Moving the Chains with … Western Illinois linebacker Juan DelaCruz

As a junior linebacker at Western Illinois, Juan DelaCruz is leading the Leathernecks in quarterback hurries and tackles for loss. (Photo by Barry Bottino)

By Barry Bottino

Juan DelaCruz attended Gurnee’s Warren Township High School, which is less than four miles from Six Flags Great America, one of the Midwest’s premier amusement parks.

But DelaCruz preferred spending time on the football field to riding roller coasters.

These days, the junior linebacker at Western Illinois is helping the Leathernecks revive their program under first-year head coach Myers Hendrickson and hanging out with his 2-year-old pit bull, Deuce.

Though Western doesn’t have a win yet this season, DelaCruz has been an impact player on the WIU defense with 50 tackles and a team-leading seven quarterback hurries and three tackles for loss.

As a criminal justice major, DelaCruz is looking forward to starting his career as a police officer in the Chicago suburbs and eventually landing his dream job, being a member of a SWAT team.

In our Moving the Chains Q&A, DelaCruz discusses talking to his mother every day, what traits make a good linebacker, talking trash in Spanish so he doesn’t get in trouble with referees and the lasting impact of his late WIU teammate, Hunter Mason.

You grew up in Gurnee, near Great America. How many times have you been there?

Probably only as many times as I can count on my fingers. I don’t go there much.

In the times you’ve gone, do you have a favorite roller coaster?

The new one they just put in, called Goliath. I went back in the summer. It was kind of fun. That would be my favorite.

What’s your dream job after college?

I thought about this the other day in class when I had to present. My dream job would be being part of a SWAT team. I’d like to start my career (as a police officer) in Illinois, probably in one of the suburban areas. I can gain some experience there and then apply for my dream job with a SWAT team.

What appeals to you about being a police officer?

It’s always been in my head since I was in elementary school and officers would come in and talk to the kids. That was really cool. I’m interested in becoming a police officer to protect and serve a community.

What makes you happy on a day-to-day basis?

My mom (Maria). We usually talk every single day. People like to say she’s the female version of me. She figures out ways to make me laugh.

How are you and your mom most alike?

The way that we talk. The way we act. I don’t see it but apparently my three siblings see it.

What’s your favorite place to eat in Macomb?

I’m going to have to go with Chick’s on the Square. I usually don’t go there for the chicken lips (a signature item), but I go there for the burgers.

What qualities make a good linebacker?

Western Illinois linebacker Juan DelaCruz forced a fumble Saturday in Western’s loss to Youngstown State. (Photo by Barry Bottino)

Linebacker, in my opinion, is one of the toughest positions because you’re in the midst of reading run or pass (on every play). You have a run responsibility. You have gaps (to fill), but you also have pass responsibility. As a good linebacker, you obviously have to know what you’re doing. You’ve got to have an idea of what the offense is going to do based on formation.

As a linebacker, you have to be fast and your head’s got to be on a swivel every single second of a play. You can’t miss a gap, because if a linebacker misses a gap, the running back is going for 60 yards or more. Your decision making must be really good. And, you’ve got to think on the run because the offense is doing a bunch of motions and shifts. It’s like playing chess.

How do you process all the information so quickly during a play?

It’s a combination of film study and practice. I’ve been playing linebacker since high school, so now It comes easy. If you get a certain formation and you’ve studied it, you watched film of it, you can list their top four plays (out of that formation). If they run one of those four plays, it’s easy to play fast.

You have tweeted about WIU volleyball, men’s soccer, baseball and other sports. Which sport on campus do you most enjoy watching?

I used to play a lot of sports growing up, so I try to make it to every sport when I can. The most fun I’ve had with some teammates – we’ve become a little student section for other sports – is at volleyball or women’s basketball. I can’t wait to watch (women’s basketball) this winter.

What other college sport would you play if you weren’t playing football?

I’d play baseball. I love watching baseball. I had to stop playing baseball once I got to high school. I was a first baseman. It’s a really fun game.

As a Division I athlete, what do you appreciate about watching other Western athletes?

They understand the grind. To see them out there performing, knowing what they go through with exams, homework, early-morning wakeups for weights. It’s fun to watch them compete and beat other schools. People in the stands don’t see what other Division I athletes see.

During your career, you’ve played in a number of different road stadiums. What has been the most memorable?

I’d say Minnesota (in September). I liked the experience of playing someone in the Big Ten since I grew up a Big Ten football fan, and playing against other high-level players. That makes it a lot of fun and more memorable.

Growing up, did you have a favorite pro athlete?

I wanted to be like (Bears linebacker) Brian Urlacher. I was a big Bears fan. There are pictures on my mom’s phone of me in a Brian Urlacher jersey when I was like 12 years old.

Do you have a favorite sports jersey in your closet?

I’ve got a (former Carolina Panthers LB) Luke Kuechly one at home. He’s one of my favorite linebackers.

If you’re having a bad day, who’s the teammate that will always cheer you up?

Probably (quarterback) Nick Davenport. He’s just a goofy dude. Always smiling, always cracking jokes. We’ve hung out for a while and there have been some pretty funny moments that have happened. He always mentions an inside joke that only me and him know.

What’s the best vacation you’ve ever been on?

Visiting Mexico with my grandparents. The ones I visited were from Jalisco. I’ve also visited my other grandparents in Monterey. People know about Cancun and Cabo San Lucas. Areas like Jalisco, there are beautiful beaches. Where my grandparents live (in Jalisco), there’s a huge river and waterfall that you can cliff dive off of. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I wish that people would know about that and visit those places more.

Do you have a song you always listen to on game days?

I listen to (rapper) eLVy The God, and the song is called “LaMafiamilia.” I wouldn’t play that song in front of kids, but it gets me going.

What’s the best advice your mom ever gave you?

I was sick, and I tried to explain to her that I didn’t want to go to school. She said, ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re sick. You still have to go to school and give it all you’ve got. You can’t take things for granted.’ My mom worked from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. every single night of my youth years. She worked a lot.

When recruits come to campus, how do you explain what a Leatherneck is?

First, I ask them if they have an idea. Then I tell them a Leatherneck is someone who gets up every day and gives it all they’ve got, no matter what. A Leatherneck is not just a term, it’s a way of life.

Are you a trash talker?

(Laughs) I’ve really calmed down because I realized it’s not going to do anything. I’m fluent in Spanish. So, throughout my high school career I’d always talk trash in English and then say it in Spanish. I talk trash in Spanish mostly so I don’t get flagged.

Who is the best player you’ve ever played against?

Last year against (current New England Patriots running back) Pierre Strong of South Dakota State. He really impressed me. He was a physical, fast, smart running back.

When you want to relax, what’s your favorite hobby or activity?

I don’t even have time to lay down. (Laughs) When I’m home, I like to go fishing. I also have a dog, so I relax with the dog (a 2-year-old male pit bull named Deuce). My dog is a teddy bear. He wouldn’t hurt a soul.

How is your life better for having known late WIU teammate Hunter Mason, who died May 31 of an aggressive form of brain cancer?

When I first came here, Hunter was one of the few people who took me in and gave me confidence as a freshman to start my first-ever game. When you were with Hunter, you felt really confident.

I remember leaving the tunnel before our very first game together. He was right in front of me. I felt invincible when he was there. He was a great guy. He made a huge impact on me.

He was one of the funniest guys. I could come in the locker room and he could make me laugh until my stomach hurt. He was a hard worker as well. He set a good example for me and the other freshmen who came in with me as well.

I’m just trying to pass on his traits to the young bucks. He was a really special guy.

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