Medal of Honor Winners Take B1G Next Steps
May 28, 2014
One of the most prestigious conference awards in college athletics, the Big Ten Medal of Honor was first awarded in 1915 to one student-athlete from the graduating class of each university who had "attained the greatest proficiency in athletics and scholastic work." In 2014, the conference celebrates the 100th anniversary of this prestigious award.
University of Illinois 2014 Big Ten Medal of Honor Recipients
Soccer All-American Vanessa DiBernardo and football star Nathan Scheelhaase garnered the prestigious Big Ten Conference Medal of Honor this year at the Fighting Illini All-Sports Celebration. Both completed outstanding careers as Illini before starting on new paths in their lives. DiBernardo is currently playing professional soccer for the Chicago Red Stars and Scheelhaase has directed his leadership skills towards guiding high school students in their faith at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky.
Nathan Scheelhaase - Football
A native of Kansas City, Nathan Scheelhaase left his mark in Missouri high school football as the quarterback at Rockhurst High School. He was a four-star recruit by Rivals.com and led Rockhurst to a Missouri state title as a junior, earning 2007 Kansas City Star Metro Offensive Player of the Year in the process.
After deciding between many schools, including Iowa, Missouri and Oklahoma, Scheelhaase came to Illinois and made a name for himself as a Fighting Illini. Scheelhaase had one of the best offensive seasons in Illinois football history in 2013 and finished his career as the Illini's all-time total offense leader with 10,634 yards, a total that ranks seventh in Big Ten history. He led the conference in passing yardage (272.7 ypg), total offense (295.2 ypg) and completion percentage (66.7) during his senior season, while also breaking the school record for passing efficiency (140.7) to earn All-Big Ten honors.
Off the field, Scheelhaase was an unquestioned leader during his five years on campus. He was a four-time Academic All-Big Ten honoree and earned two degrees from the University of Illinois - a bachelor's degree in communication and a master's in recreation, sport and tourism. He was a Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) representative, was very active in Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) and regularly took part in "Hometown Heroes" activities throughout his career, including countless visits to local schools, hospitals and correctional centers. To honor his success both on and off the field, Scheelhaase was awarded the Big Ten Medal of Honor, showing his commitment to athletics and academics.
"It means a lot," Scheelhaase said on receiving the award. "Ever since I had been at Illinois, I would watch the ceremony and see the athletes that won and see the list of athletes from even before I was there. Just to be grouped with some of those names that have come through, it's definitely an honor."
A four-year starter and two-time team captain, Scheelhaase is the only quarterback in UI history to lead the Illini to bowl victories in back-to-back seasons and is one of just two players in Big Ten history to amass over 8,000 passing yards and 2,000 rushing yards in his career. He finished among the Illinois career leaders in almost every quarterback category, ranking first in starts (48), second in completion percentage (63.0), completions (775) and rushing yards by a QB (2,066), and third in passing yardage (8,568), touchdown passes (55) and passing efficiency (130.2).
Scheelhaase had the ability to interact with fellow students, administrators and community leaders from a wide range of backgrounds while at Illinois. As a four-year starting quarterback, Scheelhaase lead his life by faith and his peers looked to him for leadership, direction and guidance as he left a positive mark on the football program and the entire Fighting Illini athletics family.
"Illinois definitely played a huge role with the relationships that I made and who I became," Scheelhaase said. "The truth is that my faith and what I'm doing now, it's obviously a job where Jesus is who I'm talking about every day and the kingdom I'm trying to grow every day. My faith wasn't really a part of my life until I got to Illinois. From that aspect, Illinois was a huge deal. I learned so many lessons from the people I was around and the situations I came across, how to deal with both good and tough times. Being in those times has definitely brought me to who I am and getting two degrees from a world class university is a big deal. All of those things together have made me who I am today."
A Man of Faith
Scheelhaase finished his master's program at Illinois in sport management in May 2014 and his next step was deciding what he and his wife, Morgan, would do after leaving Champaign. Scheelhaase found the right fit thanks to his former chaplain at the University of Illinois, Jason Epperson, and moved to Kentucky in February to take a job working with high school students at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville.
"Even six months ago, I wouldn't have guessed that this is what I'd be doing," Scheelhaase said. "But I thought it was for sure what was right for me and my wife at the time, to build a foundation and grow in our faith by spreading that to others and telling more high school kids about Jesus. Ultimately, I found something that was right up my alley."
