Illinois offensive lineman Teddy Karras looked at schools like UCLA, Boston College and Ball State during his recruitment process. But one destination's siren song proved too strong.
"The Big Ten was always in my mind," he said.
Not just in his mind. Practically in his genes.
Karras is the seventh member of his family to suit up for a Big Ten football team. Grandfather Ted Sr. spent four years at Indiana and later went on to play for the Chicago Bears. Great uncle Alex is the most famous Karras, as he won the Outland Trophy at Iowa and gained fame both as a Detroit Lion and as a TV actor. Great uncles Paul (Iowa) and Lou (Purdue) are also Big Ten alums, while his father, Ted Jr., and uncle, Tony, both played for Northwestern.
So Teddy seemed destined to wind up in the conference, too, playing on the line just as all his relatives had before him. All of whom like to give their input on the youngest one's career.
"Everyone chimes in from my family, football-wise," father Ted Jr. said with a laugh. "Everyone really enjoys watching him on Saturdays. Right on down from my dad to his brothers, everybody puts in their two cents."
Maybe it's all that advice, or maybe it's just Teddy's lifelong immersion in football, but there is less and less that his relatives need to help him with these days.
The redshirt junior is entering his third year as the starting right guard for the Illini. That makes him a rare veteran on what is still mostly a young team, and he's taking that standing seriously by becoming one of the anchors for head coach Tim Beckman.
"He's one of those proven guys," Beckman said. "The thing I'm asking Teddy to do is to be one of the top leaders on this football team. Even though he's not a senior, he needs to become a vocal leader of this football team.
"He loves the game. He's been involved in the game since he was born with the family background and the Karras name itself. It shows."
Illinois will have a new starter at quarterback this season and needs new faces to emerge at receiver. But the offensive line should provide a solid building block for offensive coordinator Bill Cubit's attack. A unit that made great strides last season after a miserable 2012 returns four starters including Karras, who has worked this offseason to bolster his hand strength and made adjustments to his stance.
The line did a decent job of allowing quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase to get rid of the ball last season. Now, the goal is to get more physical and improve a running game that finished 10th in the Big Ten in 2013. (That would please his grandfather, who only knew the north-south running game when he was with the Bears and who finds the modern spread offenses annoying).
"It's all about getting people on the ground, whether that be cutting or just being physical and attacking," Karras said. "Really knocking people around and springing big runs. We need a better run game this fall."
Karras is familiar with contact. When he was in the eighth grade, his father -- who has coached at St. Xavier, Rose-Hulman, Marian and now Walsh University -- put Teddy in as the live quarterback for one-on-one passing drills.
"He got hammered a couple of times, and then I took him out," Ted Jr. recalls.
Teddy grew up attending his father's practices and fondly remembers watching game film on Sundays at the house with his dad's entire coaching staff. He used to draw offensive plays up on the whiteboard in his dad's office. The family tried not to push him into playing football, but once he started in third grade, he was hooked.
"I was around it 24/7," he said. "Football shaped my whole life up until this point. I hope it continues to shape it."
Other Big Ten schools like Iowa and Northwestern showed interest in Karras out of Indianapolis' Cathedral High School, but many of the premier schools thought he lacked elite length on his 6-foot-4, 300-pound frame. But he has slotted in well at guard for Illinois, and going there made his mom, Jennifer, happy. That's her alma mater, adding another Big Ten tie to the clan.
"There are divided loyalties in our family, but everyone roots for a Karras," Teddy said.
Teddy, in fact, is bigger physically than all the other Karrases that came before him, even the legendary Alex, who passed away two years ago. He's hoping to carve out his own legacy in the impressive family tree.
"I need to keep performing the way I've been doing and be even better," he said. "I don't think my family would be mad at me at all, but I feel like I need to keep proving it to myself and everyone else."