Neuqua Valley football coach Bill Ellinghaus was in the stands on May 16, 2021, when his former quarterback Mark Gronowski led South Dakota State onto the field for the FCS national championship game in Frisco, Texas.
It was a day both men will never forget, for all the wrong reasons.
Gronowski, then a true freshman, suffered a torn ACL in his left knee on the first drive of the game, and the Jackrabbits lost to Sam Houston 24-21.
“When I found out the bad news, it was really, really tough,” Ellinghaus said. “I told him, ‘Mark, you’re a tremendous leader. You’re going to be back here again, and when you get back here, I’ll be here.’
“Sure enough, the first chance he had, he made it back.”
So did Ellinghaus, who was in attendance at the same stadium on Jan. 8 when Gronowski completed 14 of 21 passes for 223 yards and three touchdowns and also ran for a 51-yard touchdown to lead the Jackrabbits to a 45-21 victory against rival North Dakota State.
It was the first national championship for South Dakota State (14-1) and marked the completion of an inspiring comeback for Gronowski. He celebrated after the game with Ellinghaus and former Neuqua Valley teammate Patrick Hoffman, a sophomore receiver who appeared in six games for the Jackrabbits this season.
“It was awesome,” Ellinghaus said. “I really wanted to be there, and it was a much different feel this time. It was so fun.”
Gronowski wanted Ellinghaus at the game.
“I was really excited after the semifinal game,” Gronowski said. “I texted coach Ellinghaus right away, saying ‘Are you coming?’ We got him tickets, and he was really excited to come.
“He’s done so much for my career at Neuqua Valley, so it was really cool seeing him supporting me on the road.”
The road to recovery was a grueling one for Gronowski, who was the 2019 Naperville Sun Football Player of the Year after leading the Wildcats to a 9-2 record during his senior season. That included a memorable six-touchdown performance in a 50-48 loss to eventual unbeaten Class 6A state champion East St. Louis.
“Everyone thought East St. Louis was untouchable,” Ellinghaus said. “They were steamrolling everyone, and Mark said, ‘We can do this.’
“He rises to the occasion. He always has.”
So it was following Gronowski’s knee surgery.
“It was devastating at first, but I saw him after his surgery, and his mind was right where it needed to be,” Ellinghaus said. “He said, ‘Now it’s about rehab and getting myself as strong as I can.’
“Mentally he was always in a pretty good place. That’s a credit to who he is as a person.”
Gronowski credits his parents and South Dakota State athletic trainer Charlie Miller for helping him through the rehab process.
“I’ve never been seriously injured before, and it really took a toll on me mentally and obviously physically,” Gronowski said. “But I was just surrounding myself with people who really care about me and support me.”
Gronowski said he couldn’t walk for six weeks after the surgery and was driven to physical therapy sessions by his parents. When he returned to campus, he worked with Miller six days a week, spending up to two hours a day in the training room.
“There were a lot of days that just felt like you were doing the same thing over and over again,” Gronowski said. “But Charlie did a really good job of setting goals for me along the way.”
Gronowski spent the fall 2021 season wearing the headset and calling in the signals to quarterback Chris Oladokun. That gave him new insight into the game and prepared him for this season, when he threw for 2,967 yards and 26 touchdowns with five interceptions and rushed for 408 yards and 12 scores.
So Gronowski was confident before the national championship game.
“What’s really funny about it is I wasn’t thinking about the knee injury going into the game, but my mental strength coach came up and asked me, ‘Are you thinking about the knee at all?’” Gronowski said. “I was like, ‘Well, I wasn’t before you said it.’”
But there was nothing to worry about.
“I felt really excited, and I was getting a little emotional out there on the field warming up because I’m back and I’m playing in the title game,” Gronowski said. “Sometimes you thought that you’d never get the opportunity again.
“After that first play and I got hit for the first time, I felt, ‘OK, let’s get going. This is going to be a fun game today.’ And it ended up being so.”
Gronowski still has three years of eligibility left. He aspires to win more national titles and play in the NFL.
For now, he is relishing this one.
“It was such a special victory,” Gronowski said. “I’m still on cloud nine thinking about it, and I still get chills. It was a storybook ending.”
Matt Le Cren is a freelance reporter for the Naperville Sun.