EVANSTON, Ill. – Jake Gregus’ only choice as a child was to be an Illinois football fan.
His father, Dan Gregus, played there and was a three-time Academic All-American in the early 1980s. His uncle Kurt Gregus also suited up for the Illini. It only made sense for Gregus to support the orange and blue.
“I grew up all my life being an Illinois fan,” Gregus said.
When it came time for Gregus to decide where to take his college football career, he followed his heart and sought out playing for the Illini. He hoped to carry on the family legacy, but the problem was, Illinois wasn’t interested.
Instead, Northwestern was.
Gregus will be one of three Wildcats facing their father’s former team when Northwestern meets Illinois at Wrigley Field on Saturday. The fathers of senior long snapper John Henry Pace and sophomore offensive tackle Patrick Ward also played for the Illini.
“It kind of adds a little more excitement, as far as that goes,” said Gregus, who is a redshirt freshman defensive lineman. “I’m going to get a chance to be on the field against [the Illini] and compete against them in such a great atmosphere. It’s a great opportunity.”
Coming out of St. Laurence High School in Burbank, Ill., Gregus was disappointed that Illinois didn’t reach out to him in the recruiting process, but he’s since gotten over it.
“They weren’t interested in offering me a scholarship,” Gregus said. “I looked at walking on there. It didn’t go the way I would have wanted it to go. It was definitely frustrating a little bit at Illinois, even though my dad played there and we had connections. It was frustrating because that’s who I followed all my life. My dream was to play for them all my life.
“Now that I’m at Northwestern, I’m very happy where I’m at.”
Pace also looked into playing for Illinois. His father Greg had been a backup kicker there.
“They said they weren’t looking for a long snapper at the time,” Pace said. “It just wasn’t my time with Illinois. I’m happy to be where I am now.”
Ward is a different story. While the Illini weren’t seeking Gregus and Pace, they did very much want Ward, a 6-7, 300-pound offensive lineman, to follow in his father’s footsteps. Ward’s father Brian played on three Illinois bowl teams and was an offensive line starter for part of his career.
In the end, it came down to Illinois and Northwestern for Ward, but his father’s past had nothing to do with his choice.
“I grew up an Illinois fan,” Wards said. “We went to a couple games in the fall. When it came time to my decision, it wasn’t about what I grew up as, but it was, ‘What is best for me now?’
“It was a very tough choice. There’s a lot of great things about all the schools. Illinois is a great school as well. I looked hard at both of them, but I just felt more at home and that’s why I chose Northwestern.”
All three players will definitely be wearing purple on Saturday, but the question is, what color will their fathers be donning?
“They’ll be supporting Northwestern,” Gregus said of his dad and uncle. “They’ve assured me of that.”
Pace said, “He said as long as I play here he’s going to hide his fanhood for Illinois and root for Northwestern.”
Ward said, “He’ll be wearing purple.”