Oct. 17, 2012
By Joe Summins
NIU Associate Media Relations Director
Sean Progar's path to Northern Illinois University is similar to many of his teammates. Attracting interest from Big Ten schools, but not enough to garner him a scholarship, he stayed close to home to play football for the Huskies. Progar's decision, however, was not just based on Northern Illinois' proximity to his hometown of Glenview, Ill.
Progar's journey to DeKalb actually started in Ann Arbor, Mich., where the Glenbrook South product attended a one-day camp at the University of Michigan. Following an outstanding career at Glenbrook South, Progar had received looks from Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota, in addition to a scholarship offer from the Wolverines. However, a coaching change at Michigan left him without a scholarship and looking for a place to play.
He had also attracted the eyes of every Mid-American Conference school, but by the time of his lost scholarship at Michigan, many of those spots were already taken. Without a scholarship, Progar weighed his options and was drawn to NIU for two reasons. Close with his family, Northern Illinois provided the opportunity for Progar to stay close to home, but there was something else NIU had that the other schools didn't have.
"It may be cliché, and you may think that it's just people saying that, but there really is a family atmosphere," Progar said of NIU. "I've had two coaching staffs here now, and each coaching staff has said that it's not like this everywhere you go. I think that's what makes NIU special. The team really sees each other as family. That's the way we treat each other, and I think that's the key to our success."
The family atmosphere on the Northern Illinois football team is unique and it is because of players like Progar that create that atmosphere. They are guys with exceptional talent, outstanding work ethic and a chip on their shoulder that they dare you to knock off.
"The biggest difference is work," he said. "When you have everyone on the team willing to work as hard as the next guy, I think there's no choice but to bond together. One of the biggest things being here is that everybody has that chip on their shoulder. We can all relate in some way, so that adds to our family mentality."
Family is very important to Progar. Although raised in a single-parent home by his mother Janet Progar, his father, Cleveland Jackson Jr., still plays an active role in his son's life. His parents come to every home game and his sister, Nicole, makes it to Huskie Stadium as often as she can. If they can't make it in person, a text message or phone call the night before wishing him luck lets Progar know his family is thinking of him.
It's that tight-knit family unit that has given him strength during his career at NIU. Progar credits his mother in particular for his work ethic and passion for the game of football.
"I think the biggest thing my mom taught me was just hard work and believing in something," he said. "She believed in supporting her family and having us lead the life she wanted us too. I've got to come out to work everyday, whether I'm up, whether I'm sick, whether I'm tired, or whatever the situation is, I'm going to come out here and work everyday and everything else will take care of itself."
When Progar arrived on campus as a walk-on in 2008, he fit right in to the family atmosphere in the Huskie locker room. He entered a defensive line meeting room filled with mentors. Larry English, Alex Krutsch, Brandon Bice and Jake Coffman took the young freshman in and treated him like a veteran.
"The first summer I was here, there were no coaches, just us players," Progar said. "I think the summers are big, because it's just players. You're all working hard and sweating. You get to see who's going to be there for you and who's going to be there to help you. Those older guys helped me a lot, and I've remembered that."
Though he arrived as a walk-on, it didn't take Progar long to earn a scholarship and show was type of player he was going to be. As a redshirt freshman in 2009, the 6-foot-2, 254-pound defensive end saw action in all 13 games, starting seven, making 30 tackles, including six sacks. He followed his freshmen campaign with a solid sophomore season. Progar started all 14 games at defensive end in 2010, recording 39 tackles, four sacks and 10 tackles for loss.
The Huskies underwent a coaching change prior to his junior year when Dave Doeren was hired to replace Jerry Kill. While there was an adjustment period for Progar, the change has been good for him.
"He was hurt in spring ball, so it took him some time," said NIU co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen. "He missed some practices. He really came on in the second half of the year last year. He was very fortunate to go through the whole spring ball this year and not get nicked up and injured. I think that helped him. This season, he had a faster start, which has been big for our defense."
Progar recorded career-highs in tackles with 52 and tackles for loss with 11 while leading the team in sacks with 5.5 in 2011. This season, he has 24 stops, including a sack and made his first career interception. With six more games to play, Progar looks to add to his career totals, further cementing himself in the Huskie record book. Coming into this weekend, Progar ranks sixth in career sacks with 16.5 and his 30.5 tackles for loss ranks 10th in school history.
Nielsen has watched Progar grow as a player on and off the field. One thing he's noticed that doesn't show up on the stat sheet is the tougher the situation gets, the tougher Progar is.
"The thing about him, as a player, when the game gets tough, you really see the true character of people," Nielsen said. "When we get into close games, his play elevates. There's no pressure on him. He just plays ball. At Ball State, we were down. We were down pretty late. We just hung together. We had some huge stops on defense, three and outs. We held them on sudden change to no points. You watch when he played, he played his best in the fourth quarter."
As Progar developed as a player on the field, he never forgot the lessons he learned about leadership as a freshman and applies them every day as one of the team leaders.
"I like to have a relationship with the freshmen, even though I'm going to be here for a year and maybe never see them again," he said. "I want to have a relationship with them. I think that's part of our family atmosphere.
"I didn't want to be that guy who was so worried about myself and my success. It wasn't even really conscious. It just happened. I see the freshmen as seniors. When you put so much into this program and so much faith into NIU, you just want to see it do better, and you do whatever you can for the future."
"He interacts with all of our players, mainly the defensive line. We're together the most," said Nielsen. "Those guys on away trips, the younger players, last year Jason Meehan was a freshman, this year Perez Ford is a freshmen, he coaches those guys up. Those guys look to him a lot."
The defensive line is a cohesive group and Progar is its leader. He's not a vocal and boisterous leader, but chooses instead to let his actions do the talking. His work ethic on the practice field and in the film room is second to none. When the unit is out on the practice field, they are constantly coaching each other up. They are watching each other's footwork and hand placements.
"The guys genuinely care how each other do," Nielsen said. "You don't find that everywhere. They watch each other practice and they coach each other up. They'll watch their steps and their hands. The reason why it's really good is because everybody's got eyes on everybody else on the field."
"You need to know that the guy next to you is going to do his job when he's tired or when you're down," Progar said. "I think the biggest thing with our group is that cohesion. Defensive line is a spot where you know it's going to be a battle every game. You're in the trenches, so you have to be able to trust and relate to those guys."
Progar was drawn to Northern Illinois because of its family atmosphere and the closeness to his family. It has given him an opportunity to grow personally and as a football player. He has given so much back to a university and football program that has given so much to him. He believes NIU is a special place and wants it to continue to grow.