Daily Egyptian

Tragedy, transfer, touchdowns: The Mark Iannotti story

Quarterback Mark Iannotti attempts a pass during SIU's 35-29 loss to North Dakota State University on Oct. 31, 2015, at Saluki Stadium. (DailyEgyptian.com file photo)

By Thomas Donley, @TDonleyDE

Mark Iannotti finished his college football career by setting single-season records for total offense, passing yards and rushing yards by a quarterback at Southern Illinois, a stark contrast to how he started it.

It was a career that taught him a wide variety of lessons: How to cope with the loss of a close friend, how to deal with turbulence in leadership, how easily something earned can be lost and, finally, how to handle success. Iannotti’s playing days are on hold for now, but he still carries those teachings with him.

It all started in 2010 after the final game of his prep football career at Schaumburg High School, a 55-50 second round playoff loss to Simeon Career Academy. Iannotti became friends with two Simeon players — wide receiver Demarius Reed and cornerback Darius Scott.

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“We all had offers from Eastern Michigan,” Iannotti said. “So we all got together, and we all wanted to go play in college together … and help Eastern Michigan turn their program around.”

The three joined an EMU team fresh off a 2-10 season. Reed and Scott contributed to the Eagles’ 6-6 2011 record as true freshmen. Reed caught 11 passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns in 11 games, and Scott played in 10 games and recorded an interception. Iannotti redshirted that season.

Despite seeing little to none of the field behind quarterbacks Alex Gillette and Tyler Benz — two former teammates he still calls two of his best friends — Iannotti used his time in Ypsilanti, Mich., to develop his work ethic and blue-collar playing style.

“My freshman year, he was the scout team quarterback,” said Jake Hurcombe, a senior offensive lineman at Eastern Michigan. “We were prepping for Army, and we were running the option. He likes to run the ball, obviously, and he pitched the ball and cut our starting defensive end at the same time and started a fight. I just think that’s the kind of quarterback that he was. He’s a tough, gritty guy. The way he loved football was contagious throughout the team.”

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Iannotti spent the 2013 season as Eastern Michigan’s primary holder on field goal attempts, a role in which he made the highlight play of his Eagle career in a 50-25 loss to Army on Oct. 12. Iannotti recovered a botched snap on an extra-point attempt and found tight end Cole Gardner for a two-point conversion to give EMU an 8-0 lead.

Six days after that game, Reed was shot and killed in his apartment building in what appeared to be a robbery.

“It was such a shocking experience,” Iannotti said. “If you’ve never been through something like that, you don’t know how to handle it, so we had a whole locker room of guys who didn’t know how to handle it. You can try to play it off and be strong, but it’s really hard when everybody’s going through the same thing.”

Iannotti threw his only official pass for the Eagles on Nov. 23, 2013, a second-down incompletion in the fourth quarter of a 58-7 loss to Bowling Green. EMU ran three different offenses in his three seasons there. Coach Ron English, who recruited Iannotti, Reed and Scott, was fired Nov. 9.

After the season, Iannotti decided to leave Ypsilanti.

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Ironically, it was a current Eastern Michigan coach who helped give him the heads-up about an opening at quarterback at SIU.

Offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer left Southern after the 2013 season to take the same position at EMU. That offseason DeBoer met with Mark Stilling, Iannotti’s coach at Schaumburg High School, on the recruiting trail.

DeBoer told Stilling that SIU had graduated two senior quarterbacks in Kory Faulkner and A.J. Hill, and the starting spot was up for grabs. Stilling alerted Iannotti, who decided the time was right to leave EMU. A Facebook conversation with childhood friend and SIU linebacker Leonard Garron helped solidify his choice.

“It just kind of seemed like the whole [Eastern Michigan] program was just up in flames,” he said. “It seemed like a sign that I had an opportunity to transfer, and it was something that I jumped on. It was an impulsive decision, but it turned out to be the right move and definitely paid off.”

Iannotti started his Saluki career by acquiring a list of all his new teammates’ phone numbers.

“I sent everybody on offense a text that said ‘No matter what, rain or shine, I’m going to be out on the field from 4 to 6 p.m. after workouts and meetings every day,’” he said. “’If you want to come work out, get to know each other and get your timing down, great. If you don’t, you don’t have to.’ I got a lot of good responses from that, and we had a bunch of guys come out to get extra work. That one-on-one time really helped me learn everybody’s style and get to know everybody.”

One player he grew close with was then-freshman wide receiver Connor Iwema. The two worked out together three times a week in the spring of 2014. After workouts, Iannotti would drive Iwema back to his dorm.

The two eventually became roommates. Iannotti had lived by himself in a three-bedroom apartment, and when Iwema needed a place to stay during summer workouts, Iannotti took him in. They roomed together until Iannotti graduated in December.

Living together allowed the quarterback and receiver to build near-perfect chemistry on the field.

“It’s definitely something I would recommend for a quarterback and receiver, because all the little miscommunications you might see on a field, Connor and I never had, because no matter what, we were always together,” Iannotti said. “Even if it was 9 o’clock at night, we could be doing homework, and if something from practice comes up, we can straighten it out right away. We don’t have to wait until the next day at practice.”

