A chance to play professional football will take a pair of former Illinois College football players nearly 5,000 miles away from the campus where they re-wrote the school's record books.
Former players Mitch Niekamp and Mike Jennings have signed contracts to play professional football in the Austrian Football League. Niekamp and Jennings will play for the Hohenems Cineplexx Blue Devils, one of six teams in Austria and Switzerland that competes in the league's top division.
Niekamp and Jennings were courted by teams from several European leagues before they signed with the Blue Devils late last month. Jim Mader, the team's American head coach who also serves as an assistant football coach at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., liked the idea of getting Illinois College's all-time leaders in passing and receiving back on the field together.
"He was really excited about getting two players that had played together before," Jennings said. "He was really excited about the success that we had had before and the chemistry we had playing together."
Niekamp and Jennings talked to teams both together and separately. They had separate offers to play in places like Germany and Poland, but they were hoping they would be able to sign with the same team.
"Football has been a passion of mine for a long time," Niekamp said. "Getting an opportunity to continue playing – especially with one of my good friends – is a great opportunity and I'm really looking forward to it."
Teams in the AFL are only allowed to sign four American players per season, and teams typically sign two offensive players and two defensive players. Jennings said the team has already signed a middle linebacker from Florida State and is currently negotiating with a defensive back from Stanford.
The AFL season begins in mid-March. Niekamp will leave for Austria on Jan. 18, while Jennings will report on March 1. The former Illinois College players plan on sharing a condo in Hohenems.
"I'm excited that we're going to get to play together again and that we are getting to share this experience," Jennings said.
Niekamp, a native of Camp Point, Ill., finished his collegiate career this fall as Illinois College's all-time leading passer. He holds Illinois College records for passing yards in a game (467), season (3,145) and career (9,185), as well as touchdown passes in a game (6), season (31) and career (87).
Jennings, a wide receiver from Fort Madison, Iowa, who has served as an assistant football coach at Iowa Wesleyan College since graduating last spring, is the school's all-time receiving leader. He holds Illinois College records for receptions in a game (19), season (110) and career (253), in addition to receiving yards in a game (280), season (1,416) and career (3,336). He has also caught the most touchdown passes in a game (4), season (16) and career (39) at Illinois College.
Illinois College head football coach Garrett Campbell, who served as a visiting coach for the Vienna (Austria) Vikings in 2001, said he was proud of and excited for his former players.
"It's a credit to all the work they put in as student-athletes," Campbell said. "I think it's exciting when guys can continue to play and have the cultural experience of living in a foreign country."
Both Niekamp and Jennings said that playing professional football wouldn't have been possible without their experiences at Illinois College.
"I really appreciate all the opportunities Illinois College provided me," Niekamp said. "I really have to thank the great coaches and great players I played alongside at Illinois College."