By Charles Campbell
Since its first issue in August 1954, “Sports Illustrated” the magazine has garners more than three million subscribers nationally and is believed to be read by as many 23 million people each week. Its long-running segment “Faces in the Crowd” dates back to January of 1954 and has featured tens of thousands of amateur athletes, including a 17-year old Jack Nicklaus in 1957 and a 24-year old Elgin Baylor the following year.
Now, MacMurray senior running back Chazz Middlebrook’s name can be added to the long list of renowned athletes to be featured in the segment. If you’re looking for a copy of the issue, the cover of “Sports Illustrated” Volume 127, No. 12 features new Minnesota Timberwolves star forward Jimmy Butler with a royal blue background. Flip to page 22, about three-quarters from the top is where you’ll find Middlebrook, smile gleaming across his face next to a write-up about the local football player whose garnering increased national attention.
“I had no idea it was happening. I had received a text message from my SID (Sports Information Director) Randi Armstrong and she had sent me a picture of an email from someone at the magazine saying that they wanted to do a feature on me in Sports Illustrated,” Middlebrook explains. “So that’s how I found out, which is really neat because that’s not something you see every day, that was my first time experiencing something like that.”
The honor of being chosen for the coveted segment in “Sports Illustrated” has been well-earned. As a junior last season, Middlebrook led all of Division III with 170.3 rushing yards per game, tallying more than 1,700 yards leading the Highlanders to an 8-2 overall record. This fall, through MacMurray’s first six games (Middlebrook saw limited time in last Saturday’s win over University of Minnesota Morris in order to let a minor injury heal), the senior tailback had rushed 188 times for 1,132 yards – an average of 188.7 yards per game, just over six yards per carry to go along with 15 touchdowns. Prior to last week’s game against Minnesota Morris in which he had just one carry for a single yard, Middlebrook led all Division III players in rushing yards, with the closest rusher still 120 yards behind him.
But to truly appreciate how Middlebrook got to where he is today – among the best players in Division III football and in an issue of Sports Illustrated – it’s crucial to understand his full journey, including what brought him to Jacksonville in the first place.
“Everyone in my family is deaf, so we were living up in DeKalb and would send my brother and sister down to Illinois School for the Deaf from where we lived, and that’s about four-hour trip,” says Middlebrook. “My mom didn’t like that (long trip), she wanted to be closer to them, so we moved down here to be closer to them. That’s the main reason why we moved down here was to be closer to my brother and sister. I have a strong relationship with my mother and all of my siblings, and just them understanding why we made the move, that it was for them…it was just a better move and it makes it easier now that they understand some of the sacrifices that we made.”
It was the summer between Middlebrook’s sophomore and junior year of high school when his family moved to Jacksonville. And while he’d always shown talent on the football field, Middlebrook now had a whole new team and a whole new coaching staff to prove himself to at Jacksonville High School. Looking back, he recalls that he didn’t see significant playing time right away at JHS, but when the time came, Middlebrook rose to the occasion.
“When I first got to JHS I did not get in right away because they had a senior running back, but something had happened, I think he got hurt and couldn’t play. Then against Rochester, it was the first game of my junior year, that’s when (running backs) coach Thrasher told Coach Grounds to throw me in there, and I think my first carry I scored a twelve-yard touchdown or something like that,” Middlebrook explains.
“It definitely made (the transition from DeKalb to Jacksonville) easier having a coach like Coach Grounds. Just like Coach Douglas, Coach Grounds is definitely a father figure to me because it was tough moving in the middle of the school year to a whole new school, having to make all new friends,” Middlebrook says of his current and former coach. “I think having coaches like Coach ‘Doug’ and Coach Grounds helped me become more at ease, knowing that I have that sense of support not only from my family but from my coaches also.”
Coach ‘Doug,’ as Middlebrook and many of his fellow Highlanders refer to him, is MacMurray head football coach Chris Douglas. Serving also as the team’s offensive coordinator, Douglas became Mac’s head coach in June 2011, taking over a program which, at the time, had seen just one win over the previous four seasons from 2006 to 2010. Fast-forward to the current season, and Coach ‘Doug,’ Middlebrook and the rest of the Highlanders hold a perfect 7-0 record and find themselves atop the standings of the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference (UMAC).
“Me and Coach ‘Doug,’ our relationship is awesome. He’s really like a father figure to me in a sense because he was the one who recruited me out of high school, and then when I did transfer here (from McKendree University), he helped me get where I am, putting me in study tables and making sure I put in the hours,” says Middlebrook. “He was there, he stuck with me all the way. I think that bond alone helped me get to where I am because I know I’m able to come to him for anything, so having that bond not just on the field but also off the field, there’s no better feeling.”
MacMurray has three games remaining for the 2017 season. Two of those three remaining games are against Eureka College and College of St. Scholastica, both of which accounted for the Highlanders’ only two losses last year. This Saturday just so happens to be homecoming at MacMurray College, as well as senior night for Mac’s football team. It also happens to be the day Eureka College comes to town. Middlebrook didn’t shy away from admitting the significance of Saturday’s game against Eureka, but wouldn’t go any further than that, saying the team is focused on winning one game at a time.
In one of their best seasons in school history, MacMurray football is being led by one of the best players in the program’s history. And though he can be seen in the most widely read sports magazine in the country, the hype surrounding Chazz Middlebrook is best experienced in person.