Iannotti, who earned the starting spot to begin his first season in Carbondale, and Iwema connected on 10 completions for 116 yards in their two seasons together. Their mutual playing time was limited by Iwema’s injuries, including a season-ending shoulder injury after four games in 2015, and Iannotti’s loss of the starting job to Ryan West in 2014.

“I know, personally, [losing the starting spot] was really rough on him,” Iwema said. “You could tell after that, his whole demeanor, the way he went about life was just different. It was kind of a thing where he said, ‘If I’m going to do something, I’m not going to do it halfway.’ And not that he was doing anything halfway. It was just more that he took the time out to make sure that he did everything he could 100 percent.”

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West started against Missouri State and Northern Iowa in 2014. The Salukis were 1-1 with him at the helm before Iannotti earned the starting role back for the season finale at Illinois State.

“[Losing the starting spot] was a great experience,” Iannotti said. “Obviously, in my first year as a starter, there’s a lot that goes with that.  I looked back on it and realized that once I won the starting job as a junior, I kind of took my foot off the gas pedal and got satisfied with where I was at.”

He completed 24 of 38 passes at Illinois State for 266 yards and three touchdowns in a 44-29 loss. Despite West’s transfer to Grand Valley State in the offseason, the Saluki quarterback job was up for grabs in the 2015 offseason, as Iannotti competed with redshirt freshmen Matt DeSomer and Sam Straub and transfer senior Matt McIntosh.

If there is anything Iannotti relishes, it’s competition, whether it comes in the form of a foam-ball home run derby with Iwema in their apartment, on the intramural softball field with his football teammates and their team called “Sneaky Snakes” or on the gridiron. He said that competitive drive comes from his childhood with his brother Anthony.

“I always wanted to hang out with my older brother and all of his friends, and they were all three years older than me,” Iannotti said. “Whether it was football, basketball or baseball, I was always the worst because I was the youngest and the least experienced. That’s what really made me pick up my game — just being teased and picked on with those older guys, that’s something that lights a fire and sticks with you your entire life. You learn to not put up with it. You just push yourself even further, and one day you finally get to their level and give them a little payback.”

Iannotti was named the Week One starter, and backed it up with his performance at Indiana on Sept. 5, posting a school record 517 yards of total offense in a 48-47 loss. He passed for 411 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 106 yards and another score.

“Going into the fall camp last year, nobody really knew who was going to be the starter,” said Billy Reed, a senior wide receiver. “But in fall camp and against Indiana, he showed everybody that he should be the starter, and from there it was clear that he was ready to play. Everybody was on the same page with him, and he knew how to run the offense so well.”

A factor that allowed the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Iannotti to have success as a dual-threat quarterback with his hard-nosed style was his toughness — another characteristic he said came from competing with his brother.

“He’s the toughest football player I might’ve ever been around,” coach Nick Hill said. “In two years here, he never went into the training room. And if you watched us play, he took a lot of snaps and ran the ball a ton and he never slid.”

Iannotti led the top offense in the Missouri Valley Football Conference in 2015, setting single-season school records with 3,195 passing yards, 716 rushing yards at quarterback and 3,911 yards of total offense. He finished his career tied for second in program history with 46 touchdown passes and third with 5,436 passing yards.

Hill, the other Saluki to throw for 46 scores, was there to help Iannotti through his Saluki career. He joined the SIU coaching staff in 2014 as the quarterbacks coach and in 2015 became Iannotti’s fourth different offensive coordinator in five years.

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“I’ve never been a big stat guy,” Iannotti said. “After that game against Indiana, coach Hill and I had a talk about how to handle all the accolades and the media that was going to happen. One of his points was, ‘Don’t think about it. In a few years, it’ll be something you can look back on, but there’s so much responsibility that the quarterback has, from preparation during the week and everything on game day.’ So I never really thought about it until now.”

Hill said Iannotti’s positive attitude rubbed off on his teammates.

“I never really saw Mark have a bad day,” said Hill, who was named SIU’s head coach Dec. 23. “He’s a guy that you hope every kid that comes into your program acts like. He maybe has the best attitude of any kid that I’ve ever been around. He goes about life the right way.”

Iannotti, who graduated in December with a 3.89 GPA and a degree in business marketing, is currently a production assistant for ESPN 1000 in Chicago. His job includes setting up on-site radio equipment and running promotional giveaways at restaurants, bars and the NFL Draft.

Iannotti had a workout this spring with the Chicago Bears, but attended the draft April 28 to 30 to work with ESPN. He said being there while his fellow former college football players took the step to the next level did not bother him.

“The best part about my job is that it doesn’t feel like work,” he said. “Being a football player and being around ESPN makes me really appreciate this opportunity. I know people who would kill to be able to put ESPN on their resume.”

Iannotti said he has workouts with the Saskatchewan Roughriders and Ottawa Redblacks of the Canadian Football League in the coming weekends.

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The self-professed Chicago sports fanatic said he plans to advance his career with ESPN as a sales manager, promoting the brands of ESPN and its sponsors.

“Every day, especially being a college football player, you have to use something you learned from playing to compete every day, whether it’s on the field or in the workplace,” he said. “It might not be the game itself. It might be something I learned in the film room or the weight room. All the little things my coaches have taught me started me off at a higher level than everyone else.”

Thomas Donley can be reached at [email protected] or at 618-536-3307

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