Joep Engbers | Provided

The road to a spot on the University of Illinois football team has been unique for Joep Engbers, a recent graduate of Fenwick High School.

Engbers was born in Singapore, but his parents are from the Netherlands, where he grew up and has citizenship. He then moved to Indonesia, then Papua New Guinea. 

After moving to the Netherlands so his parents could marry, Engbers came with his family, which includes three sisters, to the United States, settling in Pennsylvania for two years. After a short return to Indonesia, they came back to the U.S. to stay.

The family moved to Waco, Texas, in time for Engbers’ high school freshman year. It was at Bosqueville High School that he got introduced to American football. Engbers immediately fell in love with the sport and decided it was something he wanted to pursue.

“I made varsity my freshman year,” said Engbers, a 6-foot-4, 310-pound lineman. “My mother told the coach I wouldn’t play varsity. It took about three weeks to convince her to let me play. I missed one game and eventually started that season.”

But Engbers wanted to improve his game in order to attract collegiate offers, and after his sophomore season at Bosqueville, he transferred to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. There he faced top-quality competition that helped to hone his skills. 

While at IMG, Engbers and his parents made another life-changing move.

“When I was at IMG, my parents were still in Texas when my dad got a job offer in the Chicago area,” he said. “They were ready to leave Texas, and we moved to Oak Park. They told me about Fenwick, and I thought it was a good school.”

After talking with Fenwick player Mirko Jaksic (a University of Dayton signee) and meeting with head coach Matt Battaglia, Engbers opted to join the Friars for his senior season. 

He made all-conference in the Chicago Catholic League/East Suburban Catholic Conference and was named the White Division Lineman of the Year. He also got honorable mentions on the Chicago Sun-Times All-Area Team and the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Class 5A All-State Team.

Moreover, Engbers did great in the classroom, meriting honors for both the CCL/ESCC White Division and IHSFCA Class 5A All-Academic teams.

“I bonded with the team and never looked back,” he said. “It was an adjustment being a Catholic school, and I had to catch up on my theology courses. But I loved [Fenwick]; it was like a family.”

“I’m really grateful I had the opportunity to coach Joep,” said Battaglia after the season on Twitter. “As good of a football player he is, he’s an even better person and teammate. Wherever Joep goes, I know he’s going to dominate on and off the field and be a great representative of what Fenwick High School and Friar football are all about.”

Engbers, who played in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in Frisco, Texas, after the season, received several NCAA Division I offers, including from Ball State, Brown, Dartmouth, East Carolina and Kent State. But he opted to become a preferred walk-on player at Illinois, because he had more than football in mind.

“I can see myself growing at Illinois,” said Engbers. “I talked with [defensive line] coach [Terrance] Jamison, and he said there was a chance of earning an eventual scholarship. Also, academics is a big thing. I’m going into business, and Illinois is such a great business school. It was a no-brainer and being close to home and my family being able to come here is a plus.”

Last year, Engbers initially started exclusively on offense, but became a two-way star by the end of the Friars’ season. He’s working as a defensive tackle as Illinois started fall camp Aug. 3, and he knows he’ll need to continue to put in the work in order to eventually make a contribution to the Fighting Illini.

“I need to buy into the program, take everything to heart and be coachable,” Engbers said. “I need to look at film and study plays and be the most physical person on the field and not let up.”

Engbers already has a supporter on the team in wide receiver Eian Pugh, a member of Fenwick’s 2021 IHSA Class 5A state championship team.

“There’s one locker between his and mine,” he said. “We see each other daily, and we’ve talked about our experiences at Fenwick.”

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