NORWOOD PARK — Patrick Dougherty's glad he chose football over wrestling.
Five seasons later, Dougherty and the Redbirds are in the FCS national championship game for the first time. Fifth-ranked ISU (13-1) will face No. 2 North Dakota State (14-1) — the three-time defending national champions — at noon Saturday at FC Dallas Stadium in Frisco, Texas. The game will be televised on ESPN2.
"I think it’s really cool I made the decision to play football, and I achieved most of my goals what I wanted," said Dougherty, a linebacker who has started two games this season and made 13 total tackles. "To be on one of those teams that get a shot to win a championship, it’s great to be a part of it."
Justin Breen says ISU has had an incredible run to the championship:
Dougherty was the Chicago Catholic League Blue Division defensive player of the year as a senior, when he had 122 tackles and nine sacks. He also was an accomplished grappler, with a combined 71-14 record his junior and senior years.
The Garvy Elementary graduate ultimately selected football at ISU, where he was a preferred walk-on before finally earning an athletic scholarship prior to his senior season.
"He worked really hard for his scholarship," said Dougherty's father, John. "Every time he gets in the game, he gives it 110 percent, every play. It’s been wonderful."
Illinois State has reeled off a surprising number of wins on its way to the title game, beating No. 4 Eastern Washington and No. 1 New Hampshire — both on the road — in the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively.
The Redbirds' only other appearance in the Final Four came in 1999, and several members of that team visited ISU's players in their locker room after their 21-18 victory over New Hampshire.
Dougherty already has graduated with a degree in business management, and he plans to pursue a job in sales — "something where I can recreate the team atmosphere I'm used to," he said.
But first comes Saturday's title tilt, and a chance to make history.
"Still can't believe it," Dougherty said. "We waited for this opportunity to play for a national championship. It’s an awesome feeling to have it actually come to fruition."
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