DeKALB – Andrew Zelis has always boasted a wide array of skills.
During a talent show back in the seventh grade, he performed the Charlie Brown theme song on the trumpet and piano … at the same time.
Five years later, he grew to be 7-foot and developed a love for basketball. He was a three-star prospect out of Wheaton North High School, a two-time all-conference honoree and was one of 13 Illinois high school seniors nominated for the 2013 McDonald’s All-American Game.
Currently, a center for Northern Illinois, Zelis has taken a backseat to younger players because of injuries he’s suffered throughout his career. But that hasn’t limited his ability to help this year’s team.
Zelis preaches physicality and the Huskies’ toughness was on full display Friday, when NIU outlasted Ball State, 66-65, thanks to a game-winning shot from Eugene German.
Despite Belis being NIU’s lone senior, “Big Z” didn’t get any playing time Friday on senior night. After the game, however, he pointed to a part of the stat sheet he was surely proud of.
“We out-toughed them,” said Zelis whose team outrebounded Ball State, 49-35. “We’re trying to do that as a culture. …We obviously want to win. This year hasn’t been the best year for that. But it’s about building something sustainable and building a culture.”
The Huskies (13-18, 6-12 Mid-American) have had an up-and-down season this year. Through it all, Zelis has been there for his teammates, supporting them whenever they need his veteran presence.
If NIU’s win over Ball State showed anything as the Huskies approach the Mid-American Conference tournament next week, it was a step in the right direction – NIU willed its way to battle and came out on top.
“I tried to send Z out the right way with it being senior night,” junior Levi Bradley said. “We told ourselves we’ve got to play with heart.”
Bradley hauled in a career-high 17 rebounds against the Cardinals. His performance was another big bro moment for Zelis.
“He was an absolute stud. Seventeen rebounds is absolutely unreal,” Zelis said. “We were extremely tough. That’s why we won the game.”
Zelis’ family was in attendance on senior night except his younger sister, Laura, a junior attending the University of Arizona.
His father, David, said walking onto the court with his son during a special ceremony before the game was a bittersweet moment.
“It’s been a rocky road to get here,” David Zelis said. “It’s kind of melancholy to think about. It’s the end of a chapter. There have been many great moments. A lot of enjoyment and a lot of frustration. It’s going to be a lot for him to reflect on. We’re incredibly proud of him.”
As is the Huskies’ season, Zelis’ career has been full of ups-and-downs. After being highly recruited out of high school, he attended Stetson University, where he redshirted as a freshman and then transferred after a coaching change.
After spending a season at the junior college level, Zelis found a new home at NIU. He appeared in 27 games during his first season with the Huskies in 2015-16, shooting 53.3 percent from the field. At that point, it appeared everything was pointing up for Zelis.
“(Andrew) is going to be a great ambassador for Northern Illinois because he does everything right,” NIU coach Mark Montgomery said.
But then injuries riddled the rest of his career. He suffered a torn ACL at the beginning of last season and has continued to battle minor leg injuries this year.
His time away from the court forced him to take on a new role with the Huskies during his senior season.
“There’s never been a time where I’ve played without some kind of pain,” Zelis said. “So I’ve just tried to teach Owen and Noah to be physical. … That’s what I always try to do in practice. I always try to go at them as hard as I can. I always believed iron sharpens iron. If you play guys who are good competition everyday then you’re going to get better and better.
“I try to give them encouraging words. When you get older, you just try to be dead honest with people. When I was younger, and I’m the freshman, it’s like you’re the new kid on the block. I had to control what I say and I have to show a lot of respect. But when you’re older, you can be more vocal.”
Zelis said playing one more year at another school could be a possibility next season, pending NCAA approval. He intends to explore that option when NIU’s season ends. His parents, however, say Zelis’ playing days are nearly behind him.
“He’s excited about getting a job,” his mother Lynette said. “He loves people and having things to do. I know he can succeed after basketball.”
Zelis has already earned a bachelors degree in economics from NIU. He participated during NIU’s Class of 2017 Winter Commencement last December and is now pursuing his master’s degree.
If basketball continues to be an active part of his life, Zelis vows to continue to work hard and be physical. Still, he knows he has other goals to achieve.
“I’ve always defined myself as more than an athlete,” he said. “I’ve always been really well-rounded. I never like the label of athlete because of the connotations that come with it. I’m really excited for my future. I want to prove to myself and everyone to that I’m going to make money working as a professional than I ever would have from playing this game.”
As far as making a career out of playing the Charlie Brown theme song on the trumpet and piano simultaneously?
“I still remember the notes,” Zelis said with a smile.