Football: Hart's leadership shines at North Central College

RTHS alum selected to participate in NCAA Division III Student Immersion Program


Former Rochelle student-athlete James Hart was a scout-team freshman for the North Central College football team when the Cardinals defeated Wisconsin-Whitewater to win the 2019 NCAA Division III National Championship at Woodforest Bank Stadium in Shenandoah, Texas.

Two years later, Hart and the North Central College team returned to the Division III national championship, also known as the Stagg Bowl, for a showdown against Mary Hardin-Baylor at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio. Long removed from the scout team, Hart suited up and competed alongside his Cardinal teammates under the bright lights for a nationally televised game, something Hart had dreamt about ever since he was a kid.  

“We had an awesome season and it felt great to play football again after a one-year hiatus,” Hart said. “We had the chance to practice inside the stadium during the week which was an awesome experience and we were able to see the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It was an awesome game. There were ESPN cameras all around us and the entire bottom half of the stadium was filled with fans. It was always my dream as a kid to play football on TV.”

While the Cardinals fell just short of victory, North Central finished the season with a 13-1 record that included a victory over rival Wheaton College in the Battle for the Little Brass Bell as well as a road win over perennial Division III powerhouse Mount Union. Despite not having a 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hart didn’t stop working over the offseason, dropping roughly 40 pounds while earning practice reps on both offense and defense.

Hart eventually settled into a second-string role as a center and right guard during the 2021 season, often entering the game due to several blowout victories by the Cardinals. The former Rochelle football standout also started on special teams as a lineman on field-goal and extra-point attempts. After appearing in all 14 games this fall, Hart said his goals for next season are to crack the starting lineup on the offensive line and return to the national championship.

“I earned a lot of game reps with the second unit during the season so I was able to gain a lot of experience for next season,” Hart said. “It was awesome to be elevated from the scout team and go through the process of learning the scouting report, watching film and preparing for the opponent. I’ve changed my body in a lot of ways from when I was a freshman and I’m always wanting to get stronger and faster and further develop my body to play college football.”

In addition to his physical growth, Hart’s leadership growth has earned him a role on the team’s leadership council, also known as the Eagle Council, where he and about 20 other players serve as liaisons between the players and the coaching staff. Hart was also one of only 40 student-athletes across the nation to be both nominated and selected to attend the 2022 NCAA Division III Student Immersion Program in Indianapolis, Indiana as a student ambassador.

“It was awesome to be a part of the leadership council and learn how the upperclassmen approach leadership given how much experience they have,” Hart said. “The North Central program has done an excellent job of preparing me for my future and I think the program has helped prepare for entering the workforce and working alongside people with different beliefs and backgrounds. Football is a great game that brings people together for a common goal.”

Hart will receive an all-expense paid trip next month to the NCAA Convention, where the Division III Student Immersion Program will be held. While there, Hart will have the opportunity to network with administrators and other officials working in intercollegiate athletics. Hart, who’s currently majoring in sport management with a minor in marketing, said his goals are to earn a master’s degree and pursue a career in professional or intercollegiate athletics.  

“It’s going to be an awesome experience to network with other students and administrators so I can learn about Division III athletics even more,” Hart said. “I was really excited to be recommended for this opportunity. I love that aspect of the game. Football has always been my life and I’ve always wanted to work in football. I think that’s what I can be good at and I’ve always aspired to work with athletes, whether that be professionally or at the college level.”