Ratkovich more than meets the eye

Western Illinois transfer with pro potential playing massive role in Huskies offensive success

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Courtesy of Scott Walstrom | NIU Media Services

Redshirt senior running back Clint Ratkovich runs down the field during NIU’s game on Sept. 11 at Huskie Stadium against Wyoming. Ratkovich has 12 touchdowns this season after transferring in from Western Illinois.

Skyler Kisellus, Assistant Sports Editor

Calling redshirt senior Clint Ratkovich a running back doesn’t do him justice. Many have coined him as a “superback” who has made waves in his lone season starring in the offensive backfield for the Huskies.

Ratkovich became the hero in Wednesday night’s conference matchup against University of Buffalo Bulls Wednesday after scoring a 25-yard rushing touchdown in overtime to win the game, allowing NIU to claim their eighth Mid-American Conference West Division title in 12 years.

How the “superback” arrived in DeKalb

Before playing under the lights of Huskie Stadium, Ratkovich spent his early years in the village of Crete, Illinois, approximately 30 miles south of Chicago. 

“My uncle and my cousin (got me into football),” Ratkovich said. “(My cousin) was a big-time football player. My uncle was kind of his coach for a while, so when me and my brother were growing up, (my cousin) kind of got us into it.”

Redshirt senior running back Clint Ratkovich practices on Aug. 20 at Huskies Stadium. (James Krause | Northern Star)

After graduating from Crete-Monee High School in 2016, where he earned all-state honors and was a two-time all-area and all-conference selection, Ratkovich elected to continue his football career at Western Illinois University In Macomb.

Ratkovich began college as a safety before being switched to offense in his first season. During his four years in Macomb, Ratkovich learned to play various roles on offense including running back and wide receiver. After the 2020 season, Ratkovich transferred to NIU as a graduate student. 

“(Ratkovich) was a guy we knew about,” football head coach Thomas Hammock said. “He went to the same high school as (freshman wide receiver) Trayvon Rudolph. The more we found out about him, the more we wanted him to be a part of our program.”

Soon after arriving on campus, Ratkovich quickly began to establish himself as a leader on a team with one of the youngest rosters in college football.

“He was able to bring some leadership,” running backs coach Nic McKissic-Luke said. “With him being an older guy, it showed a lot of younger guys how to work and go about their business.”

While Ratkovich brings leadership to a young team, he also offers a physical presence to the locker room and the football field on game days as one of the team’s biggest running backs.

“He’s just a strong kid,” McKissic-Luke said. “When you hit him, you’re hitting a brick wall. He plays the game determined. He plays with confidence.”

Pro prospect and casual comedian

Through ten games at NIU, Ratkovich has rushed for 252 yards and eight touchdowns on 74 attempts, averaging 3.4 yards per carry. In the passing game, Ratkovich has also caught 13 passes for 113 yards and two touchdowns.

Based on his performance on the field, Ratkovich has earned himself invitations to the Hula Bowl and the East-West Shrine Bowl. He is also currently on the watchlist for the Reese’s Senior Bowl.

As part of his invitation to the East-West Shrine Bowl, Ratkovich will have the unique opportunity to connect with San Francisco 49ers fullback Kyle Jusczyk during the week of the event.

During his time working with Juszczyk, Ratkovich hopes to learn about the translation from playing football at the collegiate level to the professional level.

Redshirt senior running back Clint Ratkovich scores a touchdown in the second half against the Wyoming Cowboys on Sept. 11. (Khavon Thomas | Northern Star)

“Fullback in the NFL is a really physically-demanding position,” Ratkovich said. “I just want to know how he made that transformation.”

When asked about Ratkovich’s personality, McKissic-Luke described him as a “quiet comedian.”

“He’s a guy who’ll crack a joke here and there,” McKissic-Luke said. “He’ll send out random jokes and random movie quotes (in our group chat). He knows when it’s time to work and when he can have a little fun also.”

Since arriving in DeKalb early this year, Ratkovich has developed a strong bond with redshirt junior quarterback Rocky Lombardi after the two were put together as roommates. Both Ratkovich and Lombardi joined NIU as transfers this offseason, with Ratkovich coming from Western Illinois and Lombardi coming from Michigan State University.

“Right off the bat, I could tell we were going to hit it off,” Lombardi said. “Just from talking to him, I could tell what kind of man he was and what kind of values he lived by.”

Reflecting on his time at NIU thus far, Ratkovich is fond of one particular memory of a team event that took place before the season began.

“Right after fall camp, we had a talent show,” Ratkovich said. “All the new guys and freshmen had to come up with something to do. (Lombardi) and myself made a parody video doing impersonations of some coaches and players. We got a lot of good laughs.”

“I’d say (his imitation of Director of Sports Performance Juney Barnett) has got to be the best,” Lombardi added. 

High hopes and high expectations

With at least two games remaining in his final season of eligibility, Ratkovich’s time as a Huskie is nearing its conclusion as he prepares for the possibility of taking his talents to the pros.

“NIU has provided me (with) a great opportunity to get a look at the next level,” Ratkovich said. “I want to win out, win the MAC Championship, win a big bowl game and, hopefully, keep playing from there.”

Ratkovich will leave NIU with a Master of Business Administration, in addition to his bachelor’s degree in engineering technology from Western Illinois.

Lombardi admitted that replacing Ratkovich will be difficult for him both as a player and a friend.

“It’ll be difficult, even though we’ve known each other for a year now,” Lombardi said. “I feel like we’ve known each other for much longer. We’ve developed quite a relationship. As a friend of his, it’ll be really tough to let him go.”

As Ratkovich prepares for the next chapter of his football career, Hammock expressed his satisfaction with bringing in the “superback” and confidence in Ratkovich’s potential .

“He was as good as advertised,” Hammock said. “His upside is limitless and I look forward to having the chance to watch him for a long time.”

Ratkovich will return home Tuesday for his final home game at Huskie Stadium as the Huskies play host to the Western Michigan University Broncos.