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Ex-Huskie Boenzi embraces clean slate

Rob Winner —
Frank Boenzi during the Northern Illinois football team's first practice of the spring Wednesday, March 28, in DeKalb, Ill.
Rob Winner — Frank Boenzi during the Northern Illinois football team's first practice of the spring Wednesday, March 28, in DeKalb, Ill.

Frank Boenzi can hardly believe it when he says it aloud – he’s potentially three semesters from a college degree.

It’s taken three colleges to arrive at this point, and the former Geneva football star’s college years have hardly gone to plan, but the brawny nose tackle said he’s maturing into a new man.

Boenzi is preparing for his first season at Division-II powerhouse Grand Valley State in Michigan. He arrived at Grand Valley in the spring semester after playing a season of junior college football at Garden City (Kan.) Community College, his landing spot once off-field trouble cost him his football scholarship at Northern Illinois.

“Obviously, I wish I could take back what I did and make better choices but it was a learning experience,” Boenzi said. “Kansas made me grow up a lot. I feel like I’m more focused. … I’m not doing some of the things I was doing so I can focus, and football is more important to me now.”

A 6-foot-2, 295-pounder, Boenzi was dismissed from NIU’s team in July 2012, the same month he pleaded guilty to attempted possession of marijuana.

Boenzi then transferred to Garden City, where he surged late after an ankle injury hampered him for a chunk of the season. He had several options for a new, four-year school – Boenzi seriously considered Southeastern Louisiana, a Football Championship Subdivision program – but preferred Grand Valley’s proximity to his family in Geneva.

The presence of a pair of former Vikings in the Lakers’ program – running back Michael Ratay and quarterback Brandon Beitzel, who has since transferred to Marian (Ind.) University – also appealed to Boenzi, along with his rapport with Grand Valley coach Matt Mitchell.

“I feel like with some coaches, you just click,” Boenzi said. “And me and coach Mitch, we just clicked. It was like ‘Alright, let’s see what we can get done this next season.’ ”

While Boenzi’s hulking physique and Division I pedigree made him an enticing recruit, Mitchell sought multiple character references, considering Boenzi’s troubles in DeKalb.

Ratay’s backing also helped Boenzi’s cause at Grand Valley, located in Allendale, Mich.

“We were pretty upfront and honest about your window closing here in general and just in terms of you’re at your third school now – if this doesn’t work out here, I’m not sure where your football career goes from here,” Mitchell said. “So I think being upfront and honest about the type of culture we have in our program, he had a sense of urgency.”

So far, Mitchell said Boenzi has rewarded Grand Valley’s faith. Boenzi, who struggled academically in high school, said he had a 2.7 grade point average in the spring, and Mitchell praised Boenzi’s conduct and work ethic through the spring and summer.

Grand Valley begins preseason practice next week. The Lakers are a perennial offensive juggernaut but Mitchell hopes Boenzi can help shore up the team’s defense after Grand Valley uncharacteristically missed the D-II playoffs for the second straight year.

“Even though he’s big, he has a motor and he’s got some edge to him,” Mitchell said. “He brings a little bit of edge to our defense, which I’m OK with. He plays the game hard and he’s tough to block.”

Boenzi, whose younger brother, Joe, is a current standout at Geneva, said he is happier these days after struggling through homesickness and injury woes last year in Kansas.

He knows he can’t fully fix his past missteps, which cost him a chance to experience what was a glorious 2012 season for NIU, capped by an Orange Bowl berth.

Boenzi said he watched the Orange Bowl on TV in his family’s Geneva home.

“I was just more happy for my friends rather than feeling sorry for myself, even though I was sad,” Boenzi said. “I’ve been through two camps with those guys, two summers. It’s not like I was there for six months. I was there for two years, so it was definitely sad.”

While Beitzel left Grand Valley this summer in search of more playing time, Boenzi is glad to reunite with Ratay. That trio helped power Geneva to a 7A state runners-up finish in 2008, Boenzi’s junior season.

Ratay and Boenzi both have two years of eligibility left with the Lakers. Ratay led Grand Valley in rushing touchdowns (12) last season and was second in rushing yards (625).

“Relative to some testing numbers of our other guys – height, weight, 40 time – he’s not going to stack up, but he’s just a football player,” Mitchell said of Ratay. … “When you get him out there during a football game, his stock rises immensely.”

Ratay said he’s proud of what he’s seen the past several months from Boenzi, including the big fellow’s ability to consistently make his 8 a.m. classes.

“He’s definitely growing up. He’s grown up a lot since high school,” Ratay said. “He’s got everything together pretty well.”

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