DETROIT – A case of butterfingers almost derailed Chad Spann’s career just as it started.
As a freshman walk-on trying to earn a spot on the Northern Illinois depth chart, Spann’s nervous digits couldn’t hold on to the football during routine handoff drills at his first two-a-day practice sessions in 2007.
“I thought to myself, ‘Am I good enough to play here? Am I really a (Division I) athlete?” Spann said at Friday’s Mid-American Conference media day at Ford Field in Detroit. “I never openly had a conversation with anybody (about possibly leaving NIU), but the thoughts were definitely there at first during camp.”
But a sit-down with former NIU coach Joe Novak was the cure-all for the running back from Indianapolis. “Just run,” the Huskies coach told a think-too-much Spann.
He hasn’t stopped since.
Now, Spann, who turns 22 later this week, says he’s being noticed at Chicago restaurants and nightclubs.
“Everywhere I go,” he said. “If they don’t recognize me, my friends will be sure to tell them.
“You try to take (the newfound fame and hype) tongue-in-cheek. I can’t get complacent. I have to keep working hard. I have to keep doing what I can.”
Still, there’s no doubt – after running for 1,038 yards and tying for fifth in the nation with 19 rushing touchdowns – that Spann’s the man for the Huskies, predicted to win the MAC West following back-to-back bowl appearances.
The 5-foot-9, 198-pound senior tailback said he’s been told by NIU coaches “to prepare to get 20 carries a game,” which he did four times last year splitting time with third-team All-MAC rusher Me’co Brown, who withdrew from school in March for personal reasons.
“You have to work harder, prepare even more,” Spann said. “I didn’t have the whole load on my shoulders (before). (Now) I have to be physically prepared to do that all season.”
It’s been quite a journey for Spann. Even after a shaky start, Spann earned a scholarship after an impressive freshman camp.
He earned a back-up role and played on special teams, including the 2007 season-opening kickoff against Iowa at Solider Field.
He ran for 429 yards and eight touchdowns as a sophomore, his first season under coach Jerry Kill, before his breakout season last year. Kill said he hopes Spann keeps the proverbial walk-on chip planted squarely on his shoulder.
“I hope the expectations … I hope that doesn’t change him,” said Kill, a former walk-on himself at Southwestern College in Kansas. “We’ll see. That’s up to him. If he continues on the pace and direction he’s been since I’ve been here, he’ll be in good shape as long as he stays grounded and does the things that have gotten him here.
“With who we’ve brought in and who we’ve developed, he really can’t develop (cockiness) or he’ll be sitting on the bench.”
Spann said he saw that possibility as he sat out spring practice after offseason shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum, giving senior Ricky Crider, junior college transfer Jasmin Hopkins and Iowa State transfer Cameron Bell a chance to gain ground in the competition for carries.
“They got a lot of talent,” Spann said. “Those guys have really made me hungry and have pushed me harder to be even better this season.”
The former walk-on said he’s enjoyed the accolades – he was a first-team All-MAC selection last year and a popular preseason pick to receive the same honors – “especially coming from the long road it took to get me here.”
But Spann knows one small incident, like a case of butterfingers, has the potential to disrupt his football dreams.
“Motivation and pressure, I view those as the same thing,” Spann said. “I’m pressured to keep doing what I’m doing, keep getting better.
“I got a lot of guys depending on what I can do on this team and in the city of DeKalb.”