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Max Chapman: No. 1 for more reasons than one

Photo: Northwestern Athletics

EVANSTON — Football is in the air. It's August 9, 2015, just one day before the Northwestern Wildcats are set to begin preseason training camp. The team meeting room is full. Players are present. Coaches, equipment managers, administrators — they're all present too. And of course the coach, Pat Fitzgerald, is there. Fitzgerald has important business to take care of. It's time to fill a coveted vacancy, one of the most exclusive privileges of Northwestern football. It's time to award the No. 1 jersey for the Wildcats' upcoming season.

Wearing the No. 1 jersey has been a Northwestern football tradition since 2011. Fitzgerald explained the tradition on the day of the announcement, saying, "The No. 1 jersey, in our program, is used to recognize the young man who truly embodies the values and character of the Northwestern football family. It is worn by someone who consistently dedicates himself as a great teammate, an excellent student and an influential member of our community."

On this Sunday, former Wildcats Bo Cisek and Tim Hanrahan, both former bearers of the No. 1 jersey, stand at the front of the room. Cisek has the attention of players and coaches alike, and a jersey in his hands. And then he makes the announcement everybody had been waiting for by revealing the name on the back of that jersey:

Chapman. Fifth-year senior defensive lineman Max Chapman.

The entire room erupts. Seniors who have played with Chapman for their entire careers, such as Dan Vitale, beam with approval and look to congratulate him. For those who have known Chapman, this is no surprise. But for the man who earned the award, the moment caught him completely off guard.

At the time of the announcement, Chapman said he never even thought about the possibility of being selected. He was very surprised to hear his name. In fact, he still kind of is.

"Initially I was just so completely grateful that my teammates would pick me for such an honor and the coaches would go along with that," Chapman says as he recalls the meeting almost three months later. "Being in the program and growing up over the last five years, changing everything, going through some struggles, good times and bad, it was exciting that they chose me."

That's a classic Chapman response — humble whenever the subject is one of his own accomplishments.  But none of his teammates were surprised. After all, it was his teammates on the Leadership Council who tabbed him as the recipient of the No. 1 jersey.

"Since the day he arrived on campus, Max has been a remarkable example of what it truly means be a Wildcat," Fitzgerald said after the announcement. "His passion and enthusiasm shine through in everything that he does."

Chapman arrived in Evanston in 2011, and has seen his role on the football team grow gradually over his five-year tenure. In 2011, he redshirted and did not see the field. Since then, he has played in 41 games. His stats don't stand out — he has recorded 27 total tackles in four years. But Chapman became just the third player since 2011 to be selected to wear the No. 1 jersey for a reason. His positive attitude and strong character make him standout.

Playing with passion, fire and love have always been hallmarks of Chapman's play on the field. And those are traits that can be traced all the way back to his middle school days at Allen D. Nease High School in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. As a seventh grader, Chapman remembers, he would play touch football with his friends on fields adjacent to the high school varsity's. He would occasionally hang around the sidelines. Every once in a while, he would casually look to his left or right, only to see the likes of Urban Meyer, Charlie Weis, and ESPN cameras.

All of them, Chapman and the others, were there to see Tim Tebow.

Tebow, a senior in 2005, led the Panthers to a state championship. Chapman, five years behind the future Heisman trophy winner, was inspired by the local hero.

"He was definitely a role model in the beginning just because he was known for having very good work ethic and being a high quality person both on and off the field," said Chapman. "I think that was inspirational for me at a young age."

"He's left quite an imprint on this athletic department." -Maureen Palchak, Northwestern assistant athletic director for community relations.

Another trait of Tebow's that resonated with Chapman was his strong devotion to his faith. Chapman now values his faith more than anything else in the world, and it's something that has been a major factor in his life since his sophomore year.

The major turning point in Chapman's time at Northwestern came when he went to a Catholic Conference sponsored by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) during his sophomore year. It was there, Chapman says, that something clicked for him.

"I could tell my life was changing at that point," Chapman says. "Off the field, when I was growing with my relationship with Christ, I noticed that a lot of things on the field were beginning to change as well. I wanted to give better effort and find different ways of praying in the everyday activities I was doing. In trying to turn everything into a prayer and truly embracing the physical sufferings that come with football, I came to love the process of learning and failing and pain and suffering because it wasn't pointless, it was suffering because it was an opportunity to give something to someone else as a beautiful prayer."

Chapman says that as this relationship began to deepen, he noticed a simultaneous increase in his dedication in all aspects of his life. He showed more effort while playing football. Off the field, he looked to further his involvement in various community outreach programs at Northwestern.

Chapman first volunteered during his freshman year. That's when he met Maureen Palchak, Northwestern's assistant athletic director for community relations. As someone who has known Chapman for almost five years now, Palchak has seen his growth first hand.

"There's a lot of things that Max brings to the athletic department and the football team that are irreplaceable," Palchak says.  "Like his energy and his enthusiasm and also his way of encouraging in such a perfect way to get others involved. People want to be around him and people wanted to be involved in what he's involved in."

Palchak says changes in Chapman's personality coincided with his community service work. Chapman has worked to provide food for homeless people in Chicago. He's also a co-president of the Reach Out and Reinforce Respect (ROARR) program. Chapman and ROARR fight bullying in schools promoting anti-bullying campaigns to elementary school students. Lena Phillips, a senior field hockey player at Northwestern who serves as the other co-president of ROARR, says Chapman is perfect for the program because kids naturally look up to him and his fuzzy, outgoing personality.

In many ways, it's that same personality that makes Chapman such a valued leader and member of Northwestern's defense. "I see how the other guys on the football team look up to him," Phillips says, "and it's exactly the same way the students look up to him."

But Chapman's impact on Northwestern football extends far beyond the team's play on the field. Take, for example, the summer of 2014. Chapman met with Fitzgerald one-on-one to explain to his coach why Sundays during training camp had become his least favorite day of the week. Various team activities prevented Chapman from attending Catholic mass, something that had become a crucial part of his life. So Chapman asked Fitzgerald if he could go. Fitzgerald asked Chapman if he wanted to take it a step further, telling Chapman that in previous years, mass had been held in the team's hotel and asking Chapman if that was something he, along with the rest of the team, would be interested in. Now, Father Kevin Feeney from the Sheil Catholic Center comes to the team's hotel on Friday nights before the Wildcats' home games, and mass is held at 6:55 p.m. Chapman says his teammates have embraced it, and the number of attendees has increased by the week.

Chapman has seen regular playing time on the defensive line this season, part of a second unit that is often counted on in passing situations. He recorded a sack against Iowa, and came up with a big pass deflection against Nebraska.

But Chapman knows the next chapter of his life won't have football at its epicenter. He wants to become a catholic missionary for the FOCUS organization, the same organization that hosted the conference he went to as sophomore that changed his life. "In all honesty," he says, "if I can introduce one person to Jesus Christ, that would be the most beneficial thing I could ever do as a person."

Wherever he ends up, whatever he ends up doing, one this is clear: Northwestern University will miss Max Chapman. "He's left quite an imprint on this athletic department," Palchak says.

When Chapman returns to Northwestern years down the road in early August, and when he unfurls a No. 1 jersey and hands it to its next owner, the new No. 1 will have large shoes to fill. For more reasons than one.