ISU’s Ridgeway keeps mood light while playing the heavy on defensive line
John Ridgeway is serious about knowing how to be serious.
As the resident comedian in the Illinois State football locker room, Ridgeway admits he’s not all fun and games.
“I don’t want people to think, ‘Oh, he doesn’t take anything serious,’” said Ridgeway, the Redbirds’ sophomore nose guard. “I can be serious when I need to be.”
So what does a guy whose defensive line coach calls “an ornery little boy” consider serious?
“School. Homework,” he said. “I get pretty serious about that. Or if I’m in (head coach Brock Spack’s) office. I usually go in there and tell him his mustache looks cute or something.”
Amid all the jokes Ridgeway is known to dish out, he is a serious talent.
At 6-foot-6, 325 pounds, Ridgeway is a force on the inside of the Redbirds’ defensive line. His presence regularly draws multiple defenders.
This week, Illinois State (7-3) sits at No. 7 in the STATS FCS national rankings thanks in part to a defense that allows 3.21 yards per carry, which is 14th-best in FCS. While Ridgeway occupies at least two and sometimes three blockers, his teammates have piled up the third-most sacks in the nation (35).
“Size is the obvious (plus),” said Brian Hendricks, ISU’s defensive line coach. “More importantly, it’s how he’s wired. He’s a very tough kid. He enjoys physicality. He’s not afraid of confrontation. He’s one of those dudes you’d want in your corner.”
A former standout wrestler in high school, Ridgeway made the Missouri Valley Football Conference All-Newcomer team a year ago while collecting 30 tackles and a sack. This year, he has compiled 23 tackles while helping the Redbirds allow 12 fewer rushing yards per game than a year ago, a 10% improvement.
“He’s mentally tough, and that makes for a really good nose guard,” Hendricks said. “When you put a dude that big, with his athleticism (at nose), it’s a good recipe.”
Leading the way
Sure, Ridgeway loves one-liners, mocking others’ facial hair and “simple silliness,” as teammate and roommate Jacob Powell calls it. But he also loves every aspect of the game.
“He’s a leader just by how he works,” Hendricks said. “He really loves what he’s doing. He seriously enjoys working and coming to practice. His energy and his actions really rub off on everybody else.”
Ridgeway credits Hendricks with emphasizing drills that work on combating frequent double teams. And, he’s been known to let opponents know when he outfoxes them.
“If I make a play when two people are trying to block me, I can get up and look at them and say, ‘Yeah I just did that,’” Ridgeway said. “It’s fun.”
Powell said Ridgeway also takes his role as a leader seriously.
“He pushes everybody on the D-line to better,” Powell said. “That helps everybody. He especially pushes me to be better.”
Bringing the funny
Hendricks would love to share his favorite story about Ridgeway’s sense of humor. He’s just not sure it’s appropriate for print.
“A lot of them, I probably can’t tell,” he said with a laugh. “He’s always got something to say, whether it’s the right time or the bad time. He’s always got that little smirk on his face, and you always know he’s up to something. It’s like, ‘What did you just do? I know you did something, just by the look on your face.’ He gives everyone a hard time, but everyone gives him a hard time back.
“He’s had a lot of moments that left me shaking my head, chuckling,” Hendricks said.
The comedy, according to Powell, is something that rarely stops.
“There’s just too many (stories),” he said. “It all blends together because it’s all the time, honestly.”
Ridgeway, who despite his size said he sees himself “as a quarterback,” said he especially enjoys bringing his energy to early morning practices.
“(It’s fun) being up early in the morning when nobody wants to do anything, and I can be that wild guy that gets everybody’s motor going.”
Just how does he do that?
“I take about two scoops of pre-workout (powder) every morning, then I chug a Code Red Mountain Dew, and I’m ready to go,” he said.
Ridgeway doesn’t discriminate with his humor.
He needles his defensive line mates and his neighbors in the locker room – kicker Sam Fenlason and quarterback Brady Davis.
“I have to do something goofy to Brady (every day),” he said.
And don’t forget about the specialists.
“I love our special teams,” he said. “I’m always messing with those guys.”
During a recent game in Macomb, Ridgeway used a timeout to shout to the sidelines that he was dedicating the next play to long snapper Paul Monaco.
“I like to think of myself as one of the top five funniest guys on the team, just by doing the silliest stuff,” Ridgeway said. “People say I have the same IQ as a fifth-grader. My roommates tell me that all the time. Sometimes I believe them.”
In an interview earlier this season, ISU defensive end Romeo McKnight called Ridgeway the Redbirds’ funniest player.
Every morning, Ridgeway accepts the challenge.
“I try to make Romeo smile once a day, because he walks in stone faced every morning, like a statue. Sometimes I can just walk up and give him a smirk and he’ll start grinning. I just like to make him laugh.”
What’s so funny?
For a guy with a big personality who makes everyone else laugh, what makes Ridgeway crack up?
Well, there’s plenty.
He recommends the Canadian TV series “Trailer Park Boys,” the “Epic Fails” videos on YouTube and the movies “Grown Ups,” “Without A Paddle” and “Step Brothers,” his personal favorite.
“If I could start my own YouTube channel, I’d do it,” he said. “After football, I’ll probably be a comedian part-time.”
On the field, his humor can make teammates relax during a serious situation.
“Let’s say we’re down a score or we’re having a seriously tough practice,” he said. “I can do something goofy and get everybody back on (the same) page.”
Though he towers over most teammates, Ridgeway is far from a bully. To the contrary, he really cares for others. Seriously.
“Just with his size, he’s an intimidating guy,” Hendricks said. “A lot of people may think he comes off as a jerk, but that’s not the way he is. Everyone really enjoys him.
“Deep down, he’s a big teddy bear.”