North Central College defensive end Dan Gilroy (39), a 2018 Cary-Grove graduate, had 35 tackles, six sacks and 12 tackles for loss for the Cardinals, who won the NCAA Division III national title.
North Central College defensive end Dan Gilroy (39), a 2018 Cary-Grove graduate, had 35 tackles, six sacks and 12 tackles for loss for the Cardinals, who won the NCAA Division III national title. — Photo provided by John Reid – North Central College

The tattoo just below North Central College defensive end Dan Gilroy’s left collarbone that reads “Today’s the day” is fitting since those have long been inspirational words for athletes at his alma mater, Cary-Grove.

Don Sutherland, now retired from teaching and coaching at C-G, first heard the phrase from former C-G football coach and athletic director Bruce Kay, likely some time around 1990.

C-G fans wore “Today’s the day” T-shirts when the Trojans won the 2018 Class 6A state championship. The players wore them the next day at the state title celebration.

Sutherland, now linebackers coach at North Central College, had to chuckle when Cardinals defensive coordinator Shane Dierking spoke to the players before the NCAA Division III national championship game Dec. 20.

“Shane comes in and says, ‘As Dan Gilroy always says, ‘Today’s the day,’ ” Sutherland said. “I just grinned. ‘Dan Gilroy always says?’ I kid Dan about that.”

Gilroy, a 2018 C-G graduate, had taken the Trojans’ mantra to Naperville.

That day, at Woodforest Bank Stadium in Shenandoah, Texas, was indeed North Central’s day. The Cardinals defeated Wisconsin-Whitewater, 41-14, in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl for their first national football championship in school history.

Gilroy and Dundee-Crown graduate Isiah Ziegler both were sophomore starters on the defensive line. Sutherland, who was C-G’s defensive coordinator for most of three decades, was in his first year on Cardinals coach Jeff Thorne’s staff.

“It was funny, we were talking after the game, ‘Who would have thought we would have ended up in Texas winning a national championship when just two years ago we were competing for a state championship?’ ” Gilroy said. “It was awesome to have him along for the ride, seeing him around every day. It was just awesome.”

Sutherland, whose son Matt finished his eligibility in football in the 2018 season, was asked by Thorne last spring to join his staff.

“I kind of felt guilty,” Sutherland said. “These kids put in their sweat and blood for four years. All those kids and coaches have been so long there. I kind of went along for the ride. I get to experience what everyone was looking for.”

There were five other local players on the Cardinals’ roster: Jared Hornbeck, a sophomore wide receiver from Hampshire; Jake See, a freshmen linebacker from Hampshire; Nic Rummell, a freshman wide receiver from Hampshire; Owen Henriques, a senior defensive lineman from C-G; and Danny Dusik, a freshman offensive lineman from Marian Central. Also, athletic trainer Lauren Palsgrove is a Prairie Ridge graduate.

Gilroy and Ziegler made their way into the starting lineup as freshmen and were there again this season, lining up next to each other.

“It still doesn’t feel real,” Ziegler said. “I feel like we’re the best, but it hasn’t really clicked yet. It feels pretty good [being next to another Fox Valley Conference player]. We have a bunch of stories when we played each other. He has better stories because he won.”

Sutherland remembers an impassioned speech Gilroy delivered after C-G’s 17-13 loss to Prairie Ridge in the second round of the 2017 playoffs. It was Sutherland’s last game as Trojans defensive coordinator and could have been Gilroy’s last football game.

Sutherland heard Gilroy speaking from the heart and thought he would be a great fit for North Central, where Matt Sutherland would be a senior the next year. Gilroy listened when the North Central staff visited C-G and decided to play college ball.

Now, he and Sutherland are reunited on the defense. While Sutherland works with outside linebackers, Gilroy finds time before practice to interact with his old high school coach.

“I watch film with Coach Sutherland before practice, and we hang out and talk for 20 or 30 minutes,” Gilroy said. “It was nice to be able to have time to talk to him. He helped us a ton. For coaching as long as he has, he definitely gave a great insight to the coaching staff.”

Matt Sutherland played football and baseball at North Central and was part of seven CCIW championship teams. Don Sutherland was teaching math last spring at C-G, the first season after he retired as head baseball coach, and attended Matt’s weekend home games. Thorne approached Sutherland at one of the games about coaching on his staff in the fall.

In his one season away from football, Don Sutherland saw the game from a different prospective, that of a parent. He arrived early and became better acquainted with other parents at pregame tailgates.

Thorne’s invitation got Sutherland thinking. For years, he urged students to take on new opportunities, to try different things. He had taught more than long enough to retire on full teachers’ pension, so he accepted Thorne’s offer and retired.

A couple of times a week during the summer, Sutherland drove to Naperville and got to know the coaches.

“This is an opportunity, and I can do this for a year or for 10 years,” Sutherland said. “These coaches work so hard. We’re analyzing 650 plays of the opponents each week. In high school, we would look at a couple games. We look at nine here. I used to think 63 was old. I got to 63 and, shoot, I don’t want to retire. I played at Augustana. I realize what Division III kids do: They play for the love of the game.

“It was fun to be a part of. I might go coach a little baseball in the spring. I have to get that OK’d with [my wife], Heidi. Now that I’m 63, it doesn’t seem that old. I want to continue to learn and experience things.”