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The football players at College of DuPage are overlooked no more

The Chaparrals, filled with under-recruited players, are now in the spotlight after winning the NJCAA Division III title. 

The outside of Bjarne Ullsvik Stadium, home of the Chaparrals, in 2018.
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There’s plenty the College of DuPage football program doesn’t have.

Scholarships, dorms and any full-time staffers other than acting head coach Matthew Rahn, to name three.

But the Chaparrals do have something else most teams don’t: a national championship.

DuPage beat Nassau Community College from New York 34-29 last Saturday in Glen Ellyn to win the inaugural National Junior College Athletic Association Division III title game.

A 33-yard touchdown pass from Brooks Blount to freshman Matt Brown, a West Aurora grad, with 21 seconds left won it. Nineteen seconds earlier, Nassau capped a comeback from 21 points down to go ahead 29-28.

Brown said he called it.

“Right before we took the field, I was cool, calm, collected,” he said. “I was telling my teammates, ‘We have time.’ I believe in all of them.”

So did Rahn.

“Year in and year out, we have a team on paper — people might not think we stack up,” he said.

But like his predecessor, Matt Foster, Rahn has built a roster not with transfers and former NCAA players. Instead, he looks for players from around the Chicago area and around the state who for whatever reason are overlooked and under-recruited.

In the pandemic era, that’s a pretty big talent pool. Brown is a good example.

Like other high school seniors in Illinois, Brown’s season didn’t start till March, long after many colleges had wrapped up their recruiting classes.

But West Aurora coach Nate Eimer and Rahn believe Brown is an overlooked gem.

“We’ve coached some good football players,” Eimer said. “I’d put Matt right up there. What separates him a little bit is his ball skills and how physical he is. I have not seen many who block like him.”

Brown, a 6-2, 185-pounder, is the only true freshman starter among COD’s receivers. He also might be the quietest.

“If it wasn’t for his athletic ability, you’d forget the kid’s there,” Rahn said. “He’s very focused, he never misses anything, he’s never late. He’s a phenomenal athlete.”

Landing a game-changer like Brown is just part of COD’s fairy-tale-like story.

The Chaparrals didn’t play in 2020 because of the pandemic. Late in the year, Foster retired and Rahn — a former COD player who had been associate head coach for seven seasons — was given the job on an acting basis.

His first team, which finished 9-2, ran the gamut from players who were in the program as far back as 2018 to newcomers such as Brown.

There’s also a wide range of juco football programs, from the Division I powers with as many as 85 scholarships, 10 full-time coaches and on-campus housing to the non-scholarship teams such as COD.

Most NJCAA sports are structured similarly to the NCAA: Division I with the most scholarships, Division II with a lower number and Division III with no athletic aid.

But football has just two classes: Division I and Division III. The latter is the smaller of the two, with less than 20 programs. But it’s gaining visibility.

After DuPage hosted an unofficial D-III national championship game in recent years, the NJCAA sanctioned an official title game along with the division’s first official national rankings.

COD was announced as the championship game host before the season. So to wind up not only playing in the game but winning it in the final minute — well, the Chaparrals couldn’t imagine a better scenario.

“By far it was the best feeling I’ve ever had playing sports,” Brown said.

“We’re going to get some rings,” Rahn said. “The staff, we’re excited. We showed up [to work] Monday [saying], ‘We’re not satisfied. Let’s get better.’ ”

Better than winning a national title? Seems like a tall order. But after this season, the Chaparrals don’t see a ceiling to what they can do.