Never in the history of the Robert J. Skoglund Award — which since 1949 has been presented annually to honor the member of the Loyola Academy football team selected by his teammates as the most outstanding in the classroom and on the field — has there been a recipient with credentials comparable to those of Will Nimesheim.
The captain of the undefeated 2023 powerhouse that won the IHSA Class 8A state championship earned the prestigious award even though he didn’t suit up for a single game during the course of the Ramblers’ 14-game campaign.
In doing so Nimesheim transformed what could have been a heartbreaking story into one of the most heartwarming stories of the year in Illinois high school sports.
According to Ramblers coach Beau Desherow, “Will’s leadership was something we relied on all year long.”
Nimesheim’s playing career ended in May when he again tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee that had to be surgically repaired after he tore it in the 42-7 victory over Plainfield South in the first 2022 playoff game that began the Ramblers’ successful postseason quest for the first of their back-to-back IHSA Class 8A championships.
“The surgery was a hamstring graft, which entails a six-month recovery,” Will remembered. “After six months the doctor said: ‘You can do anything but contact if you feel comfortable.’ Two days after I was cleared to do that running and cutting I re-tore it and had surgery on May 25.”
At the 2022 postseason banquet he was elected captain, following in the footsteps of his brothers, Jack (2019 team) and Quinn (2021 team).
“He worked hard to rehab it but then he tore it again, which was devastating, but he stayed involved,” Desherow said. “He served on my leadership council, which met weekly, and was heavily involved. Each week we had a theme that involved leadership. We would have a weekly Mass on Friday and there would be a talk at the end of Mass.
“Will gave two of the most memorable talks of the year. One was on what it means to be a Loyola football player. He talked about the standards — not only on the field but in the classroom and being a good person. After the Mass before the state championship game his talk was one of the best, if not the best, we had all year.
“Even though he couldn’t contribute on the field, his presence was felt. Without him we wouldn’t have had the success we had.”
Following Will’s second surgery, his coaches and parents left it up to him if he wanted to stay involved with the team.
“When I went to practice for the first time it felt like I was still part of the team, part of the brotherhood, and I knew I could help,” he remembered. “I felt I had something to give to my team and my sport and wanted to do it as long as I was able to.”
Offensive coordinator Tyler Vradenburg said Nimesheim’s role quickly evolved into that of a “player coach.”
“Prior to the injury we had big plans for him to play multiple positions so he was mentally prepared for that,” Vradenburg continued.
“He was understandably devastated and it took a little bit of time for him to mourn. But then he said to himself: ‘This is still my team’ and his leadership was really intensive. At practice and in games he was working with the running backs and some of the receivers on mental stuff as well as the physical. He did everything he could to make the team successful.
“On game day at first he was up with us in the press box but then we ended up giving him a headset so we could communicate with him down on the field. We didn’t need to say much; he was able to look at the video (on the sidelines) and he was able to give positive feedback and constructive criticism. We empowered him to do that and he ran with it. When Will talked people listened.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that his impact on the team was a big factor in our winning 14 games in a row.”
On game days Nimesheim worked closely with backfield coach Ryan Gallagher, who was in the press box.
“He was invaluable for me, talking to guys on the sideline,” Gallagher said. “We were young and inexperienced at the running back position. (Junior) Drew MacPherson had some varsity experience as a sophomore and (senior) Finn Miller hadn’t played (for the previous two seasons). Finn knew that if he didn’t understand something I was trying to communicate he could ask Will, and Will would translate it so he understood.
“Will was like a mentor to them and his speeches to the team after Mass were incredible; I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house. His speeches let the underclassmen know how much he cared about the Loyola community.
“Will was a special player and not a lot of kids would have been mentally tough enough to make that transition of not being able to play but seeing your buddies have fun and success on the field. He wasn’t leading the way he had wanted but he was willing to do anything he could to make sure that his teammates were prepared and ready to go on game day. He was voted captain for a reason. At the end of his junior season, knowing that he was coming off an injury, his teammates still voted him captain going into his senior season.”
Nimesheim was happy to see MacPherson and Miller enjoy successful seasons. The backs combined for 1,400 yards and 17 touchdowns.
“Those are two of the nicest guys in the entire world and it was easy to help them,” he said. “I felt I was one of the most knowledgeable players Loyola had in recent years. From the time I was 5 years old, I was watching football, and for the last 10 years I watched every NFL game and college game that I could.
“Drew had a lot of pressure on him, and Finn hadn’t played football in the last couple of years. I could use the football knowledge that I had accumulated and I could help them with the mental part of the game. If either of them felt like there was too much going on technically, they could step back and use me as an outlet.”
By excelling in football and the classroom Will was upholding the Nimesheim family tradition at Loyola. In addition to being selected as captains both Jack, who went on to star in college at Denison University, and Quinn were Skoglund Award recipients.
Having three members of the same family win the award was an unprecedented achievement.
Even though Will didn’t play as a senior, he made a name for himself on the gridiron as a sophomore and junior.
His sophomore year he was promoted to the varsity in the sixth game to help fill the void that was created after superstar running back Marco Maldonado was lost for the season because of an injury. He finished the season with 55 carries for 271 yards and 2 touchdowns and 5 pass receptions for 67 yards and a TD.
Before his junior season came to a premature end he ran 97 times for 596 yards and 7 touchdowns and caught 43 passes for 520 yards and 3 touchdowns. He was an All-Catholic League selection and wound up as Loyola’s leading rusher and fourth best past receiver.
“In this day and age he probably could have played any position on the field,” said Gallagher, the backfield coach. “He was that kind of high school football player. He was smart and aggressive and he had all the tools a coach looks for.
“Will came up to the varsity as a sophomore and contributed right away. Most kids coming up at that age struggle with the terminology and stuff like that, especially with our (complex) offense. Will picked it up in two or three days.”
In the opinion of former coach John Holecek, who ended his stellar 17-year career at Loyola by winning the 2022 Class 8A state championship: “As a junior Will was an amazing player because of his vision and athleticism — his trajectory was extremely high and he had great hands out of the backfield.
“Like his two older brothers, he was an A plus student, extremely talented in the classroom. They did everything the right way — video, training, off season preparation — everything a coach could ask for. And the thing I remember most is that Will always seemed to have a smile on his face.”
When Nimesheim looks back on his high school career he remembers the opening game of the 2022 season, a 44-20 victory over St. Xavier of Cincinnati that was nationally televised on ESPN, as his most memorable. He contributed 98 yards in 10 carries — highlighted by a 70-yard touchdown run — and 3 receptions for 48 yards.
“It was the first game for the new varsity; there were all of those people there, making it super energetic, and it was on ESPN, which was really cool,” he reminisced.
Looking ahead, Nimesheim is awaiting his college acceptance letters. He has applied to the Universities of Michigan (where he’d be joining Quinn), Connecticut and North Carolina and plans to major in pre-law.
Regarding his high school football career, the jury of his peers already has reached a verdict: Nimesheim earned the prestigious 2023 Skoglund Award for athletic and academic excellence, even though he was only player in the award’s long history never to suit up for a single game.
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Neil Milbert was a staff reporter for the Chicago Tribune for 40 years, covering college (Northwestern, Illinois, UIC, Loyola) and professional (Chicago Blackhawks, Bulls, horse racing, more) sports during that time. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his work on a Tribune travel investigation and has covered Loyola Academy football since 2011.