In the season-opener against Western Illinois, Dylan Chatman made his college football debut, intercepting a pass and making four tackles.
In the second game, Chatman got his first start — at Northwestern, a Big Ten program that has been ranked as high as No. 13 this season.
Chatman is a graduate student at Eastern Illinois and has four seasons of college basketball on his resume. While his career on the court concluded in the spring when he also earned his bachelor’s in psychology, he had a semester of athletic eligibility remaining. So, he is now a starting cornerback for the Panthers.
What is most intriguing is that he had not played football since his sophomore year at Belleville West (Ill.) High School. That was six years ago.
“After my sophomore year I told myself I was never going to play football again,” said Chatman, who was always big into basketball.
But there he was attempting to walk-on with the Panthers in the spring at the urging of defensive backs coach Tony Gilbert.
“I surprised myself by going out for the team and once I got back on the field it was like I had to re-learn a lot of things,” he said. “On top of that I had to learn a lot of new things, but once I got more reps it got to the point I tried to perfect my game and dominate our receivers in practice.”
It is that mentality that served him well on the hard wood, first at Southwestern Illinois College, a two-year institution, then with EIU. He made the Panthers as a walk-on before earning a scholarship.
In two seasons with the Panthers the 6-1, 180-pounder was a defensive stalwart at guard who chipped in 6.4 points per game. Not surprisingly, it is the defensive side of the ball with which he finds himself on the gridiron and at a pivotal corner spot. The shutdown mindset in pretty much the same and many skills transition across both sports.
“I think the only difference is that in football there are more defensive calls, so you have to know more about the defense overall and be in the right position to stop the receivers,” he said. “In basketball, guarding a player one-on-one is basically the same as in football. You need to move your feet and slide your feet. There are a lot of the same skills.”
While his skill set and experience as a college athlete has transitioned well, there was still a learning curve as far as the language of football and recognizing varied offensive packages the opposition rolls out each week.
To that extent Chatman said he is working on getting to the point where he does not need to ask about some of the defensive calls and to immediately react to what the offense is showing. He has certainly had his moments in the first five weeks, though, including the interception in his debut, a 33-5 loss.
“Everybody was congratulating me,” he said. “A couple of my junior high teachers heard I was playing football and that I had an interception. Back home that was a real big thing, which I didn’t realize until everybody started telling me.”
It was a big thing for EIU, an FCS program in the Ohio Valley Conference, to play at Northwestern. Even though it came in a 41-0 setback, Chatman’s first start was memorable.
“It was shocking,” he said of the setting at Northwestern’s Dyche Stadium, which seats nearly five times more fans than EIU’s O’Brien Field. “Once I walked on the field I could not help but take it all in, look around and see how big their stadium was. It was like I was in a movie or something.”
Chatman’s journey to this point seems like a storybook script: transfer to a four-year school, make one team as walk-on, earn a scholarship, receiver a bachelor’s degree, make another team as a walk-on and begin studying for a master’s in family and consumer science while participating in a sport he has not played since 2009.
It has been quite a college career, for sure, but his message is simple.
“What I take out of all of this is that if I want to do something and try my hardest then I can be anything I want to be,” he said. “Most people are going to tell you that you cannot do something, but if you believe in your heart that you can do it, then you definitely can.”