Dylan Groff’s decision-making ability is something the members of the Evanston football coaching staff have raved about ever since he was promoted to the varsity at the end of his sophomore season.
But his passion for playing another sport led him to a decision that will send him down a different path once the 2022 season is over.
Last fall, Groff opted to make a commitment to play Big 10 lacrosse at Rutgers University, and he’ll focus solely on that sport after he first attempts to become the first ETHS quarterback in 20 years to win a state playoff game.
The combination of football and lacrosse isn’t totally unusual, even though the multi-sport high school athlete is becoming a rarity itself. But there is a certain irony to the fact that even Evanston Hall of Fame football coach Murney Lazier, who started the lacrosse program 60 years ago at the school to make sure his player stayed in shape in the off-season, probably never anticipated that the football program would reach a point where the starting QB and team leader would be more proficient in the sport with a long stick.
Groff is certainly more than a placeholder at the position and it’s definitely not a case where a struggling program has to just plug in the best available athlete to play quarterback. After being promoted at the end of the 2020 season, he beat out incumbent Sean Cruz for the starting quarterback job and led the Wildkits to the Illinois High School Association Class 8A state playoffs as a junior.
As a junior, Groff completed 62% of his passing attempts for 1,359 yards, tossing 16 touchdown passes and just three interceptions in nine games. He also finished second on the squad in rushing with 595 yards in 121 attempts.
He still has unfinished business on the football field even with a lacrosse career looming. He’s divided his time this summer between playing in lacrosse club tournaments and in 7-on-7 passing competitions for the Wildkit football squad.
There’s unfinished business for the 6-foot-1, 190-pound senior because he missed out on Evanston’s first-round state playoff loss to Plainfield North last year due to a case of mononucleosis.
“I’ve always thought of myself as a football player first and I think most people think of me that way,” said Groff, despite the fact that he’s played defense at the varsity level all three years in lacrosse. “I didn’t think I wanted to play lacrosse in college. I wanted to play football. But at the end of last summer I started to get a lot of interest from a lot of high level Division I college lacrosse programs, and I knew I’d regret it if I passed up that chance.
“Now I’ve completely fallen in love with lacrosse. I really like the pace of play, getting up and down the field, being really physical and using that along with the athleticism you need to play. It’s not rare for guys to play both lacrosse and football – but I know it’s not common for a quarterback.”
This is not a common quarterback, however. Groff, whose older brother Connor was a standout linebacker for ETHS, is one of those guys who prefers to run over – rather than run away from – enemy defenders and is likely to take on an even bigger role running the football this fall for a Wildkit team that should be more run-oriented than last year.
“I’ve played football since I was in third grade, but I didn’t start playing quarterback until my freshman year here,” Groff noted. “I was a linebacker my entire youth career and because of that, I don’t mind being physical and I don’t fear contact like some quarterbacks do. I’m always confident I’ll get right back up for the next play. I kinda embrace the contact, I think.”
He’s also had to embrace the challenge of trying to devote enough practice time in the summer to satisfy his lacrosse and football coaches at the same time.
“I’ve never really had an issue with coaches telling me I should choose one sport over another,” he said. “And I think if you play the same sport forever, you might eventually burn yourself out. You won’t have that same love for the game anymore.
“Coach Buzz [ETHS head football coach Mike Burzawa] is OK with me going to lacrosse tournaments in the summer, and if I miss anything because of football, the club coaches are fine with it. Last summer was actually a lot crazier for me because it’s so important for college recruiting before your junior year. It was hard to get used to. There were a lot of times where I’d have lacrosse practice from 12:30 to 2, race home to get my football stuff, and then get out to football practice. I had to get used to flipping the switch.”
Burzawa has always encouraged multi-sport athletes in the program and doesn’t mind having the guy he calls “the general of our offense” missing in action sometimes.
“I really believe all our kids should play all of the sports they love and they should be involved in the different [athletic] cultures,” Burzawa said after the Wildkits concluded the summer portion of their schedule this week with a team camp at Olivet Nazarene University in Kankakee. “For one thing, if all things are equal, college coaches are going to recruit the guys who play more than one sport.
“I always tell our incoming freshmen that you need a passion to play football, so see just where your passion lies. Dylan’s heart is in football and lacrosse, and one of the unique things about him is his work ethic. He’s in the weight room every day, not just lifting, but working on his speed and agility, too. Nobody’s working any harder than he is.”
With the graduation of leading rusher Gio Milam-Pryor and a receiving corps led by All-Stater Kamau Ransom that has also departed en masse, Burzawa knows that Groff will be a marked man this fall beginning with Evanston’s season opener against Indian Trails of Wisconsin.
“The No. 1 thing Dylan has brought to the table for us is his decision-making,” said Burzawa, referring to Evanston’s [run-pass option] attack. “He’s a dual threat who really gives us a lot of flexibility.
“He has a cool, calm demeanor and that’s what sets him apart from other quarterbacks. You have to have that in a QB because he has his hands on the ball every play. He had a phenomenal year for us last year and I’m really excited about what he’ll do for us this year.”
Groff spent the summer campaign trying to get on the same page with a new group of receivers that includes Mac Mettee, Preston Brown, Boaz Lieberman, Jacques Philippe, Myles Kye and Emmett Robinson. Evanston only participated in a couple of 7-on-7 competitions this summer and Groff missed the first day of play at the tournament conducted by the Chicago Bears at Fenton High School due to a lacrosse commitment.
But after the Wildkits struggled to score on the first day with Groff absent, he led them to victories in two of three games on the second day.
At the most recent Central Suburban League passing event at Maine West, Groff completed 65% of his passes as the Wildkits beat Conant 21-7, Niles North 28-14 and Leyden 28-21 before losing to Mundelein 14-7. Groff connected for four TD passes apiece in the Niles North and Leyden games.
“I think we had some pretty solid 7 on 7s this summer. We have a really talented group of guys at receiver,” Groff said. “But I also like to play power football. Whatever it takes to win.
“I want to win the conference, but my real goal is to win a playoff game. I remember when I was in eighth grade watching my brother’s team lose to Edwardsville [in the first round] and I was devastated when that happened. I know it’s not going to be easy, but it’s a dream of mine to play football in November.”