‘You can’t just stop’
Illinois State's Meehan holds late father's message close to heart
FRISCO, Texas -- Before every game, Illinois State junior middle linebacker Pat Meehan puts on his headphones and listens to the same music and reads the same text.
His music, though, isn’t the rock, hip hop, or country that his teammates might be listening too. In fact, it’s not anything from the past 30 years.
“It’s Van Morrison,” Meehan says.
He listens to Van Morrison because it was his father’s favorite band. The text he reads before every game was sent nearly two years ago from his dad, Mike Meehan, after he became sick with Lou Gehrig's disease, or ALS. The elder Meehan passed away just months later, in May of 2013.
“When this was happening and my dad was sick, I was going through a hard time,” Meehan said. “It was training camp, classes and everything, it was really just coming down on me. He sent me this long text pretty much just telling me to keep trucking along. With everything that happens, you can’t just stop.”
Meehan, now on the verge of helping his team to a first national championship, hasn’t stopped.
His father was a big reason for his love for football -- Mike was a tight end for Dan Marino-led Pittsburgh in the early 80s. He instilled a toughness and work ethic in his son that has helped him stand out, going back to his days at Lincoln-Way East High School in Frankfort, Illinois. In his senior year, he was an Illinois High School Football Coaches Association First-Team All-State selection.
“There’s so much that he passed on to me,” Meehan said of his father. “Just growing up I wanted to be just like him so I sat back and watched everything he did. There are just so many things that I learned from him.”
“Everything happens for a reason, and I took that to heart and felt like there was a reason for that,” Meehan said. “[Illinois State head coach Brock] Spack called me the next day and I ended up coming here, and I think that was the best decision I ever made. I’m so happy here; this is definitely the home for me, where I’m supposed to be.”
Meehan redshirted his 2011 season in Normal and primarily played on special teams in 2012. He led the team in special-teams tackles with 13.
Then came the toughest year of Meehan’s life, which started with his father’s diagnosis and wasn’t half over by the time he died. Even during the season, Meehan was struck by an illness and had to miss two games because of an ulcer. Still, he managed to lead the team in tackles with 82 and was fifth in the Missouri Valley Football Conference with 9.1 tackles per game. After the season, he was given the National Football Foundation Chicago Metro Chapter Mental Toughness Award.
“He’s done a great job with [dealing with his father’s death],” Spack said. “That’s a hard thing for a kid that old. I know Mike is with him and with our team.”
The pain of Meehan’s loss was felt throughout the entire team. They had their chance to show some support when the ALS ice-bucket challenge swept the nation this past summer. Meehan did a video with coaches and teammates behind him, dumping ice water on their heads to try to raise money for the disease that took his father from him so suddenly the year before.
“That really meant a lot to me, to have them there, just because I know that they are supporting me that whole way,” Meehan said.
This season, Meehan has continued his ascent to become one of the top defensive players in the conference. He was named to the All-MVFC first team while compiling 103 tackles, an average of 7.4 per game. He had a career day against Eastern Illinois, racking up 11 tackles (four for loss), two sacks and an interception. Both on and off the field, this Redbird team looks to Meehan for leadership and guidance.
“He’s tough, he’s a good leader, he’s intense,” Spack said. “He kind of epitomizes who we are. A south suburban kid, south Chicago, and that’s kind of who we are. We’re blue-collar.”
Meehan will sit down in the locker room to listen to Van Morrison and read a text from his dad one more time this season, when the Redbirds take on three-time defending champion North Dakota State in the FCS national championship game on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET.
The Bison defense may get more attention than Illinois State’s, and that is no surprise -- NDSU's defense has consistently been one of the best in the country for the past four years. But Meehan is confident his “pack of mutts” from Illinois State are up to the task of containing Carson Wentz, John Crockett and the NDSU offense.
“We don’t get the hype and everything, but we don’t need it,” Meehan said. “We’re a hard-nosed group, and that’s where we pride ourselves.”
If Illinois State wins the national championship, Meehan will likely play a big role. After all, his toughness is one of the big reasons the Redbirds have made it here.