbirds and became one of the most highly decorated players in school history. Wisconsin wanted him to play fullback while NIU had him pegged as a tight end.
“I did not think about (choosing those other schools) while I was attending ISU, but looking back, I’m still very happy with my choice because both of those schools had coaching changes and I know how hard those can be for players so I feel blessed to have played for the same great coaches for my four years at Illinois State University,” Underwood said.
Foremost among those Redbird coaches were head coach Brock Spack and assistant Spence Nowinsky.
“I was part of Coach Spack’s first recruiting class. I could feel it was something that was going to be really special, the way he was going to turn the program around there. He did turn the program around,” Underwood said.
Colton shuns the advances of Bucky Badger
The offer from Wisconsin literally came the same day Underwood was about to sign with ISU.
“Coach Spack and Coach Nowinsky had established a relationship with me long before that,” Underwood explained. “I knew ISU was headed for something special.”
No doubt Spack and his staff viewed Underwood as something special as well. The player who would mature into a 6-foot-3, 255-pound First Team All-American excelled while growing up in Washington.
“There was definitely a community feeling growing up in Washington,” he said. “Everybody knows everybody there. Pretty much everybody there grows up playing sports.”
For Underwood, those sports morphed from youth soccer and t-ball into starring roles in high school football, basketball and track.
“With two parents who were both athletes people assume I was forced to play sports but it wasn’t that way. It was just something I did naturally and loved,” he said.
More to him than what meets the eye
College recruiters were wowed by Underwood’s versatility. On the football field he played in the backfield and at defensive end. On the basketball court, Underwood played power forward and center. In track and field, it included everything from the 100-meter dash to the high jump to the shot and discus.
A four-year letterman in prep football, Underwood made an immediate impact for the Redbirds. As a true freshman in 2010, Underwood played in 10 games, including two starts. His 16 tackles included two sacks and three tackles-for-loss.
Things only got better as Underwood’s collegiate career developed. As a sophomore he earned All-Missouri Valley Football Conference honorable mention status on a team that led the league in total defense.
His junior year brought not only first team conference honors but also First Team All-America status from The Walter Camp Football Foundation, the Associated Press and The Sports Network. Underwood, the conference leader in sacks and tackles-for-loss, finished runner-up for MVFC Defensive Player of the Year and sixth in voting for the prestigious Buck Buchanan Award (annually given to the best defensive player in FCS).
Yet, more importantly to Underwood, that 2012 season stands out because it was the reason he committed to Spack and ISU in the first place. The Redbirds posted a 9-4 record that included a playoff appearance. Moreover, ISU just didn’t make the postseason, it upended perennial FCS power Appalachian State on the road in the second round.
“Winning in the unique way that we did by blocking a PAT against a team that has had so much success in FCS on their home field . . . it was something so special that I’ll never forget it,” said Underwood, who recorded a sack and six tackles in the 38-37 overtime victory.
Underwood also recalled the 54-51 shootout victory over Eastern Illinois at Hancock Stadium earlier that season as his other favorite game.
“It’s a big rivalry game that went into double overtime,” he explained. “It was a really long game. I played 120-something snaps, which is pretty rare for a defense to be on the field that much. It came down to the wire and we pulled it out.”
Underwood earned MVFC Defensive Player of the Week for his performance against EIU. Underwood registered 13 tackles, three sacks and 3.5 TFLs in the win. He went on to post double-digit tackles in three straight October games.
While the Redbirds didn’t repeat their playoff appearance his senior year, Underwood nonetheless continued to shine on the field. He was named to four All-American teams and was again named a Buchanan Award finalist. Underwood ranked third on the Redbirds with 66 total tackles. In addition, he added three sacks, five pass breakups, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and a blocked kick. Yet the two-time All-MVFC first teamer was quick to credit his coaches and teammates.
Help along the way
“Coach Nowinsky, in my eyes, he’s the best defensive line coach in the nation,” Underwood stated. “He also made me a better person. He coached you as a person and pushed you as a player. That’s something over my four years that I will cherish forever.”
Defensive tackle and fellow All-MVFC selection Eric Brunner helped Underwood early in his ISU career.
“He was my roommate on the road for two years. It was one of those big brother, tough love situations. He showed me the ropes. He showed me how to lead. He’s probably had the biggest influence on my career,” Underwood said.
Linebacker Mike Zimmer, who went to training camp with the Jacksonville Jaguars, also influenced Underwood.
“He’s my best friend,” Underwood said simply.
A sense of community
Underwood knows plenty about friendship and a sense of community. Following his final ISU game, a close loss to rival Southern Illinois, Underwood’s hometown of Washington was struck by a devastating tornado on Sunday, November 17.
“I was down at the time (from the loss) and then something bigger happened with the tornado. Football went to the back of my mind, it’s such a small part of the picture,” he said.
Though there were no fatalities, Underwood’s aunt’s house was destroyed.
“I went there and my town got basically wiped out. I couldn’t get back for three or four days because they weren’t letting anyone in for security. It was a pretty scary time, but as I said before, it’s a community where everybody knows everybody. Everybody helps everybody out. I knew we would be fine in the end and we’ll come back stronger,” Underwood said.
Like his hometown, Underwood also has a plan. While training for his shot at the NFL, Underwood was already making plans for the day when athletics are no longer part of his life.
“I’d like to work in hospital management,” Underwood said of his ISU degree.
No matter where life takes him, Colton Underwood will go down as one of the greatest defensive linemen in ISU history. His playing resume speaks volumes.
“When you look at those lists it’s not only a name, it’s a school. It makes me proud to honor Illinois State to be on a prized list of special players,” he said.
Getting to know Colton better
Favorite Football Movie: I’d have to go with Rudy. I just like that story. I’ve always like the underdog especially since I come from a small town. In a small town you don’t always play for the best team or get looked at by all the colleges like say the Chicago-area players. So, for me, that movie is the one I most relate to.
First Car: A four-door Jeep.
Worst Summer Job: It would have to be working for my father’s construction company. Manual labor is by far the worst in the summer.
Favorite Subject in School: Does weightlifting in high school count? I’ll go with weightlifting.