Last season, he was an honorable mention all-state defensive end for Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville who could be counted on to make big plays for the Warriors — be it a quarterback sack, throwing an opposing ball carrier for a loss in the backfield, or making a key tackle.
Fast-forward to 2012, and the three-year prep starter has been assigned to the scout team at Northern Illinois University.
Ippolito, Neuqua Valley’s all-time leader in sacks, won’t see any playing time for the Huskies because he’s been red-shirted — meaning the NIU coaching staff decided prior to the start of the season to keep him out of action in order to extend his eligibility.
Ippolito is one of several freshmen NIU recruited last year who’ve been red-shirted by the program. But that’s a feather in his cap because it means coaches see him fitting into the team’s future plans, and thus don’t want to use up a year of eligibility.
The 6-4, 246-pound defensive end practices with the team every day except Monday. He’s part of the scout team’s defense, whose responsibility is to simulate the opposing defense each week so that NIU’s No. 1 offensive unit becomes familiar with its opponents’ particular defensive schemes.
“We make the offense better, which makes our team better,” he says.
Being red-shirted has other fringe benefits. Ippolito gets an opportunity to adjust to the speed of college football without the pressures of being in a game situation, Plus, he has more time to concentrate on academics since he doesn’t suit up for any games or travel with the team for away contests.
“I’m focusing on my grades, and focusing on getting bigger, faster and stronger,” he says, “but it’s always academics first. Starting off college on the right foot is really big.”
Ippolito does sit with the team for all home games. In fact, he attended the Huskies’ 2012 home opener versus Iowa played at Soldier Field in front of over 52,000 fans.
“It was remarkable,” he says. “An experience I’ll never forget. Just the atmosphere, all the hall of famers that played on that field and for me to just step on the field was just incredible. The crowd was very loud, and very into the game. Even though I wasn’t suited up, I was in that game mode mentality.”
It’s Ippolito’s goal next season to actually be in game mode on game day, going up against the opposition instead of his teammates.
“Things are going pretty well,” he says. “I focus day by day and get better on little things. In the spring I want to bring all that together and battle for a starting spot. I came in at 256 (pounds). I slimmed down, and now they want me to put on more muscle. They want me at around the 250 range.”
Mike isn’t the only member of the Ippolito family who’s a member of an in-state college football team. His older brother, Joey, made the Illinois State squad as a walk-on this season. Joey has not yet seen action for the Redbirds, but the ISU coaching staff, ironically, has moved him to defensive end.
The Ippolito brothers were teammates at Neuqua Valley during Mike’s sophomore year and Joey’s senior year (2009). That year, Joey played quarterback; he rushed for over 1,000 yards and passed for over 1,000 yards. Both were named to the all-Upstate Eight Conference team.
“It was awesome,” Mike says of playing with his brother at Neuqua. “I can’t really describe it; it’s a feeling I’ll never forget, something we can talk about when we get older. It was one of the best years of my life actually playing with my brother on the same field.”
Joe Ippolito, their father, couldn’t be prouder.
“Both of them are defensive ends. Go figure,” Joe says. “I’ve enjoyed the work ethic that they have (shown) to get them where they’re at. I couldn’t be more proud of all my children.”
All four of Joe and Kathryn Ippolito’s children are involved in athletics. Their daughter, Alyssa, is a sophomore at Neuqua Valley and plays softball. Their youngest son, Anthony, plays football for All Saints Academy in Naperville, a team that Joe helps coach.
“I keep myself involved that way (coaching),” Joe says. “I’ve told them if they give their best effort good things will come.”
Joe’s grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Sicily in 1915. Like it is within most Italian-American families, food from the old country is a big part of the Ippolito household. Kathryn cooks a pasta dish for the clan with a sauce that’s made with meatballs.
“It (the recipe) was passed down from generation to generation and we have that just about every Sunday,” he says. “Pasta is a staple in our house.”
So, too, are good athletes.