Surprised? Not really. But certainly grateful.
That was Geneva defensive lineman Frank Boenzi’s reaction to last week’s scholarship offer from Northern Illinois football coaches. Boenzi accepted on Friday, notifying NIU assistant coach P.J. Fleck, a Kaneland product, and later received a congratulatory call from coach Jerry Kill. Both Kill and Fleck met with Boenzi and his family at Boenzi's home the night before.
Boenzi’s gratitude stems largely from his academic circumstances. A 6-foot-3, 295-pound tackle, Boenzi has physically looked the part of a Division I football player since joining Geneva’s varsity as an underclassman, but eligibility hurdles complicated his recruitment.
“I have put in a lot more effort and I have matured since freshman year,” Boenzi said. “I would say I’m more thankful the NIU coaches believe in me and are giving me a chance. That’s really all I need is some coach to say, ‘Hey, I believe in this kid,’ and they’re willing to do that.”
Boenzi holds out hope he can pass the NCAA Clearinghouse and be eligible next year as a freshman but acknowledges it is likely that he might have to pay his way his first year at NIU to bolster his academic standing. If that is the case, he will be able to lift weights and have limited contact with the team, but not practice or play his first year on campus.
Considering many true freshmen sit out their first year of college football anyway, and that it would allow Boenzi a smoother transition to his college schoolwork, that scenario might be a relatively minor setback.
Geneva football coach Rob Wicinski said Boenzi’s growth – as a player and a student – was “exponential” as a senior. Boenzi is known to play with plenty of emotion, and Wicinski said that can work in Boenzi's favor as his career moves forward.
“He’s extremely competitive,” said Wicinski, a former NIU football player himself. “I think that’s what really makes him a pretty decent football player. He just seems to keep rising to whatever challenge shows up. The better the offensive line [going against him], the better he plays.”
Boenzi was co-defensive MVP of the Western Sun Conference as a senior after piling up 73 tackles, five sacks and two fumble recoveries.
He will become the second Geneva product on NIU’s defense. Pat Schiller is a redshirt sophomore linebacker for the Huskies, who are preparing for the International Bowl after a 7-5 regular season.
“He’s been a big advocate in this whole process, kind of talking to coaches for me,” Boenzi said of Schiller. “I’d tell him to put in a good word for me and he’d say he’d go to coaches and say, ‘He’s a good player, a good kid,’ and put in that good word for me.”
Kill is an intense coach known for the occasional verbal tirade if players are not meeting his expectations. Boenzi said people he consulted about his recruitment thought that style of discipline could do him good.
“They said I need someone like that, someone who’s going to keep me motivated and kick me in the butt if I’m not doing the right thing,” Boenzi said. “It’s definitely going to be a challenge, but anywhere you go, it’s going to be a challenge.”
Boenzi attended a pair of NIU home games this season. If the NIU option did not pan out, junior college was a possibility; Boenzi said he is not concerned about what other Division I suitors might have become more serious if his academic picture continues to brighten.
“That’s all it was, a maybe, just maybes,” Boenzi said. “No one really showed what NIU showed. No one was calling me every week, no one was seeing how things were going, no one was offering to help. Why would I want to go play for someone who doesn’t care to call and see how things were going?”
National signing day for college football is Feb. 3, 2010.