Althaus signs with Illinois

by Mindy Carls correspondent
AlWood senior Lucas Althaus, who plays for Ridgewood, signs a letter of intent on Wednesday, Feb. 3, to play football at the University of Illinois. Althaus plans to major in ag business.

On the table in front of Lucas Althaus were two football helmets. The larger was his Ridgewood varsity helmet, which he will wear for his senior season when high school football teams finally get to play this spring.

The smaller one was from his youth football days. “Illinois” stretched over the orange helmet.

On Wednesday afternoon, Feb. 3, Althaus signed a letter of intent committing to wear a full-sized helmet as a tight end for the Illini this fall. Family and friends were able to watch him in the AlWood High School gym.

It’s unusual for IHSA Class 1A players to catch the attention of NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision coaches, Althaus acknowledged.

He participated in showcases in Chicago, where a lot of coaches looked at him as a diamond in the rough.

“Being able to represent my community and my state at the next level is something I take extreme pride in,” Althaus said. Playing at Illinois is a dream come true for the senior, something he’s been “praying for and hoping for and working for.”

“A lot of times I didn’t think I would be here, but with hard work and persistence I’m here,” he said, adding he would be “forever thankful for the opportunity.”

At the end of his sophomore year, Althaus said Division II schools started reaching out to him because of his size and frame. He put a lot of time in the weight room to put on pounds.

Smaller Division I and larger Division II coaches started to recognize his skill set was good for a player his size, Althaus said. On recruiting pages, he was listed at 6-6, 235 lbs.

He went into his junior season with a chip on his shoulder, the Spartan said. During the year, he caught the attention of Toledo, Northern Illinois and Big Ten schools, including Purdue as well as Illinois.

Althaus said his name was starting to get out there, but COVID-19 changed everything. Ridgewood’s fall 2020 season was cancelled.

“Trust and stronger relationships” with college coaches became more important, he said.

By June 1 last year, Althaus had his first DI offer from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. The school formerly had played in Division III.

He had some interest from Northwestern, although not an offer. His second and third official offers came from Illinois State and Northern Illinois.

Indiana wanted him as a defensive end, but Althaus wanted to stay at tight end.

On Thursday, Jan. 28, Althaus was in welding class when Illinois coach Pat Embleton, director of recruiting, called.

Althaus showed the phone to the substitute teacher — his mother, Angie Althaus — who gave him permission to leave class and take the call.

Embleton said the Illini were going to make him an offer.

Talking about the moment gives Althaus chills. He said his family goes to Illinois games every year.

Althaus is the first walk-on player the Illini signed for 2021. When the Illini play at Iowa in November, Orion’s Logan Lee will be on the other sideline. Althaus said Lee has been a good mentor through the recruiting process.

The Illini’s new coach is Bret Bielema, who played football for Prophetstown High School and then walked on another Big Ten school, Iowa.

Althaus said he and Bielema have a lot in common. They grew up on pig farms in rural areas.

“When I heard he was coming, I said I’ve got to be there,” Althaus said.

The Ridgewood senior’s goal is to play in the NFL, and Bielema can help him get there, Althaus said.

Bielema was the head coach at Wisconsin from 2006 through 2012, where his teams won three Big Ten championships and six bowl games. In five seasons at Arkansas, he took teams to three bowl games

He spent the last three years on NFL sidelines with the Patriots and Giants.