On Oct. 9, when Marist senior Jimmy Rolder walked out of Illinois football coach Bret Bielema’s office, his whole life changed.
But he didn’t know his life was going to be turned upside down, too.
The 6-foot-3, 225-pound linebacker was making an unofficial visit to Illinois that day. He had already verbally committed to the school for baseball.
Football, however, is his first love. And before the Illini were set to host Wisconsin, Rolder was summoned to Bielema’s office.
“That was unexpected,” Rolder said. “That’s when he offered me. It was a great moment for me and my family.”
Especially considering Rolder’s stepfather, Scott Kehoe, was a standout at Oak Lawn, played offensive line for the Illini and had a short stint with the Miami Dolphins.
Rolder said Bielema was willing to work out something so he could play both sports in Champaign.
But when he walked out of the office, Rolder didn’t know what was about to hit him. The floodgates opened.
A little more than a month later, Rolder said he has “12 or 13″ major college offers for football. He has visited Ohio State, Michigan, Iowa and Minnesota.
Rolder, who just got back from a visit Sunday to Wisconsin, said he hopes to make a decision in December.
Even in the wild world of college recruiting, this is an unusual scenario. Usually, highly sought-after recruits are offered a lot sooner.
Marist coach Ron Dawczak said he has never seen anything like it, but pointed to having the fall season in 2020 wiped out because of coronavirus concerns.
Illinois was one of the few states not to have football in the fall.
“Jimmy was not able to showcase his skills,” Dawczak said. “These offers would have happened sooner if we played last year. It wasn’t like he just woke up one day and suddenly found himself being a super-talented football player. He always has been, but he hasn’t been able to show it.
“Coaches were not able to put their eyes on him in person. It’s the result of a strange last 16 to 20 months.”
Colleges will have another chance to watch Rolder as the RedHawks (9-3) host Maine South (11-1) at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Class 8A state semifinals.
The RedHawks beat Glenbrook South 51-21 in the quarterfinals Saturday, with Rolder getting in a few snaps in the Wildcat formation and scoring an offensive touchdown.
Dawczak said Rolder makes plays all over the field.
“He’s the total package as a middle linebacker in high school,” Dawczak said. “You don’t see that many kids with his athletic ability and physical stature as well as the smarts and instincts.”
Rolder, an Orland Park resident and Palos South graduate, played volleyball in middle school and football with the Orland Park Pioneers. He also was on the Cangelosi Sparks travel baseball team, which has a nice pipeline to Illinois.
He’s not sure about his baseball future.
“I don’t even know any more,” he said. “I made my verbal commitment before my junior year. I don’t know ... I always wanted to play football and I committed to baseball not knowing if I was going to have a junior season for football.
“I thought it would be my only chance to play a college sport at the Division I level.”
A third baseman, Rolder said if he goes to Illinois, he will try to play both sports. If he goes elsewhere, though, it would likely be only for football.
Life wasn’t as complicated before stepping into Bielema’s office.
“It’s been hectic, for sure,” Rolder said. “It’s dying down a little bit. I’ve been enjoying it, obviously. I’m grateful to have these opportunities to go from no offers to where I am now.
“It’s been crazy.”
Jeff Vorva is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.