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Daniels | A winning combination for Mejia

Apr. 27—RANTOUL — Diana Mendoza knows Aug. 14 will bring about many emotions.

Happiness.

Sadness.

Pride. Uncertainty.

It's the day her baby boy goes off to college. With a chance to pursue not only his football dreams, but also his lofty academic aspirations.

Standing at 5 feet, 10 inches and 265 pounds, Alejandro Mejia isn't a blue-chip recruit. Realizes it, too.

"For me, I had to humble myself that Division I was not an option for me at my size and my position," he said.

And he didn't even get to enjoy winning a football game in high school. But his story is bigger than that.

See, when he steps foot on the Benedictine University campus in Lisle in less than four months, he'll become the first person in the Mejia family to attend college.

"I'm not trying to think about Aug. 14 before he shows up to Benedictine for camp because it makes me a little teary-eyed," Mendoza said with a small laugh. "But I have to let him spread his wings and let him chase his dreams. That's what it's all about as a parent. One day, your kid is going to leave and be successful."

Mejia didn't experience much team success in his four seasons with Rantoul. In fact, none. The Eagles last won a game on Oct. 5, 2018, when they beat Bloomington Central Catholic 42-28. They carry a 41-game losing streak into next season when the program's fourth coach in four years, Brett Trefren, takes charge.

Mejia will have his full focus on going through his freshman year at Benedictine next season, but the lessons he'll take with him from Rantoul, a place he's lived his whole life, will resonate in college.

Mejia credits Trefren, previously an assistant coach with the Eagles, in making sure he stuck with football even when the lopsided losses mounted.

"I don't like quitting something I've started," Mejia said. "It was tough because you go out there every Friday and for four years, I was never able to walk off and say, 'Man, I won a game.' Coach Trefren was one of the main reasons why I never quit, though. He just kept me level-headed and didn't let me think I didn't have a chance of going to college just because we weren't winning."

The Rantoul football program hasn't reached the playoffs since 2006 and hasn't won a playoff game since 1990. Like many players who have come before him, Mejia wanted to turn around the team's fortunes and give the community an on-field product they could be proud of on Friday nights.

But success has eluded the Eagles.

"Going into high school, I knew it was a struggling program, and it stayed that way for all my four years there," Mejia said. "My goal was to get a couple wins for the school and hopefully lead the team to the playoffs. That unfortunately didn't happen."

Rantoul Township High School Principal Todd Wilson calls Mejia a quiet leader, but one who leads by example.

"Alejandro has been an influential student-athlete over the past four years," Wilson said. "He doesn't say much, but when he does, his words are chosen carefully and his teammates listen to him."

Mejia, who started at right tackle and along the defensive line this past season, earned honorable-mention Illini Prairie All-Conference honors in a league that features tradition-rich area teams like Monticello, Prairie Central, St. Joseph-Ogden and Unity.

"Individually, I just wanted to get as many accomplishments as I could and hopefully that would lead me to have the ability to go to college football," Mejia said. "It ended up working out."

Even if it was a slow process and again, didn't generate any of the headlines related to say, Big Ten recruiting.

Benedictine gave Mejia his first offer in late October of his senior year. It's a text message Mejia won't soon forget.

"The feeling I had when I got my first offer was excitement, but I knew that had more had to be done," Mejia said. "I didn't take anything for granted. It was more motivation."

Other D-III in-state schools like Greenville, Illinois Wesleyan and North Park extended offers this past winter, but Mejia committed to Benedictine on March 20. On Monday afternoon, he will make his choice public with a ceremony at Rantoul Township High School, a moment years in the making.

"I'm really proud of him," Mendoza said. "Being a minority, sometimes it can be hard. I always told Alejandro, 'Don't listen to the haters. Keep on moving forward.'"

Mejia has played football since he was 8 years old and grew up enjoying the game partly by watching it with his dad, also named Alejandro.

But football isn't his only passion. He plans on studying engineering at Benedictine and wants to become a civil engineer.

"College really just gives me an opportunity to pursue my dreams in engineering and also be able to do something I love outside of football," Mejia said. "Most people don't get the chance to do that. It gives me an opportunity in the future to do something I like instead of having a job I won't look forward to later in life."

Mendoza saw her son take a particular interest in engineering when he was in sixth grade, and it has stayed with him through the years. No matter what he can accomplish on a football field, the degree Mejia will pursue from Benedictine leaves his mom beaming.

"He's going to get his degree that he loves in engineering," Mendoza said. "He's getting the best of both worlds with football and academics. He checks his grades every day. If it goes down to an A- in a subject, he freaks out. No matter what he's doing with football, his focus is always on academics. That's his No. 1 goal."

In the end, Mejia didn't get to celebrate a long-awaited playoff win with Rantoul football. Or any wins for that matter.

But he gets the chance to play college football and land a degree that will set him up for a successful career.

Sure sounds like a winning combination. And one the Mejia family can cherish.

Matt Daniels is the sports editor at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-373-7422 or at .