Grace Under Fire Helps Donte Rowell Stars for Lakeland Defense

With his senior season quickly coming to a close, Lakeland University safety Donte Rowell is having another stellar season which will likely help lead the Muskies to their third straight NACC title. He has proven to not only be a stellar athlete, but the kind of player who remains cool when the game gets its hottest.

Introducing Donte Rowell

One of the lesser known movies of Kurt Russell and Robin Williams was a film called The Best of Times. This was a movie about a man, played by Robin Williams, who had dropped the big pass in the championship game of his senior season in high school, and how he was never been able to live that down. It had become such a burden on his life that he does everything he can to create a rematch, even if it is 20-plus years later.

It is the dramatic moment on the sports field which can define a person for his or her entire life. Did they make the big catch, score the goal, or block the shot, or were they the one who fumbled, missed the wide open net, or got burned for the winning score?

It is the risk of failure that causes some to shy away from the big moments. While they want to have the big moment of glory, they are not willing to take the risk of being the goat. Therefore, they hope that when the big moment arrives that it will not fall upon them.

At Lakeland University, there is a player who each week not only embraces the big moment, but knows that his special set of skills make it so that he will rise to the occasion and deliver the big hit, breakup the pass play, or chase down a quarterback and drop him for a loss at the most pivotal point of the game. It is the thing that has come to define safety Donte Rowell and make him one of the most feared defenders in the Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference (NACC).

A Sixth Sense About Football Develops

Donte Rowell grew up in the Chicago area where he became a huge football fan. His aunt and uncle introduced him to the sport, and he soon found that a sixth sense was developing where he could read plays before the ball was even snapped.

“Since I was young I used to always watch football, and I could just tell what play was going to be run. I thought, well, if I can figure this out that maybe I should just try to be on the football field.”

The vision made it so that he was excelling on the field, despite the fact that he was one of the smaller players. That changed when he reached his junior season.

“I was a late bloomer, I didn’t start playing football until I was 12. I grew up in Chicago and the high school I went to didn’t even have football program. The elementary school I went to, they had flag football team and my mother wouldn’t allow me to play that, but once I got the high school I was able to play. My first year I weighed like 100 pounds soaking wet and then I got into the weight room my junior and senior year and that’s when it all turned around for me. I started putting play recognition together with my skills, started being more physical. The next thing I know I’m starting to play football for Lakeland University.”

His skills also made him an ideal safety. Because of his ability to see the play develop before it even began and because he prepared to play religious football (it is better to give a hit than receive one), Donte gravitated toward defense.

“I used to talk to my grandma and she used to tell me all the time ‘I’m so scared for you on the field. I don’t want you to get hurt.’ I used always tell my grandma they can’t hit what they can catch. However, after like two years of playing offense I realized that I didn’t really like being hit as much as I liked hitting people. It just became that I liked that I can bring that aggression.”

Donte attended a magnet school in Chicago which was not known much for its success on the gridiron. Before his junior season, his mother moved the family, and the safety found himself playing at North Chicago Community High School. Things changed for him drastically at that point.

“The high school that I went to in Chicago was a magnet school and we weren’t really known for football and, because it was such a low program, we didn’t really play a lot of teams, however, once I transferred there they were known a lot more for their football team. We’ve had players that went on to the NFL, including Michael Turner, he’s from North Chicago, Brian Schofield is from the area, so I was like, all right, they did it, so let’s see if I can play football here and get better, and get my shot. I was able to get it because of that.”

Hooked in to Becoming a Muskie

In his senior season at North Chicago, Donte Rowell was the team’s defensive MVP, and also became a member of the National Honor Society, proving that his academic success matched his athletics ones. He had proven his worth, and had hoped that he would join a Division-I football program, but was surprisingly finding that he was not heavily recruited.

That proved to be a blessing in disguise. He soon found the exact situation he was looking for. From the moment that Lakeland University reached out to Donte, he knew he had found his new home.

“When the recruitment time came for me, I wasn’t really highly recruited. So when Lakeland got in touch with me I was probably committed to the school before I ever saw it. I got out of my car, I hadn’t even talked to the head coach yet, I hadn’t even talked to the defensive coordinator and I told him I was committed. I was just excited that a college program was looking at me. So why even waste my time trying to act like I don’t want to come here. I’m just going to take the opportunity and run with it.”

Most freshman come to their new school believing that they are going to set the team on fire. They have a big ego and that can lead to them pushing to play when they are truly not ready. Donte was eager to get on the field, but he was also wise enough to know that he still had a lot of maturity to undergo before he was ready to take a regular spot on the field for the Muskies.

“As a freshman coming in, all freshmen would like to say that I’m ready to start, I’m playing college once I get there. For me, it was the exact opposite. I knew I wasn’t college ready, but I knew whenever the opportunity came that I was going to take it.”

The safety appeared in eight games his freshman season, making 10 tackles and recording 2 interceptions. He made his first appearance of the season against Carroll University where he made 3 tackles, intercepted his first pass two weeks later against Hope College, and had the second pick of his career three weeks later against Concordia-Chicago. It was a fine start to his college career.

