“Growing up, I didn’t necessarily have the best, I guess you could say, base. Didn’t grow up regular with a mother and father, household and picket fence, all that good stuff. But we definitely made do with what we had. I feel like everybody has their own little niche, everybody has their own story. But to lose a mother and father and to end up the way that I have right now has been incredible.” – Jordan Delegal, Northern Illinois linebacker
Converts are the best. They justify time away from family. They give meaning to 100-hour work weeks. They challenge you like no one else. They make you scream, make you curse, make you wonder if the epiphany ever will come. They entice you to gamble a precious scholarship. They’re the ones you remember forever.
Converts are the reason Northern Illinois linebackers coach Tom Matukewicz got into coaching. He isn’t the only one. Without the convert, coaches wouldn’t see boys become men. The job wouldn’t offer the same fulfillment. It would be wins and losses … and that’s it.
“You get to see kids come in a certain way and see three or four years later how they turned out,” Matukewicz said.
Senior linebacker Jordan Delegal is one of those kids. He came to NIU in search of a second chance, already enduring the death of his parents, a dead end at Marshall, and a stint through junior college. He’ll leave after the Huskies play their GoDaddy.com Bowl game Sunday against Arkansas State, knowing he’s as much a convert as Matukewicz ever coached.
‘WRONG PLACE, WRONG TIME’
“My uncle (Darrell Brown) says this thing, and I would always get tired of hearing it when I was younger, but it’s so true. He says, ‘There’s no problem having fun. It’s when fun has you, that’s when the problem occurs.’ And one night at Marshall, the fun had me. And it took me so long to really bounce back.” – Jordan Delegal
Delegal never was ready for Huntington, W.Va. Up in the mountains, time freezes. Lifestyles still can be controlled by a different era. Delegal said the diversity he knew so well growing up in Miami didn’t exist at Marshall.
This didn’t stop him from having a good time. He was young and brash, a football player in a town that breathes for its football team. Maybe he was naive, too. Four years ago, on a buddy’s 21st birthday, Delegal relaxed his rule about staying away from alcohol.
Shots started early and kept coming. The night had Delegal after the first sip. It carried Delegal and three friends to Huntington’s bars, no real purpose in mind.
“It was more of a blur,” Delegal said. “Guys were just doing too much. It was a situation where masculinity took over. We were just trying to be something that we weren’t. We had on these nice shirts. We ended up going to one of the clubs in town to have fun. We were doing the college thing, things that people in college do.”
What happened next depends on perspective.
Leaving the club at closing time, Delegal’s group was the target of a racial slur. Ordinarily, Delegal would ignore it. But alcohol had erased the typical barrier of self-restraint. A fight broke out. When the cops arrived, evidence rested on accusations.
The three white males who sparked the incident said Delegal’s group – which consisted of four black males – tried to rob them. To this day, Delegal denies the allegation.
“We had nothing on us to say that we robbed them,” Delegal said. “We didn’t reach into their pockets. We didn’t grab anything off of them.”
But in Huntington, Delegal said it didn’t matter.
“It was our word against their’s,” Delegal said. “We ended up getting picked up.”
When he was younger, Delegal caused plenty of mischief. But that October night in 2007 was the first – and still the only – time he was in trouble with the law.
It was out of character, and when the police called Delegal’s grandmother, Thelma Brown, the next morning, shock wasn’t immediate. Brown told the police she didn’t know a Jordan Delegal who would be in trouble, and hung up. The police called back, and Brown did the same.
“I honestly thought it was someone else,” said Brown, who helped raise Delegal.
Finally, Brown’s sister, Roberta King, was able to convince her that her grandson had indeed gotten in trouble. Delegal didn’t want to leave Marshall. Brown didn’t think her grandson had any choice. Marshall coach Mark Snyder didn’t immediately boot Delegal off the team, but he gave no reassurances.
“If he’s not saying you’re on the team now,” Brown told her grandson, “he’s not going to later.”
The charges were dropped, but the lasting news reports from the night were polarizing. They mentioned a “failed attempt to rob an ATM customer,” “three counts of battery,” and that the subject was seen “fleeing in a white vehicle.” The racial slurs Delegal said sparked the fight didn’t show up in the report.
Delegal never thought the accounts of that night matched reality, but he doesn’t shirk responsibility. He knew better than to get in that situation. If he could do it again, he would’ve spent that night at home or with his girlfriend – any place but the club.
“I look at it, and I shake my head at myself because I definitely didn’t use my best judgment,” Delegal said. “I didn’t do what I should’ve done at that point. I felt like I had gotten away from a lot of my principles, a lot of my morals that I’d been brought up on. It was just really not the best situation for me to be in. Wrong place, wrong time, but I’ve grown so much from that.
“If you read that and then you talk to me, you would definitely not see the same person. But there’s good press and bad press, and that was definitely an example of bad press.”
Back at home, Delegal had plenty of time for reflection. He got a job at Banana Republic, but football still was on his mind. First, he had to show he’d learned from the mistake.
BACK TO JUNIOR VARSITY
“It’s hard for me to give up on a kid. I always see a glimmer somewhere. With Jordan, you could see he had that something inside. He had that bright light. I knew he wasn’t far from getting it right. And I knew this was the only thing he really had.” – Mark Guandolo, head football coach at Chaminade-Madonna High School
Mark Guandolo also coaches for the converts. Delegal always represented a challenge.