Scheelhaase chose a similar path as other former UI athletes J Leman and Trent Meacham, who are not only former winners of the Big Ten Medal of Honor, but are men of faith. Scheelhaase has done business with both Leman and Meacham and thinks it's cool that the former Illini share similar interests and personality types. Since starting his new career, Scheelhaase has had visits from friends like Ryan Lankford and Miles Osei, and says that keeping in touch with former teammates and coaches is a high priority as he continues to keep tabs on the football program.
"It's a lot different," Scheelhaase said of what he does today. "I work with a great team here, which is a similarity. Being involved with people that are passionate, I think that's what starts the similarities. With football it's so much of having a group of people that work together towards one goal. It's the same here. Obviously it's different goals, but having that mindset has been great. There were a bunch of guys that I was with basically every day of the year and to all of the sudden be gone from those guys, it's definitely been an adjustment. I miss being around the guys I grew so close to over the last four and a half years.
"I've been playing football since I was in second grade and this is the first time I haven't been throwing the football or working out for football in years. It's definitely an adjustment in that realm, but the game is over for everyone at some point."
Vanessa DiBernardo - Soccer
Ranking as one of the most decorated Illinois soccer players in school history, Vanessa DiBernardo was a two-time All-American, collecting NSCAA second-team honors in 2011 and third-team accolades in 2012, and was named to the MAC Hermann Trophy Watch List three times. Coming from a notable soccer family, she excelled immediately on the field as an Illini, beginning her career as the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2010. She followed up a stellar rookie season by earning Big Ten Midfielder of the Year honors in 2011 while leading the Illini to their second Big Ten Tournament title in program history.
The Naperville, Illinois native also excelled in the classroom at Illinois, capping her career as a second-team CoSIDA Academic All-American and a two-time NSCAA Scholar All-American. A recreation, sport and tourism major with a sport management concentration, DiBernardo boasted a 3.70 GPA and was recognized with several other academic awards, including three Academic All-Big Ten honors and a Big Ten Distinguished Scholar laurel before.
DiBernardo didn't only hold herself to an incredible standard on the field, but also in the classroom and world of academics as well. Despite traveling around the world with the U.S. national team during her time at Illinois, she excelled in her academic discipline, which is evident in her GPA. She was awarded the highest of academic and athletic honors this spring when she received the Big Ten Medal of Honor for her excellence on and off the field.
"I was just honored and really taken aback," DiBernardo said. "It's a very high honor. I have to thank everyone that's helped me throughout my college career. It's a reflection of not just me but a reflection of the Illinois soccer program as well."
A three-time first-team All-Big Ten selection, DiBernardo wrapped up her career third in school history with 43 goals after leading the Illini in goals during each of her first three years, including a career-high 17 goals as a sophomore. In her final season, she ranked second on the Illini with seven goals while helping Illinois reach the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament, the team's best finish in her four-year career. She also tallied a career-high seven assists in 2013, giving her the most career assists (22) in school history and finished tied for the most career shots by an Illini with 325.
"Illinois helped me a lot," DiBernardo said. "Janet Rayfield is a great coach and we have a really good coaching staff. There are a lot of resources on campus and it's a great academic school as well. The discipline and the way the Illinois soccer program runs, it's based on integrity and excellence. I think that really helped me coming into the professional environment. I've really realized that everyone was pushing you in college, but now, if you want to get better, then it's on your own and you have to really make that commitment to yourself."
On Her Way to (Red)Stardom
DiBernardo became the highest-drafted player in school history when she was picked fourth overall by the Chicago Red Stars in the 2014 National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) College Draft.
"I've always thought of it," DiBernardo said about her professional soccer dreams. "It was kind of difficult being a female athlete and not knowing if there's going to be a league around in the states to play in after college. I thought about it and I was always hopeful that there would be a league around to be able to play in."
DiBernardo plans to come back to Illinois this fall to finish her degree and help out the team on the sidelines, but for now she's starting a new chapter in her life as her first professional soccer season kicked-off in late April. The new schedule is an adjustment as it can be very taxing on the body. She's been in Chicago most of the time since being drafted, but there will be some weeks in the future where she will be traveling and could have three games in a span of eight days.
"You have to take care of your body and learn what works for you and what doesn't and really kind of adapt to that environment," DiBernardo said. "It's similar but different. The age range of my teammates is definitely a lot different. There's more of a variety of experience within the professional league and I'm one of the young ones. I'm still learning and taking in all of the information I can get from some of the older players who have been around longer and know the ropes a little better."