Going into its season finale against Eureka, its hard to imagine where the football team would stand without running back Nick Schey and quarterback Matt Rinklin.
As it stands, the Maroons have posted a 44 mark on the year, including a 30 record against UAA teams, and have already won their first league championship since 2000. After having dropped three heartbreakers and a blowout to start off the fall, the team has since won four straight in dominating fashion.
On offense, a great deal of the credit for this reversal of fortune is due to third-years Schey and Rinklin. The running back has garnered 886 yards of total offense, including 743 yards rushing in seven games, averaging 5.1 yards per carry on the ground, and scoring five touchdowns. His quarterback has done quite a bit more than just hand him the ball, throwing for 1,640 yards, an average of just over 234 yards per start, completing 116 of 207 passes for a 56.0 percentage, and tossing 14 TDs against seven interceptions. The two have together accounted for more than 87 percent of the teams total yardage on offense.
At the same time, its easy to imagine this squad with two other players starting in their positions. Both started the year on the bench. Coaches were unfamiliar with and unsure about their capabilities, as both had been away from football for at least a full season.
Coming to the University of Chicago as a first year in the fall of 2003, Schey found himself buried on the depth chart behind a quality class of running backs. He got into one game during that season, never carrying the ball. On top of concerns over the teams chemistry and a desire to participate in other on-campus activities, a nagging high school knee injury brought the question of Scheys future with the squad into focus.
I was thinking, Do I really want to go through all the rehab, and all the headaches that go with that, when theres this team where I dont know if I really fit in terms of what Im used to from high school? Schey said. I spoke with [head] Coach [Dick] Maloney and some of the older running backs, and laid what I was thinking out on the table, and decided to quit.
Schey spent the next year on a number of other activities, most notably playing on the club lacrosse team and working on his singing and songwriting. However, he found himself unfulfilled by these activities and missing the game. In the course of triathalon training, Schey experienced marked improvement in his knee, and began to consider returning to the team this fall. After consulting with Maloney and his father, he made the final decision to give Maroons football another shot.
When I quit, I was never thinking of coming back, Schey said. It was never in the back of my mind. It just sort of worked out that way.
His backfield teammate had a slightly more complicated path leading away from and back to the game. A three-year starting quarterback at Fordham Prep, Rinklin was recruited by a number of Division I programs and signed with the University of Illinois. He spent two years on the roster with the Fighting Illini, and played during a number of spring games, but was hampered by a broken foot and never found his way into a Big Ten game. Rinklin found the balance between academics and athletics at Illinois to be heavily tilted towards sports, and chose not to return for a third year at the school.
When I initially picked Illinois, it was Big Ten, the lights, the big time. I was kind of blinded by that, as opposed to thinking about what it was going to be like going to school there and playing football there on a day-to-day basis, Rinklin said. I wouldnt blame anyone at the U of I but I was burnt out with the rigors of being a student-athlete there. I wanted to take some time to re-evaluate.
After a year living in Chicago and working retail jobs, Rinklin was ready to return to college and to the game. He got in touch with the Maroons defensive coordinator, Andy Drude, but missed the transfer deadline to enter the University of Chicago in the fall of 2004. Eager to start classes again, Rinklin enrolled at DePaul, but began the transfer process to Chicago almost immediately upon arrival. He was primed to return to his spot under center.
I always cringed a little bit when I would look up at the TVs on Saturdays, Rinklin said. Theres a distinct feeling when you know the players. My locker was right next to that guy, and he just scored, and its Saturday, and Im not playing. I always felt like I wanted to get back to it, but I didnt know how exactly that would happen.
Both players worked through rigorous training regimens over the spring and summer to prepare for preseason, and entered camp on schedule. Having missed substantial time, each was concerned about the challenge of getting back into game flow. Schey feared having lost some agility and speed going side-to-side, and remained unsure about how his knee would hold up under the stress of repeated hits; Rinklin, dogged by a strained hamstring, found the adjustment to a new offense harder than he had anticipated. Neither player was initially penciled in as a starter, and neither started in the season opening loss at North Park September 10.
