NIU's Spann following rich tradition

Chad Spann has evolved from a prospect considered too small for Div. 1 football to the latest rushing machine for NIU. Rick Osentoski/US Presswire

DEKALB, Ill. -- Chad Spann lost his patience in the college football recruiting process at some point during his senior year of high school.

All he heard from college coaches was that at 5-8 and 185 pounds, he was too small to play Div. I football, and the ones who weren't telling him that were simply ignoring him. Plenty of track and field coaches were showing him love, but it wasn't what Spann wanted.

Spann wanted to play college football -- and more specifically Div. I college football. He had heard the knocks against him and understood what was being said -- he'll never forget one coach telling him to his face he was too short -- but his confidence never wavered. He was as sure about his ability to succeed at the next level as he was of anything in life.

Spann's frustration ultimately boiled over. He was done waiting by the phone for a coach to call or anticipating the mailman to arrive. Instead, Spann with the help of his mother Wanda Spann Roddy, decided to do something about it.

"It was my job to pull him up," Spann Roddy said. "As he would get frustrated, it wasn't my job to say, ‘They're doing you wrong.' I told him, ‘Let's go about it a different way.' I wasn't teaching him to join the pity party. That's now what my job is."

They opted to be proactive. The two of them got into their silver Nissan Murano outside their home in Indianapolis and began driving around the Midwest, pitching his running back talents to any school willing to listen. They stopped at six schools in Indiana to introduce themselves and hand coaches his highlight tape and resume. They drove to five in Illinois. They hit up a few more in Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio.

Spann put thousands of miles on the Murano while visiting more than a dozen schools, but it ended up the program that was most interested in him was the one he and his mother first visited.

To this day, the Northern Illinois football program is grateful Spann made that trip, and it's that same Murano he drives on campus today.

The Huskies didn't give Spann a scholarship at first, but he was provided with all he had ever asked for -- a chance. Now in his fourth year at Northern Illinois, Spann has transformed that chance into a memorable career.

Toledo (6-3) at Northern Illinois (7-2)

  • When, where: 6 p.m. Tuesday at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb Ill.
  • TV: ESPN2 Radio: WSCR-670 AM Web: ESPN3.com
  • What you need to know: The MAC West title will be settled here. Northern Illinois and Toledo enter this game undefeated in conference. The Huskies struggled early in the season, losing two of their first three games and barely beat North Dakota. But they’ve since put it together and won their last six contests. Northern Illinois running back Chad Spann ranks 11th in the country with 1,000 yards rushing, and quarterback Chandler Harnish has accumulated 1,400-plus passing yards and 500-plus rushing yards. The Huskies’ defense has allowed 18.7 points a game. Toledo has had success running and passing the ball and has scored 30 or more points in five of its wins. Redshirt freshman quarterback Terrance Owens is expected to start for injured Austin Dantin. Owens threw four touchdowns in last week’s win against Eastern Michigan after Dantin left the game. The Rockets’ defense has 26 takeaways, which is tied for second in the nation, and leads the BCS with 16 interceptions.

  • Scott Powers’ prediction: Northern Illinois 34, Toledo 24

"He's gone from being a walk-on to earning a scholarship within two weeks of his arrival. He fought for special teams playing time and pushed for reps at running back, eventually becoming the starting halfback. He's currently a two-time 1,000-yard rusher and is tied for third-most career touchdowns in NIU history behind NFL running backs Garrett Wolfe and Michael Turner.

"I kept my faith and never really doubted what was going on," said Spann, whose 1,000 rushing yards this season rank 11th in the country. "I knew there was a plan for me, and worked it out.

"There was definitely a chip on my shoulder, and I was determined. The chip really hasn't left. I still have it. I still am determined. I'm working hard all the time. My goals haven't been met."

The goal Tuesday is for the Huskies to take a step closer to a MAC championship by defeating Toledo, a fellow undefeated conference team, on a nationally televised stage in DeKalb. And if Northern Illinois' success this season is any indication as to what the Huskies need to do to defeat Toledo, then Spann will be required to have another quality game.

In Northern Illinois' seven wins this season, Spann has rushed for a total of 915 yards and 11 touchdowns. In its two losses, he has compiled just 85 yards and one score.

In last week's 28-21 win over Western Michigan, Spann ran for his fourth consecutive 100-yard game and his sixth of the season. In the victory over the Broncos, a team known for its run defense, Spann did what has made him a successful back. He ran hard carry after carry. It sometimes meant a one-yard run or a seven-yard one, but it also led to bursts of 21 and 44 yards.

"Every run isn't going to be a home run [in coach Jerry Kill's offense]," Spann said. "If you look at Garrett Wolfe's highlights, it seemed like every run he took it to the house. The big runs will come for me as a result of hard 4-5-yard runs that you keep hitting them with."

Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit's team experienced that first-hand.

"Tough kid," Cubit said. "He's the back that you want in that offense. He's just a hard-nosed guy. The problem is you get a lot secondary guys hitting him, and they won't bring him down.

"I think leverage, his body-lean, he's always going forward. Of course, that offensive line helps, too -- they get some separation. But I think he has great vision. They only run about two or three plays. They do it a lot of ways and [with different] personnel and stuff like that. I think he understands schemes, understands what he has to get done. They don't ask him to do too much, and what he does, he does really well."

Spann hasn't surprised himself. While Northern Illinois likely recruited him to be a complimentary back -- the Huskies brought in a scholarship running back in Spann's recruiting class -- his intentions were to place himself alongside the great running backs of the Huskies' past.

"I wanted to be the next Garrett Wolfe," Spann said. "I saw the numbers Garrett Wolfe was putting up, and I envisioned doing the same thing. They are ‘Running Back U' of the Midwest. Small running backs have flourished here. Michael Turner is a little taller than me. Garrett Wolfe is a little shorter. I saw it as a great opportunity to be successful.

"Having my name put with those guys -- the LeShon Johnsons, Michael Turners, Garrets Wolfes --that's a tremendous honor. I've picked up where they left off as 1,000-yard rushers. If I'm going to be a Northern Illinois starting running back, I have to be successful. I can't let those guys down."

Spann hopes future Northern Illinois running backs will feel the same about him someday. If he is to leave a legacy, he wants future Huskies to know where came from as an undersized walk-on and push themselves to achieve the same.

"I think it sets an example for the younger guys," Spann said. "When I see some younger guys, see the freshmen coming in playing 7-on-7 in the summer time, I tell them my story. ‘I came up here as a walk-on and worked hard, and my hard work and determination got me where I am. What are you going to do to get to where you want to be?'"