Getting on a Rowell

Donte Rowell became a starter his sophomore year, and proved to be a key member of the defense. He finished third in tackles with 68 and was tied for the team lead in interceptions with 5. He also recorded a sack and forced two fumbles. Lakeland would enter the Division-III playoffs and Donte had a big game against Wheaton, making four tackles and recording a forced fumble.

A season later, the Lakeland safety would see his numbers improve in many categories. He recorded 77 tackles, second most on the team, and had a sack, a forced fumble and 2 interceptions. His performance helped the Muskies reach the national playoffs for the second year in a row, the first time in school history that the football team had accomplished that feat.

Inspired Toward Success

Those who play safety or middle linebacker not only need to be athletic, but they also have to be quite intelligent, having a special vision that enables them to pursue the ball and make plays, while still being disciplined enough to maintain their assignment. This requires a great deal of focus and confidence if a player is truly going to be a difference maker on the field.

“My confidence has developed over time. So with me it’s all about being able to be. I know that once the whistle blows or once it’s time to get set I’m back locked in. It’s time to go to work. Once it’s over with, I’m either going to talk to the players, let them know what we need to do to get better. Then we can go wind it up and do it again. It’s all about getting better and having fun.”

It can be tough to have fun playing football. This is a physical and mental grind that can become as taxing as anything outside of combat, yet it also brings people together like nothing outside of war. This is one of the parts of the game that has helped to inspire Donte Rowell to improve each and every day.

“I’ve learned better leadership skills from watching the players ahead of me, I’ve learned how to watch film, how to pick up tendencies in teams, and I know how to just be a better teammate. With the passing of our teammate, Kaelin O’Neal (who died in December of 2016) that pretty much brought a different aspect to me on the football team. It really made me feel like we were more of a family. Not that I didn’t feel that before, but it just nailed in the fact that these are your brothers, between the lines and off the field. However, off the field Lakeland ,is a community of people who want to see you succeed. Because of that it pushes me to be better and to want to see other people succeed as well.”

Inspiring Others to Strive through the Challenges

His own personal quest to improve has led Donte Rowell to want to assist others to reach greater heights. He wants to leave a legacy of success on the field, but also in the hearts and minds of his teammates. He not only wants to assist in their success, but model what that looks like.

“I do my best to see that everyone is going to class, especially the underclassmen, and to see if they need help with things. Is there anything I can help you with, but at the same time they need to see that I’m on point as well. There’s nothing worse than somebody telling you to get on your stuff and they’re not doing their own. I still know that there’s more to accomplish, both on and off the field.”

To help his teammates improve in their own game, the senior has spent the last couple of seasons as an educator. He wants his teammates to trust his judgment, but he also wants them to gain knowledge from his insights.

“I love scouting my opponent. Picking up certain tendencies that they do, learning what they like to do, why does this lineman do this on this play, why did this receiver do this on that play, because if I can figure it out in the classroom or over the computer, once I get to see you in person and I know the same thing is going to be easier to pick up on. I tell my teammates, ‘Hey, this play is coming.’ If I’m right, they are like, ‘Oh wow, how did you know that?’ That’s when I can pass on the knowledge of how to watch film.”

All of that means nothing if it is not put into action, and this is where Donte truly excels. He is a difference maker, not wanting to shy away from the spotlight, but wanting to be the guy who has the opportunity to make a play to turn a game around. He truly thrives off the pressure.

“I want to be a playmaker for the team. If we are down in a game and we need a turnover or a stop, I really believe in the aspect of the defense that defense wins championships. I believe if we need a score we got to set up the offense to get that score and win the game. I think the defense is the backbone of the team because you need them to make a stop at some point in the game. Without a good defense that’s never going to happen. If given the opportunity, I’ll be the guy who is the playmaker.”

Achieving His Final Goals

In May, Donte Rowell will be graduating with a communications degree. This objective has meant so much to him because he is only the second person in his family to go to college, and will be the first to graduate after his cousin tragically passed away in 2014. She has become his greatest inspiration of all, as he hopes to live up to the pathway that she set.

The Lakeland University Muskies are also heading toward their third straight NACC title. Donte has played a huge role in that success, recording 50 tackles, second on the team, a sack, a forced fumble, and 3 interceptions through the first 7 games of the season. He is excited about where the team is headed, but is not satisfied with simply winning the conference title any longer.

“I still know that there’s more to accomplish, and I don’t want to become complacent and be okay that we’ve won three conference championships. I do appreciate the hard work that we put in over the three years, that we’ve worked so hard, so let’s see if we can take another step so we can get in that national talk. There’s nothing more that I would like to see.”

For those who are true football fans, Donte Rowell is a true pleasure to watch each week. The senior loves to take to the field and always seems to have a smile on his face. However, once the game begins he is locked in and ready to wreak havoc on opposing offenses. To be that playmaking safety that can turn a game around.

The Lakeland Muskies are very likely on their way to another trip to the Division-III playoffs, thanks to a potent offense and a defense that makes big plays. It will be exciting to see if they can win that first playoff game in school history, but will also be kind of bittersweet moment for Donte Rowell. The playoffs will be the last of his college career, which will surely be a heartbreaking thought for a player who has risen to the occasion each time he has been called upon to do so. However, there is a bright side. When the safety looks back on his college career, he will truly be able to say that these were the best of times.

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By Robert Pannier