North Central College football star Sam Taviani was torn.
The Downers Grove North alum graduated with an accounting degree in May and had a job lined up. But he also had one year of eligibility remaining and some unfinished business.
Taviani saw action on special teams on North Central’s first NCAA Division III national championship team in 2019. He was a starting linebacker on the 2021 squad, which went 13-1 and was routed 57-24 by Mary Hardin-Baylor in the Stagg Bowl, which serves as the national title game.
“That game kind of left a bad taste in my mouth,” Taviani said. “That’s really the primary reason I came back for this year.
“I was on the fence about coming back, but I figured I might as well come back and win another ring while I’m at it. I just wanted to go out a champion.”
Taviani did. The 6-foot-1, 208-pound fifth-year senior started all 15 games and was one of the leaders of a defense that allowed only 6.7 points a game.
Taviani capped his career by making a team-high nine tackles, including eight solos, as the Cardinals (15-0) knocked off previously unbeaten Mount Union 28-21 in the Stagg Bowl on Dec. 17 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland.
It was an accomplishment Taviani didn’t foresee when he enrolled at North Central in 2018.
“I didn’t know we’d make it to three Stagg Bowls,” Taviani said. “That’s insane, incredible.
“I knew we were going to be really good, though, because I just saw something. The coaching staff, the people there, it just felt different and I just knew there was something special there just by how hard everyone worked there.”
North Central head coach Brad Spencer said similar things about Taviani.
“Sam is a special one,” Spencer said. “I recruited him out of Downers Grove. He’s a neat kid. His dad [Greg] is an awesome guy.”
The Cardinals posted a record of 52-4 during Taviani’s career (his junior season in 2020 was canceled because of the pandemic). Taviani played in all but six games, steadily expanding his role with each passing season.
While he was overjoyed being part of the 2019 championship, Taviani had more fun this time.
“This year and last year’s game, even though we lost, I had a much bigger role, which made winning that much better,” Taviani said. “It was just a much more surreal feeling.”
Taviani earned second-team All-CCIW honors in each of the past two seasons, finishing second on the Cardinals each time. He racked up 64 tackles, including 6.5 for loss, a sack and an interception.
He was even better this fall, finishing with 80 tackles, including 13 for loss, four sacks and two interceptions while playing nickel linebacker, which he described as a hybrid between safety and linebacker.
“Some plays I’m rushing the quarterback and other plays I’m out guarding a receiver,” Taviani said. “I’m pretty much all over.”
That was something nobody predicted when Taviani was a freshman.
“He came in as a cornerback and blew up in the weight room, gained 25 pounds and eventually became an outside linebacker for us,” Spencer said. “The position he plays is really the most pivotal position on our defense.
“He allows us to play a lot of different coverages. He can play out in space on a receiver, he can move into the box and be an extra box linebacker.”
Taviani did all of that regularly, never to greater effect than in North Central’s 49-14 semifinal victory over Mary Hardin-Baylor on Dec. 10 in Naperville. He had six tackles, two sacks and an interception.
“That was probably the best game of my career,” Taviani said. “I honestly think it was because of the game last year. They beat us badly last year and I didn’t want to lose to them again. It was kind of like a revenge game.”
Mount Union (14-1) had the same dynamic working in its favor in the Stagg Bowl. The Red Raiders had lost to North Central in last year’s semifinals. But the Cardinals held them scoreless until the fourth quarter to set a program record for wins and complete the first undefeated and untied season in school history.
Taviani credited North Central’s coaching staff with improving the game plans with each passing year. That inspired him to get better.
“I was trying my best to be a leader this year, try to teach the younger guys the ways of North Central football,” Taviani said. “So I think my experience level and my leadership this year is what led to a lot of my success.
“Same with the other fifth-year guys that came back this year. We had a couple on the defensive line, so that also helped. The experience level led to a lot of success.”
Taviani’s success didn’t lead to a lot of personal accolades, but his exploits were highly appreciated by Spencer and his assistants.
“He’s the key to our defense,” Spencer said. “He allowed us to be the No. 1 scoring defense in the country.
“He’s kind of like the unsung hero. He plays his butt off. He gets results. A lot of our D-line is getting a lot of recognition, and rightfully so, but Sammy is kind of a neat story. He’s our secret weapon.”
One that can’t be used anymore. Taviani starts a career of a different kind – an accounting job with Sikich LLP in Naperville – on Jan. 16.
“I don’t know what my dad is going to do,” Taviani said. “He loves coming to the games. He didn’t miss a game this year. He loves it just as much as I do.”
But Taviani knows that few players get the chance to win a national championship, let alone end their career with one. He is the first Downers North graduate to do either.
“I had a great career at North Central,” Taviani said. “It really is an awesome feeling and a good way to go out.”