Division III players meet again
Wheaton (Ill.) College pair join elite fraternity to play in NFL
Wheaton (Ill.) College Athletics
KANSAS CITY -- It’s a play not unlike the hundreds you see on a typical NFL Sunday. On this occasion, it’s in the Dec. 26 meeting between the Kansas City Chiefs and Tennesse Titans. Dexter McCluster of the Chiefs hauls in a kickoff and looks for an opening that isn’t there. Bodies fly, whistles blow, the ball is repositioned and both teams quickly move on to the next snap.
In some circles, an otherwise routine opening kickoff has been anything but normal.
With Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Andy Studebaker paving the way for the return unit and Tennessee Titans cornerback Pete Ittersagen streaking down the opposite side in hot pursuit of the ball carrier, NFL history is made – even if few people realize it.
Studebaker, a 2008 sixth-round NFL Draft pick from Wheaton (Ill.) College, and Ittersagen, a rookie free agent in 2009 who also played at Wheaton, are believed to be the first pair of former Division III teammates to share an NFL field in the regular season in 24 years – since Widener grads Billy “White Shoes” Johnson of the Atlanta Falcons and Joe Fields of the New York Jets roamed the same field in 1986.
“It’s something that neither of us takes for granted,” said Studebaker afterward. “Not a lot of guys from our level get this opportunity.”
“Obviously Andy and I have a special place in our hearts for Wheaton College, so any time we can represent our college, it’s an honor,” Ittersagen said. “The fact that we could do that (Sunday) is really, really special.”
Division III players on NFL rosters make up an elite fraternity. When Ittersagen was elevated from the Tennessee practice squad on Dec. 17, he joined a list of just seven Division III alums with a current home on an active roster.
“It was such a blessing to be activated,” said Ittersagen, who worked on Tennessee’s practice squad for 14 weeks before getting finally his chance. “It’s been a dream come true.”
Ittersagen has been on a long road over the last year and half – released by the Jaguars, waived by the Colts, then cut twice more by Tennessee. He was an All-America cornerback and elite kick returner during his Wheaton days. With Tennessee, he’s just one of the guys, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“Every opportunity I have on the football field, I don’t take for granted. I work my butt off and it’s a passion of mine,“ he said.
As Ittersagen visits with a reporter in the lockerroom after Sunday's game, his teammates begin to tease him, sticking imaginary tape recorders in front of his face and cutting off his answers with fake questions. By NFL standards, he’s a second-year player. On the Titans, he’s still one of the low men on the totem pole.
“Any time I’m out there, I’m just enjoying life,” he finishes.
And you can tell he means it.
That passion has been on display the past two weeks. On the depth chart behind All-Pro cornerback Cortland Finnegan, Ittersagen is making the most of his opportunities on special teams. In his debut against the Houston Texans, Ittersagen logged three tackles, though a week later against the Chiefs, his chances were limited.
Despite a healthy contingent of former Wheaton players on hand to watch, the so-called “Wheatie Bowl” failed to generate much buzz outside of the campus of approximately 2,650 students in Wheaton, Ill., located just 25 miles west of Chicago. In a section of the Kansas City game notes listing some of the obscure player connections between the Chiefs and Titans, the Studebaker-Ittersagen relationship is omitted entirely.
The closest the two come to making any on-field contact happens deep in the third quarter after a downed punt. As Ittersagen turns back toward the Tennessee sideline, his former teammate makes an abrupt move to cut him off. To the rest of the world, it probably looks like two rivals jawing at each another.
“We just kind of slapped each other, said hello,” Ittersagen said. “That was cool.”
Studebaker said of the moment, “I wanted to bump him real quick – let him know that I was watching him. Yeah, it was a lot of fun.”
Rewind to the first quarter with Tennessee on the ninth play of a long, sustained march. On third-and-five, Studebaker – who sees extensive playing time as a pass rusher on passing downs – slips around his man and pulls down quarterback Kerry Collins from behind to move the Titans out of field-goal range. A sellout Arrowhead Stadium crowd erupts as Studebaker pumps his fist.
