Well-recruited at Vernon Hills, defensive lineman Dan Lester arrived at North Central College thinking he was ready for college football.
He was wrong.
After playing in two games for the Cardinals in 2018, Lester stepped away and missed two seasons.
“I think like everyone that’s 18 years old, they think they have the world figured out,” he said. “I was flying high. I really didn’t. It was a harsh reality for me. I had to realize what I really wanted to do with my life.”
Lester returned to North Central for the 2021 season, when he was a rotational player and didn’t appear in the 57-24 loss to Mary Hardin-Baylor in the Stagg Bowl, the Division III national championship game. But the 6-foot-1, 287-pound junior has become one of the most dominant interior linemen in the country this season.
Lester has a team-high 19.5 tackles for loss, ranks second with 8.5 sacks, ranks third with 50 total tackles and was named the CCIW co-defensive player of the year as the No. 1 Cardinals (13-0) have returned to the national semifinals. They will play No. 3 Mary Hardin-Baylor (12-1) at home at 2:30 p.m. Saturday.
“He came in highly recruited, very talented,” North Central defensive coordinator Shane Dierking said. “He really wasn’t ready from a maturity standpoint. He took some time away, and he did a complete 180. He’s one of the most mature kids on the team. He’s a complete joy to be around, a ball of fun. I couldn’t be happier for a kid like that.”
Lester said the coaching staff left the door open for him to return when he was ready.
“I told them eventually I will come back, but I couldn’t give them a timeline,” Lester said. “They said, ‘Whatever you need, we’ll be here if you need us.’ When I decided to come back, it was immediate open arms. It’s never talked about. It’s like I’ve been a part of the team the whole time.”
But Lester still didn’t feel like he was maximizing his potential. It started with believing what Tim Janecek, the defensive line coach and strength coordinator, was preaching. Lester also made sure to be around defensive linemen Dan Gilroy, Brandon Greifelt and Tyler Rich, who has been Lester’s roommate for four years.
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“Personally, I had to do a lot of reflection, and I sat back and thought about what I could do differently, and it started in the weight room,” Lester said.
Where it will end?
“He is a special player at that position,” Dierking said. “He’s freaky athletic with his ability to sudden change and just has brute strength. He’s just a very unique player. That combination of brute strength and quick twitch and athleticism, it’s scary. He’s been the bright spot of our defense to put us in this position.
“What he did in the offseason, the light bulb went off, and he continues to get better every week.”
Lester stood on the sidelines when North Central played against Mount Union in the national semifinals a year ago. On Saturday, he will be front and center as the Cardinals try to make it back to the Stagg Bowl for the third straight season.
“It’s been a long time coming to get to where I’m at, and now I’m going to be playing in a semifinal game on ESPN with my best friends,” he said. “It’s a pretty surreal feeling.”
Paul Johnson is a freelance reporter for the Naperville Sun.