December 26, 2010

Wheaton alumni meet in NFL

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Studebaker and Ittersagen
Pete Ittersagen, right, was recently activated off the Tennessee practice squad, while Andy Studebaker has been a mainstay at linebacker for Kansas City.
Kansas City Chiefs photo

By Bryan Holmgren

It’s a play, not unlike the many thousand you’ll see on a typical NFL Sunday. Dexter McCluster of the Chiefs hauls in a kick and looks for an opening that isn’t there. Bodies fly, whistles blow, the ball is repositioned and both teams quickly move onto the next. In reality, an otherwise routine opening kickoff has been anything but.

With Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Andy Studebaker paving the way for the return unit and Tennessee Titans corner Pete Ittersagen streaking down the opposite side in hot pursuit of the ball carrier, NFL history is made – even if very few people realize it.

Studebaker – a sixth round draft pick in 2008 from Wheaton College – and Ittersagen – a rookie free agent in 2009, also out of Wheaton – are unofficially the first pair of former Division III teammates to share an NFL field in 24 years.

“It’s something that neither of us takes for granted,” says 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,” says Ittersagen. “The fact that we could do that today 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 December 17, he joined a list of just seven D3 alums with a current home on an active roster.

“It was such a blessing to be activated,” said Ittersagen, who toiled on Tennessee’s practice squad for 14 weeks before getting finally his chance. “It’s been dream come true.”

Ittersagen has been through the wringer over the last year and half – released by the Jaguars, waived by the Colts, then cut twice more by Tennessee. His 4.4 speed made him an All-American corner and an 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, so –“ ... as Ittersagen visits with a reporter in the lockerroom after the 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 considered 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. Buried on the depth chart behind All-Pro corner Cortland Finnegan, Ittersagen’s 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 are limited.

Despite a healthy contingent of former Wheaton players on hand to watch, the so-called “Wheatie Bowl” has failed to generate much buzz. In a section of the Kansas City game notes listing some of the obscure connections between the Chiefs and Titans, the Studebaker-Ittersagen relationship is omitted entirely. The closest the two come to making any on-field contact comes deep in the third quarter after a downed punt. As Ittersagen turns back toward the Tennessee sideline, his former teammate makes an abrupt turn to cut him off. To the rest of the world, it probably looks like two rivals jawing at one another.

“We just kind of slapped each other, said hello,” laughs Ittersagen. “That was cool.”

“I wanted to bump him real quick – let him know that I was watching him,” Studebaker says. “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-5, Studebaker – who sees extensive playing time as a pass rusher on throwing downs – slips around his man and pulls down quarterback Kerry Collins from behind to move the Titans out of field goal range. A sell out Arrowhead Stadium crowd erupts as Studebaker pumps his fist.

“Embrace the opportunities, embrace the experiences.” says Studebaker. “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 D-III alum in the NFL is rare, but being drafted out of a D-III college is almost unheard of. Studebaker – who was taken in the sixth round of the 2008 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 struggling Chiefs snapped him up, looking for some extra depth at linebacker.

That offseason Kansas City fired almost its entire coaching staff and also turned over much of its front office. Typically, a total housecleaning in an organization means bad news for the holdovers, but not for Studebaker. He has survived and even thrived in two years under new coach Todd Haley and general manager Scott Pioli.

With the Chiefs in rebuilding mode and the organization focused on developing youth, Studebaker has gotten some long looks from the Chiefs brass. He’s made the most of just about every opportunity. In his first and only career start during the 2009 season, Studebaker intercepted two passes and recorded five tackles against the defending champion Steelers. A few weeks later, he scored his first touchdown, falling on a blocked punt in the endzone against Cleveland.

In November 2010, Pioli 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. 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 for me in helping me,” says Ittersagen.

“We keep in touch, probably once every couple of weeks I’ll call him and see how things are going,” Studebaker adds. “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 makes a bee-line, not for Ittersagen, but for the team photographer. He’s been planning this all week. The former teammates, turned enemies, turned friends pose 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 and everything for the program, for the coaches at Wheaton.”

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