However, both saw playing time in that game, and their talents had not escaped the notice of coaches or teammates. Schey quickly developed a reputation for being a never-say-die player, who flat out refused to go down quietly despite taking multiple hits. At 23, Rinklin struck those around him as possessing maturity and on-field leadership, never dwelling on mistakes and continually hunting for a way to win, along with a fearsome throwing ability.
Both of them were big surprises. No one knew coming into the year how good they would be, third-year guard Joe Bufalino said. Nick gets hit and just keeps running. As an offensive lineman, seeing a guy rush for those extra yards makes you want to block a little bit harder.
Matts a guy who doesnt complain. If something happens, he doesnt get upset.
The pairs work in practice and against North Park earned them both starting jobs the next week at home against Elmhurst. Though the team was struggling through a series of agonizingly close losses, Scheys and Rinklins performances throughout September and through the 339 defeat at DePauw that kept them winless through four were among the signs of the Maroons potential.
I was saying to friends at the time, I think were the best 04 team in Division III. I think if you put us against any other winless team in Division III, we would kick the you-know-what out of them, Rinklin said. The defense was spectacular. I think it took time for the offense to get on the same page, to have the intuitive feeling of where everyones going to be. It was only a matter of time before everything came together.
Part of that development as an offense was the increased mutual respect between Schey and Rinklin. The latter, who continues to maintain an apartment near the Hancock Building, has been staying at the apartment shared by Schey, Bufalino, and two former Maroons throughout the season, giving them an off-the-field venue to develop together.
Its been great to work with a running back whos going to fight and scrap and claw for that extra two yards, Rinklin said. Ive seen him carry four guys and then deliver a blow on the fifth guy who tries to tackle him, and hell still get five more yards.
He sits through films an hour-and-a-half with Coach [Jeff] Sokol, the offensive coordinator, learning defense so we can have the best chance to win, Schey said. He brings a winning attitude, even when were losing. Hes always saying, Lets try this, lets try something else, maybe we can score a few points and turn this game around. Hes got such a great attitude.
Finally, at Wash U on October 8, everything seemed to fall into place. Schey blasted through the Bears line for 132 rushing yards and a 67-yard touchdown reception. Rinklin, who completed 17 of 25 passes for 245 yards and no interceptions, also hit third-year wideout Micah Dawson for two more TDs. The Maroons won 270, and the season had seemingly begun again.
Against Wash U, we got there. I think if Wash U had been our first game, we could have beaten every single team that we played, Rinklin said.
Since then, its been an incredible run for Chicago. The team mixed in an absolute walloping at Bethany College between a homecoming day rout of Carnegie Mellon and a solid showing against Case that clinched the UAA title. Now at .500, only a one-win Eureka squad stands between the Maroons and their first winning record since 2001. The newfound offense continues to be paced by its new members, with notable performances coming at Bethany (four passing touchdowns for Rinklin) and against the Spartans (211 yards for Schey).
Looking towards the end of their thrilling comeback year, both players remain grateful for the opportunity to come back to the gridiron but also positive for their break from the game.
I feel fortunate to now be able to look back and say, Now I know what it means to not be able to play football again, Schey said. I know what its like now, and I have a much greater respect for it. The fact that I can thank these people now, and say this happened because of [running backs coach John] Potocki, because of Coach Maloney, because of the offensive line. Its great to feel like youre part of something, that youve contributed to a team thats done something that no team has done in a while, and to have not really expected it.
I grew as a person, and as a football player. Each time youre able to take some time away from things, youre able to realize how you could have performed better. I thought my football career was done, and you look back and say, How could I have been a better player? Rinklin said. When I left the U of I, I thought it was over. Its been an amazing blessing to come back and be able to play again.
The Eureka Red Devils may find themselves the last in a line of opponents who wish the pair had stayed away.