Gameday: Strong heart propelled Proby to starring role


Brian Lee/Daily Senior Staffer

Senior Damien Proby lines up during a home game. After a heart condition limited Proby during his freshman year, he became one of the leaders on NU’s defense.

John Paschall, Assistant Gameday Editor

Coach Pat Fitzgerald watched high school tape of a linebacker from North Las Vegas back in 2008. He stared at the screen over and over again as he watched a then-17-year-old Damien Proby constantly make plays and look like a Big Ten linebacker in the making.

But something felt odd for Fitzgerald.

“Are we missing something?” he said at the time. “I didn’t understand why he wasn’t being recruited. His tape was outstanding. He played sideline to sideline. He was physical. You talk to the people in the building, and he was a high-character guy.”

On April 13, 2008, a date Proby hasn’t forgotten, NU officially jumped in the mix in hopes to get what the team thought was its next diamond in the rough.

“It was really exciting,” he said. “You know they’re a Big Ten team. You know they go out there and compete.”

The opportunity to play under a collegiate legend like Fitzgerald was too good of an experience to pass up.

“When you have a coach that plays your position, it’s a wonderful thing to have,” Proby said. “He sees things that you need to see that sometimes you may or may not see. You can take a lot of the learning experiences from him both as a leader and on the field play.”

Proby wound up committing to the Cats later that year and left the bright lights and slot machines of Vegas for the shores of Evanston.

But freshman year wasn’t a breeze for Proby. He had a health scare with a heart condition, something he’s known about and dealt with all his life, that didn’t allow him to practice for a while. When he did hit the playing field, he admired what some of the former NU great defenders, like Corey Wootton and Brad Phillips, did.

He wanted to follow in their footsteps right away.

“I want to be that person that everyone looks up to,” Proby said. “That was my mindset freshman year.”

Proby first started for the Cats in 2011 at Penn State. From there, he became a tackling machine for Fitzgerald’s defense, leading the unit in stops in 2012.

He began to fill out the frame that Fitzgerald and linebackers coach Randy Bates projected him to have coming out of high school.

He came to embrace the leadership responsibilities given to him as he got older. Teammates started to look up to him and follow his example. As most of the people around him would say, he’s not the most vocal person in the locker room, but when he wants to say something, he has the respect of every player.

“I would liken him to a grandfather,” Bates said. “He’s a guy who speaks little but when he does speak, he speaks volumes and people shut up and listen when he talks.”

One of his great leadership moments came early in the 2013 season, when the Cats had to fill a vacancy in the starting linebacker unit. Junior Collin Ellis was named the starter next to Proby, and he took the new guy in the unit under his wing. Ellis said it’s hard not to fall in love with Proby, and he’ll always appreciate the positive reinforcement Proby gave him.

“The biggest thing you can do is reassure your teammates that you can trust them,” Ellis said. “Earlier this year, before this season started, that’s something Proby had taught me.”

In a season filled with disappointment and sleepless nights after devastating losses, there was one bright personal moment for Proby, who recorded his first career interception in NU’s win against Maine.

Fitzgerald said although Proby may be more athletic and stronger than Fitzgerald was when he played, he always joked with Proby that he had the better hands as a linebacker. But Fitzgerald said he was happy to see the former high school tight end hold onto a ball in the game.

“I think that’s the first ball that he’s ever caught in his life here,” Fitzgerald said after the game.

As Proby and the rest of the seniors walk onto Ryan Field for the last time Saturday, he hopes his class will be remembered for being the glue that held the team together throughout his time in Evanston.

Looking back, Fitzgerald said Proby’s path is a perfect example of what football can provide someone on and off the field.

“He’s had a wonderful career,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s been a great leader. He’s been such a strong force for us in the middle for multiple years. I’m going to miss him.”

Bates, who keeps photos of all his linebackers from his eight years at NU in his office, said even though Proby may be graduating from the program, it won’t be the last time he’ll see him.

“Even though I’ll be losing him, I won’t be losing track of him,” Bates said.

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Twitter: @John_Paschall