PEORIA — A nearly endless parade of students filed into Peoria Notre Dame’s library just minutes after the final bell last Thursday.
Those sticking around after school were there to celebrate PND all-state lineman Michael McLaughlin. Sitting in a crowded room of family friends, coaches and teammates, the senior inked his national letter of intent to play college football with Butler, a Division-I Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) program in Indianapolis.
McLaughlin is the lone senior D-I-bound football player from a Peoria program so far this season — but his road to college football wasn’t easy.
“(Butler) just felt like home,” the offensive lineman said. “The coaches were great. It’s good football. It’s a great school. I’ve always loved Indy when I been there as a kid, so it was just a good spot.”
His mom, Kathleen McLaughlin Marks, was especially proud.
“Words can’t describe it,” McLaughlin Marks said. “He is a young man that sets goals and achieves them plus (more) and just even all the adversity that he just went through, he held his head high and did the rights and put his faith in God.”
Losing out on Northern Iowa
Although McLaughlin’s recruitment may have ended on a high note, it was a very rocky road getting to that point.
The all-Big 12 Conference first-teamer originally intended to play football at Northern Iowa. He was in Cedar Falls, Iowa on Oct. 21, cheering on UNI to a shutout victory over nationally ranked North Dakota. It was then that McLaughlin gave his in-person commitment to the Missouri Valley Football Conference school, which had offered him on June 3.
But two weeks later, McLaughlin, who had just seen his high school career end in a second-round playoff loss, was told that Northern Iowa would no longer honor his commitment.
“I got my scholarship pulled,” he said.
The reasons the Journal Star all-area lineman was given ranged from pandemic players using their extra year of eligibility, to transfers, to Northern Iowa “looking for tackle bodies — just bigger, taller guys,” McLaughlin said.
None of those rationalizations could begin to soften the blow. He says five other players were also told by UNI they wouldn’t be suiting up for the Panthers in the fall.
“It was one of the worst days for us,” McLaughlin Marks said, “just seeing him so hurt by someone that we thought we could trust and not knowing what the plans were after that.”
“It’s a shame,” PND coach Pat Armstrong added. “The portal and everything that’s going on with kids and athletes today, it really makes recruiting difficult for a lot of boys.”
What he meant to Peoria Notre Dame
During his four-year prep career, the 6-foot-3, 285-pounder wore No. 72 every season. That jersey number is reserved for “leaders, mentors, men of faith and good Christian role models,” according to Armstrong. This unwritten tradition is a way to honor McLaughlin’s late uncle Mike McLaughlin, who bore those same digits.
“Michael’s a lot like Uncle Mike,” Armstrong said, noting he admired the elder McLaughlin growing up. “He’s a captain. He’s been a leader in our weight room in the last three years. We talk about it every day. I’ve had many lifting sessions already and it’s like, ‘Who’s that guy that the lineman are going to gravitate towards?’ “
Now, what the Class 4A Illinois High School Football Coaches Association first-team all-stater, who anchored an offensive line that watched their running backs run for 3,275 in 2023, will bring on the field as a first-year player will likely replicate his off-the-field intangibles.
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“He’s going to be a supreme performer, probably year one,” Armstrong said. “You can’t replace 24-year-old man strength. Michael has a lot of that as an 18-year-old kid.”
How he ended up at Butler
After losing out on Northern Iowa, McLaughlin admittedely started to “scramble” in figuring out where he would play at the next level. On the table for him were Butler, Western Illinois, Georgetown and some preferred walk-on opportunities.
This is when McLaughlin’s deep Catholic faith really came into play, landing on Butler where he is slated to an interior lineman, likely center.
“I think the most important thing I learned from this whole process throughout high school is trust in God and his plan,” McLaughlin said. “You know, Drake even wrote a song about that, right? He even knows.”
Heaven forbids this happens to other athletes, but if it does, McLaughlin offers a simple piece of advice.
“Don’t worry so much about the football side of things,” he said. “Just find a place that feels like home and everything else will sort itself out.”
Adam Duvall is a Journal Star sports reporter. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @AdamDuvall.