During workouts before Delegal’s sophomore season at Chaminade-Madonna High, Guandolo tried to get the most out of his player. He pushed, tried to stretch his limits. He asked for more work, another rep. Delegal quit, walking home in the middle of the set.
When his uncle found him at home, Delegal knew he wasn’t staying long. “He nearly kicked my butt all the way back to practice,” Delegal said. Delegal returned with a mea culpa and asked to be allowed back on the team. Guandolo couldn’t say no, but he did set a stipulation.
“I told him he could come back, but he had to play on the JV,” Guandolo said. “He didn’t last long until we pulled him back up to varsity.”
And not just because Delegal dominated every position at the lower level.
Delegal said Guandolo is a father figure. It’s a role Guandolo embraced. He knew Delegal conjured mischief. There were times when he wondered if the kid ever would mature. But always, Guandolo was impressed with how Delegal responded, accepting responsibility and trying to make it right.
Here was another opportunity.
When Delegal returned from Marshall, his future was anything but certain. After a conversation with Guandolo, he convinced his coach that football still was something he wanted to pursue. This time, Guandolo didn’t put his former player through a test to prove his sincerity. He simply said, ‘OK,’ and started working the phones to find a new path.
Guandolo found Delegal a spot at Joliet Junior College. It was JV all over again, but Delegal gladly accepted it. At that point, all he wanted was a second chance.
“I was just trying to get back on my feet,” Delegal said. “It’s crazy how Coach G never quit on me. When I went back to him, he said, ‘You must really be one of my sons, because if anybody else went through this, I don’t know if I would have the same response.’ “
‘I WANT TO BE THAT SMILE’
“I look like my father, but I act like my mother. And at times, I look like both of my parents, but I can act like both of them, also. I know that memories are memories, and people are going to bring up memories whether I have anything to do with it or not. But I feel like, for the amount of pain, I can bring even more joy to the family.” – Jordan Delegal
Circumstances were aligned for him to fail. Guandolo has to admit, most kids in Delegal’s situation would. But that “bright light” he possessed kept intensifying. It had to. Each morning, he woke up with a burden much too heavy for an average person to endure.
From a young age, Delegal resembled his parents. But he never knew Regina Brown Washington or Lucious Delegal, who played football at Miami in the early 1980s. Their deaths when he was 15-months-old was horrific. The details remain scattered on the internet. More than two decades later, Delegal prefers to avoid it.
“The way that it was written out, the way that I can feel that my family would respond to that, is very, very sensitive,” Delegal said. “That’s why, out of all the darkness that comes from that story, I try to build as much light as possible because I know my family has been through a lot of stuff.
“It’s crazy how my family is affected by it, but I’m not affected by it enough to where I can’t do something about it. I will do something about that. I want to be that smile they have.”
Delegal thinks about his parents every day. He’s pieced together enough information in conversations with his family members to visualize what they would be like today. He always wanted to pay tribute to his parents, who he calls his “angels,” so after high school he got a tattoo of angels wings on the inside of his arm. “The good die young,” is inscribed inside the wings.
Delegal knows the memory of his parents lives with him. After the Marshall incident, he embraced that burden to make him and his family proud. He knew he was at a crossroads, even as some of the defining moments of his life happened. He didn’t want to be another reason for the family to mourn.
Behind a renewed focus, Delegal took care of business at Joliet Junior College. In one season, he received JUCO All-American honors and was named first team all-conference and all-region. And he did it as a defensive captain. The leadership he consistently demonstrated for NIU this past season started to grab root.
“I can’t be more proud. I’m beaming with pride,” Guandolo said. “What he’s gone through, and where he’s come from, and where he’s come now is just great to see. It’s what you’re in this business for, to see kids grow and become leaders like Jordan has.”
“When you know that you’ve been through a ton, and you’re on the better side of things, you can definitely appreciate the grind. You can appreciate the process. I tell a lot of people, ‘Don’t question the process, because the process is going to happen whether you want it to or not.’ It’s just how you respond to it.” – Jordan Delegal
The silence seemed like it wouldn’t end. On the other end of the phone, Delegal’s grandmother was holding back tears. For a moment, Delegal had thought about bringing up his parents’ death. Instead, he settled on a simple question.
“Are you proud of me?” he asked.
“He asks me that all the time. ‘Grandma, are you proud of me?’ “ Brown said. “The answer always is yes. I’m so happy. I’m elated. He came out real good because he didn’t stop. He kept striving to do better and better every year.”
There’s no question, Delegal is the pride of his family. On NIU game days, they wear Huskie shirts. When his younger cousins play football or baseball, they always ask for Delegal’s No. 29.
“I’m like, ‘Come on guys, what if you can’t wear that number in high school?’ “ Brown said. “But it doesn’t matter. We have a lot of No. 29s running around.”
Delegal’s influence is greater than sports. He’ll pursue a professional football career in 2012, but ultimately he wants to return to graduate school and get his master’s in education. Later, he hopes to start a foundation targeting people from troubled pasts.
“I want to give back to the community,” Delegal said. “Because I didn’t come up the regular, traditional way, so I want to provide support to those less fortunate. And I feel like I need a base to do that.”
Last month, he became the first person in Brown’s family to graduate from college, earning a communications degree. Brown can’t forget the date: Dec. 11, 2011. After the ceremony, she said Delegal broke down crying on her shoulder.
His conversion was complete. The true beauty of his story is about to unfold.