'Geneva Connection' bonding at NIU

Michael Santacaterina, Pat Schiller and Frank Boenzi are making Geneva proud at NIU. Courtesy of NIU

DEKALB, Ill. -- Pat Schiller was sitting in a Geneva High School classroom just hours away from deciding whether to accept a scholarship to play football at Eastern Illinois or Illinois State when someone knocked on the door.

John Bond, who was a Northern Illinois assistant coach, requested Schiller. Schiller ventured out to the hallway, and Bond told him he had a phone call. Schiller took the phone, greeted Northern Illinois head coach Joe Novak and moments later accepted a full-ride offer to play for the Huskies.

With that, the "Geneva Connection" began.

Schiller's decision in 2007 created a football pipeline from Geneva to Northern Illinois that now includes redshirt freshman Frank Boenzi, a backup nose guard, and redshirt freshman Michael Santacaterina, a backup linebacker. The pipeline soon will include Geneva senior quarterback Matt Williams, who is committed to the Huskies.

"They call it the Geneva Connection," Schiller said. "It's funny to see guys from Geneva playing and playing at the highest level you can play and playing all together at the same time."

Illinois Route 38 is almost a straight shot from Geneva High School to Northern Illinois University. It's a 24-mile drive from campus to campus and normally takes less than half an hour.

Because of their proximity and the fact Northern Illinois is considered one of top 200 universities in the country by U.S. News, plenty of Geneva students have become Northern Illinois students over the years. People in the Geneva community also tend to support Northern Illinois athletics and often make the short trip to DeKalb for home football games. Schiller grew up a fan and often sat as a fan in Huskie Stadium.

But as far as a relationship between the schools' football programs, the string attaching them was thin. Geneva head coach Rob Wicinski had played for the Huskies in the 1980s and was inducted into their hall of fame, but that was the lone tie. None of Wicinski's players had been recruited there since he had taken over the program in 1999.

The main reason why Northern Illinois wasn't attracted to any of Geneva's players was the program had seen better days. From 1994-2002, Geneva won a total of 12 games. Wicinski went 5-31 in his first four seasons.

But when Schiller arrived as a freshman, the football program began to swing up. The Vikings won five games in 2003. They reached the playoffs in 2004 and haven't missed them since. They went to the state semifinals in 2004 and 2006 and were a state runner-up in 2008.

But even as success came to the program, Schiller never felt Geneva was achieving it with amazing athletes.

"What it was was a bunch of scrappy kids playing football that didn't really have the size or speed to play at a Division I level, but they just kind of gelled well together, played hard and had good coaches," Schiller said.

Schiller was one of those kids, and initially, Northern Illinois was going to take a pass on him, too. Novak even advised Schiller to accept a FCS scholarship offer instead of walking on at Northern Illinois. Novak told him it was a smarter financial decision for his family.

"I was legitimately thinking about passing up the scholarships and coming to walk on," Schiller said. "I knew my dream was always to play here. I thought I could play at a higher level."

Schiller was given that chance when another player de-committed from Northern Illinois, and he was offered by Novak. By his sophomore year, Schiller was starting at linebacker. He currently leads the team with 86 tackles.

Back in Geneva, everyone was keeping tabs on Schiller's rise. Boenzi was only a high school freshman when Schiller was a senior, but he still idolized Schiller.

"In high school, Pat was the man," Boenzi said. "Pat was the guy to be at Geneva."

When Boenzi, who is a 6-3 and 310-pound nose guard, began being recruited by Northern Illinois, Schiller was the one person everyone seemed to come to for information. Boenzi came to Schiller about questions about the Huskies. Northern Illinois' coaches came to Schiller about questions about Boenzi's academics.

Schiller answered positively to both.

"They were like he's on a lot of Big Ten radars, and he's got this potential to be this great player, but everyone is undecided about his grades," Schiller said of the coaching staff. "I assured the coaches that he was taking summer school, getting his grades up and doing all he can to play in college. If he's showing that determination now, it only goes to show you what he's going to do when he gets to college."

To Boenzi, Schiller answered everything he asked as truthful as he could.

"He was the one who really got me to come here," Boenzi said. "The coaches had an influence, the school did, but every day Schiller and I were talking back and forth on Facebook. Any time I had a question, I went to Schiller about it. He always seemed to have the answer for me."

Boenzi was part of Northern Illinois' 2010 recruiting class, but had to pay his own way for his first year while he proved he could handle the academic side of college. Boenzi did that and is now on scholarship. He has five tackles, one tackle for loss and one sack this season.

Like Boenzi, Santacaterina turned to Schiller for advice when deciding on Northern Illinois. But unlike Boenzi, Santacaterina wasn't a priority for the Huskies.

Coming out of Geneva, Santacaterina was a 6-foot running back who had decent speed. Division II and III schools sought him, but nothing more. But as just as Schiller once so believed he could play with the big boys, Santacaterina thought the same.

Schiller wasn't going to crush that dream either.

"He told me if they don't offer you just you try to walk on, try to earn a scholarship and see what happens," Santacaterina said. "I figure he'd knew what he was talking about. Pat knows his stuff. I got to listen to him."

Santacaterina did and joined Boenzi in the Huskies' 2010 recruiting class. Santacaterina redshirted last season, rose through the depth chart this season and started last week against Bowling Green. He has 19 tackles, one interception and one forced fumble this season.

Santacaterina once hated hearing all his doubters in high school, but he'd like to thank them all.

"Every time I went to a camp, I would run a good 40 time, but I guess it wasn't what they were looking for," Santacaterina said. "Every time they told me that, it just added fuel to the fire. It's obviously tough hearing stuff like that, but at the same time I wouldn't have the motivation to be here right now. Stuff like that is the reason why I'm so motivated."

Boenzi loves telling the story of Santacaterina, who is also his roommate.

"I use Mike as an inspiration to everyone I talk to," Boenzi said. "My little brother has a dream to play college football. He's a sophomore. He's always talking about he's too small, he's not strong enough. He's blah, blah, blah. Look at Mike, he came in as a walk-on, he's worked hard, he's studied the game, he understands the game. You don't have to be the biggest, fastest guy out there. You just have to have that work ethic and put the time in and you can do it."

Each of the three former Geneva players has their own unique story to how they arrived to Northern Illinois. But when looking for common traits between the Vikings turned Huskies, Schiller sees something all three of them possess.

"Our motto here is at NIU is the hard way," Schiller said. "We like to do things the hard way. We don't have a silver spoon like other school might have. We don't have an indoor facility. We practice when it's cold outside. We practice when it's raining and snowing.

"That's what we were at Geneva. We took pride in what we did and transferred it over to here. That's what makes a football player a great one. Take pride in yourself and overcome any obstacles you may face."