“Embrace the opportunities, embrace the experiences,” Studebaker said. “It’s a great opportunity for me, and hopefully Pete follows in that same direction.”
Studebaker’s road has been a bit smoother, but by no means easy. Being a Division III alum in the NFL is rare, but being drafted out of a Division III college is even more rare. Studebaker – who was taken in the draft by the Philadelphia Eagles – is closing out his third season.
Like Ittersagen, Studebaker spent time on a practice squad. He was working with the Eagles late in the 2008 season when the Chiefs snapped him up, looking for some extra depth on their defensive front.
That offseason, Kansas City fired almost the entire coaching staff and also turned over much of the front office. Typically, a total house cleaning in an organization means bad news for the holdovers, but not for Studebaker. He has thrived in two years under new coach Todd Haley and general manager Scott Pioli.
Studebaker has gotten some long looks from the Chiefs brass and made the most of his opportunities. In his first and only career start during the 2009 season, Studebaker intercepted two passes and recorded five tackles against the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers. A few weeks later, he scored his first touchdown, falling on a blocked punt in the end zone against Cleveland.
In November 2010, the Chiefs awarded Studebaker a new contract, making him the first Chief to receive an extension from the new management.
“I really love playing here, we love the community here, love the team here, love the organization,” Studebaker said. “After you battle and battle for two years, three years in the league, it’s nice to have a small amount of security.”
Studebaker’s success has been a lift for Ittersagen, too. Good friends in college, they’ve grown even closer during the past two years, sharing their struggles and successes against some of the best competition in the world.
“He did the whole draft process and NFL thing a year before I did, so he’s always been a big instrument in helping me,” Ittersagen said.
“We keep in touch, probably once every couple of weeks I’ll call him and see how things are going,” Studebaker added. “Sometimes last year when he was a rookie and grinding, he could call and ask questions. It’s amazing to see his progress.”
After the Chiefs’ 34-14 victory over the Titans, Studebaker made a bee-line, not for Ittersagen, but for the team photographer. He was planning this all week. The former teammates turned foes turned friends posed near midfield with the towering stadium walls as a backdrop.
It’s a perfect keepsake for the two of them, but Studebaker is thinking big picture – literally.
“We’re going to get this framed for the program, for the coaches at Wheaton.”
Division III Teammates to Play Against Each Other in an NFL Game
|Alma Mater||Year||NFL Team (Player)|
|Amherst||1973||Dolphins (Doug Swift) vs. Cowboys (Jean Fugett)|
|Amherst||1974||Dolphins (Doug Swift) vs. Colts (Freddie Scott)|
|Amherst||1974||Dolphins (Doug Swift) vs. Colts (Freddie Scott)|
|St. Norbert||1974||Packers (Larry Krause) vs. Falcons (Ted Fritsch, Jr.)|
|Amherst||1977||Redskins (Jean Fugett) vs. Colts (Freddie Scott)|
|Widener||1977||Jets (Joe Fields) vs. Oilers (Billy “White Shoes” Johnson)|
|Amherst||1978||Redskins (Jean Fugett) vs. Lions (Freddie Scott)|
|Amherst||1978||Redskins (Jean Fugett) vs. Dolphins (Sean Clancy)|
|Widener||1979||Jets (Joe Fields) vs. Oilers (Billy “White Shoes” Johnson)|
|Amherst||1979||Redskins (Jean Fugett) vs. Lions (Freddie Scott)|
|Amherst||1979||Redskins (Jean Fugett) vs. Cardinals (Sean Clancy)|
|Widener||1980||Jets (Joe Fields) vs. Oilers (Billy “White Shoes” Johnson)|
|Widener||1983||Jets (Joe Fields) vs. Falcons (Billy “White Shoes” Johnson)|
|Widener||1986||Jets (Joe Fields) vs. Falcons (Billy “White Shoes” Johnson)|
|Wheaton||2010||Titans (Pete Ittersagen) vs. Chiefs (Andy Studebaker)|
Source: Wheaton (Ill.) College Sports Information