Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase fueled by faith

Nathan Scheelhaase is among the nation's most experienced quarterbacks, but his most defining moments at Illinois haven't occurred on Saturdays.

Scheelhaase has started 36 games, passed for 5,296 yards and 34 touchdowns, helped the Illini to two bowl victories, struggled during a disastrous 2-10 campaign last fall, and played for two head coaches and four offensive coordinators. He has had great games, like the blowout bowl win against a Baylor team quarterbacked by some guy named Griffin in 2010. He also has had low points, especially in 2012, when he led an offense that finished 119th out of 120 FBS teams in yards and points.

But if you want to know who Nathan Scheelhaase is, look beyond the numbers or the games. Look beyond the Block I on his helmet or the often-butchered name (pronounced SHEEL-house) on the back of his jersey. If you really want to know him, spend a Sunday at Stone Creek Church in Urbana, Ill., about two miles southeast of Memorial Stadium.

Go during the fall, smack in the middle of football season. He'll be there.

"When you go through ups and downs of football, the greatest thing is to have a church that loves you every Sunday," Scheelhaase's mother, LouAnn, told ESPN.com. "Whether he won or lost the day before, Nathan never missed church on Sunday."

Former Illini assistant Reggie Mitchell, who recruited Scheelhaase, brought the quarterback to Stone Creek the first Sunday after Scheelhaase's arrival. It turned out to be the first phase of Scheelhaase's spiritual awakening.

Faith trumps football for the Illini senior, and his religious devotion has helped him navigate the challenging terrain in Champaign. Scheelhaase is prideful and public about his beliefs, from the eye-black crosses he wears on game days to the scripture passages he used to post on his Twitter page. He has drawn some criticism for sharing so much, but anything else would be like living in the dark.

"It's not the what that makes me different, it’s the who that makes me different, and that is God," he said. "If I didn't have God, I couldn't imagine what it would be like going through difficulties like there have been. That’s exactly what I rely on."

Scheelhaase grew up attending church but wasn't nearly as strong in his faith as he is now. He attended an all-boys Jesuit High School (Rockhurst) in Kansas City, Mo., and played for a coach (Tony Severino) who valued religion. After his senior season, he began dating Morgan Miller, an "amazing Christian," LouAnn said.

But it wasn't until Illinois that Scheelhaase turned a corner. He grew close to Marcellus Casey, Illinois' team chaplain at the time, and became a leader for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Scheelhaase bonded with teammates Steve Hull, Miles Osei, Ryan Lankford and Reilly O'Toole, who shared his devotion.

"Even growing up in a Christian school, I don't think it became real to him until his time at the university," said Justin Neally, an area representative for the local FCA chapter who serves as Illinois' team chaplain. "He was just going through the motions in high school. His faith might have been good luck charm at that time. It became his identity in college."

Neally recalls Scheelhaase telling him about his collegiate debut against Missouri at St. Louis' Edward Jones Dome in 2010. He completed just 9 of 23 passes and committed four turnovers in a 23-13 loss.

"The normal kid would feel a lot of pressure, but he stood with his faith and identity being secure," Neally said. "He said it wasn’t the greatest day for him statistically. He threw a couple picks, had a fumble, but he told me he never experienced so much joy."

Scheelhaase went on to lead Illinois to its first bowl win in 11 years. He soon recognized the public platform he occupied and decided to use it to display his faith.

He first sported the eye-black crosses for a 2011 home game against Michigan.

"I get kids that’ll come up to me, tell me my stats and say, 'I saw you on the sideline talking to such-and-such,'" Scheelhaase said. "I'm like, 'Man, these guys watch the game that closely. I might as well give them something even better to talk about.' That's exactly why I do it."

Scheelhaase would like to open spiritual doors, but those who know him say he doesn't force his beliefs on others.

His approach has sparked some backlash, and he and Neally often talk about former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, who displayed Bible verses on his eye black, made Tebowing a national fad and became a polarizing cultural figure.

"This is something that's transformed Nathan's life," Neally said. "In no way he feels like it's mission to save people."

Added Scheelhaase: "There’s always going to be persecution of your beliefs when you're strong about them. It’s worth making someone ask a question or seek something out versus being hush-hush about it."

Hull, who roomed with Scheelhaase during their freshman year, has seen Scheelhaase's faith "pull him through his low moments." After a record-setting freshman season and a strong start to 2011, Illinois' offense flat-lined down the stretch, leading to the firing of coach Ron Zook.

The free-fall continued last season under new coach Tim Beckman.

"When you deal with some struggles, you learn a lot about yourself," Scheelhaase said. "Leadership is easy when things are going well. Character is shaped not when times are good and things are easy, but when you're dealing with tough times. It's a crazy thing to say you can take joy in struggles, but it's so true."

Recent months have brought happier times for Scheelhaase. In February, he flew to Texas, where Miller was attending school at TCU, and surprised her with a proposal. They were married July 6 back home in Kansas City.

"Seeing that ring on his finger is so different," said Hull, who along with O'Toole, Lankford and Osei served as Scheelhaase's groomsmen at the wedding. "When the engagement happened, we started hearing Nate talk about life and his plans and career path.

"It was weird because we started realizing we’re about to become real adults in the real world."

Scheelhaase's post-football future could include a career in religion. When Nathan and LouAnn returned last June to LouAnn's hometown of Moville, Iowa, he asked to speak at the local church, making his grandmother Norma "pretty darn proud."

"He lives right, he walks right, he does his thing, he’s a man," LouAnn said. "He’s been through emotional turmoil, physical and injury turmoil, the coaching changes, the ups and downs. He's still going to find his joy in everything.

"I don't know what this next chapter for him holds. I just know he’s well prepared for whatever he does."