Football: ‘From sun up to sun down’: Northwestern’s Sean McLaughlin juggles football and STEM


Daily file photo by Angeli Mittal

Junior defensive lineman Sean McLaughlin. McLaughlin has become one of the more central figures in the defensive trenches for Northwestern this season, all the while completing work as a neuroscience major.

Alex Cervantes, Assistant Sports Editor

Sean McLaughlin knew he never wanted to sit at a desk for eight hours a day. He wanted to help people. This realization prompted his decision to chart an academic and career path in STEM, all while playing Division I football.

“I knew the workload was going to be tough, but I knew it was going to be fulfilling in the end,” McLaughlin said. 

Standing 6-foot-6 and weighing 275 pounds, it’s easy to see why McLaughlin spends his fall Saturdays on the gridiron. 

After appearing in just two games his freshman year and registering 12 total tackles last season, the junior defensive lineman has seen his role increase dramatically in 2022. McLaughlin has become one of the main bodies in the trenches for the Wildcats this season. 

Defensive line coach Marty Long said McLaughlin has seen the field more this year after playing as a backup just a year ago.

“This year, (he) got a lot stronger,” Long said. “He’s able to hold a point, he’s really physical and has made himself into a good player.”

The hard work paid off in McLaughlin’s best performance of the season — an eight-tackle, half-tackle for loss display on the road at Maryland. Though NU fell to the Terrapins 31-24, coach Pat Fitzgerald bestowed defensive player of the week honors on McLaughlin for his efforts.

Similar to Long, Fitzgerald said in October that McLaughlin has “worked his tail off” to put himself in a position to become a key piece on the defensive line. 

“He’s just been relentless in his work ethic with Jay Hooten and our strength staff,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s just getting better and better (with) each rep, each day, each game. I look forward to watching him continue to grow and improve.”

As a neuroscience major, McLaughlin juggles all that the quarter system can bring, while also preparing for a different opponent every weekend. 

McLaughlin pointed to the challenge of balancing an organic chemistry class and on-field work last year as a good example of what his in-season schedule can look like. 

“It’s known as one of the toughest classes here at Northwestern, so my day would usually start at 5 a.m., and I’d be going until (about) midnight,” McLaughlin said. “It’s from sun up to sun down, with little to no breaks. Those classes are really tough and being able to go day in and day out is really taxing on your body.”

Outside of the challenge of securing good grades, McLaughlin said maintaining his health is the toughest part of balancing football and his classwork. 

“The demand for both physical and mental health is huge,” McLaughlin said. “Trying to stay healthy and trying to keep your head above water in school.”

Long said that McLaughlin spends more time in Ryan Fieldhouse than almost “any other full-time employee.” He’s even bumped into the junior as early as 5:15 in the morning, he said. 

McLaughlin’s seemingly relentless work ethic drives his success on the field and in the classroom, even as the season wanes to a close this month. Still, Long said people often don’t realize how much time McLaughlin, along with the rest of the team, spend on the field along with their studies.

“He holds a high GPA,” Long said. “He has no problems in the classroom. He would be a 4.0 student if he didn’t have to spend so much time on the football field.”

NU will travel to West Lafayette, Indiana on Saturday to battle Purdue in its penultimate game of the 2022 season. After that, focus turns to a bout with Illinois at Ryan Field on Nov. 26, as the Cats look to reclaim the Land of Lincoln Trophy. 

Up front, the Lincoln-Way East High School product is set to play an integral role in NU’s attempts to stymie Boilermaker quarterback Aidan O’Connell and Fighting Illini running back Chase Brown over the next two weeks, respectively. 

A life potentially after football is fast approaching for McLaughlin. His dream, like many other players, is to get to the NFL. But if opportunities at the next level don’t arise, he said there are options away from football, starting with his work on the pre-med track.  

“Obviously, going to medical school would be one of them,” McLaughlin said of his future goals. “Staying around sports would be another one. (Finding a career) in sports psychology, sports medicine or something along those lines.”

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