How a former Navy SEAL ended up playing football at NIU

Huskie+Stadium+Aug.+12%2C++from+the+East+entrance.

Patrick Murphy | Northern Star

Huskie Stadium Aug. 12, from the East entrance.

James Krause, Senior Reporter

DeKALB — Among the graduating high schoolers and transferring college students listed in NIU Football’s signing day additions, one stands out from the rest.

Redshirt senior linebacker Greg DeLuca from Boonton Township, New Jersey was shown as a transfer from Duke University, but he had last played football in 2011 and only ever saw the field as a member of the special teams. 

What was DeLuca doing with that nine-year stretch between his two stints in college football? He was either winning national championships in lacrosse or serving overseas as a Navy SEAL.

Now, almost a decade after his last time between the hash marks, the same thing that drew DeLuca to sports and the military brought him to another season of play at NIU. He’s not in it for the glory of a championship or the nobility of serving. He’s just looking to be part of a team again.

“I do love football and lacrosse, but it’s not the X’s and the O’s of the game that I care about,” DeLuca said. “It’s being on a team, a close-knit high-performing team with guys you trust and going out and having a common goal and working hard towards something. I really didn’t want to lose that when I left college.”

NIU football personnel communicate with the team on the sideline Nov. 4, during NIU’s 49-30 loss to the University at Buffalo Bulls at Huskie Stadium. (Patrick Murphy | Northern Star)

DeLuca’s love for teamwork started at Mountain Lakes High School in New Jersey, where he won two state lacrosse championships and an undefeated championship senior year in football. Recruited by Duke to be on their lacrosse team, DeLuca decided to trade helmets during his offseason and joined the football team as a walk-on.

“[Playing football] was something I had in the back of my mind for sure,” DeLuca said. “If I got the opportunity to play again I wanted to see how far I could take it. That kind of echoed again with NIU, but at Duke I never got to play any spring ball. I never learned the offense or defense. It was just ‘This kids showing up day one of fall practice.’”

Duke would win the NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Division I Championships in DeLuca’s first year in the program, but the title isn’t what DeLuca recalls when he talks about his freshman year. He talks about a book that was being passed around in the locker room.

“At the end of my freshman year we were in the playoffs for lacrosse,” DeLuca said. “One of the seniors on the team had read ‘Lone Survivors’ when that came out.”

‘Lone Survivors’ was written by Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson about Luttrell’s experiences as a member of Navy SEAL Team 10. The book was turned into a film in 2014 with the same title. DeLuca got his hands on it, and it opened his eyes to what he wanted to do with his future.

“He started passing it around and gave me the book,” DeLuca said. “I read that and a sort of light bulb went off like ‘Oh my gosh, this is it.’ It checked so many boxes for me.”

In 2013, DeLuca won another national championship with Duke in men’s lacrosse and graduated with a degree in international relations. In 2014, he enlisted in the Navy.

The physical tests a Navy recruit must go through are, as DeLuca himself described them, “trial by fire.” Sports had pushed DeLuca before and a further challenge was expected when going to the Navy, but DeLuca got what he bargained for and more.

“It’s such an amazing life experience, but in hindsight a lot of the greatest lessons aren’t thought of at the time,” DeLuca said. “Don’t get me wrong, there are fun and gratifying moments of it but certainly a lot of challenges.  

DeLuca served with SEAL Team 10, the very group he read about in Luttrell’s book. He took part in tours in Africa and South America, earning the rank of Lieutenant.

After finishing his fourth and most recent stint in the Navy, DeLuca returned to his wife Baily’s hometown of Rockford and began to think about where to finish graduate school. DeLuca originally planned to return to Duke before Baily offered up NIU as an alternative.

DeLuca started working on his master’s degree in sports psychology this past spring and ultimately decided to make a stop at the Yordon Center.

“I think by the time I figured it out, the application for the program was due three days later,” DeLuca said. “I went that night, got my application in and basically just showed up at the Yordon Center. I walked in and walked right up to the football offices.”

DeLuca wasn’t a total stranger, at least not to everybody. Wide receivers coach Tony Sorrentino attended the same high school as DeLuca and got him introduced to Head Coach Thomas Hammock.

“It could not have worked out any better,” DeLuca said. “Five minutes after I walked into the building, I was on the team.”

DeLuca may not see the field much on game days, but he doesn’t need to. Hammock said DeLuca brings experiences to the program not many can’t offer.

“He brings a maturity and a leadership quality,” Hammock said. “He brings experience, worldly experience that I think everyone can benefit from. Obviously, he’s a very hard worker and he’s going to lead by example.” 

Just as sports and the military share similar things that drew DeLuca to them, DeLuca said he has the same goal at NIU now that he held previously with Duke and the Navy SEALs.

“The best case scenario for me and this team and life in general is hopefully just leave it a little bit better than you found it,” DeLuca said. “Hopefully I can have some sort of positive influence, whether that’s actually on the field or in the locker room or the weight room. I just hope I can try the best I can and impart any small crumbs of wisdom to anyone that’s looking for it.”