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NIU’s Nabal Jefferson owes debt of gratitude to Fr. Dan Mallette

Northern Illinois defensive lineman Nabal Jeffersis semifinalist for National Football Foundation’s Campbell Trophy. | NIU

Northern Illinois defensive lineman Nabal Jefferson is a semifinalist for the National Football Foundation’s Campbell Trophy. | NIU

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Updated: November 13, 2012 6:36AM

DeKALB — The football player arrived unannounced Monday night, settled his 287 pounds into a chair and made the lonely priest smile. That was the whole idea.

For the next two hours, they talked, the same as it had been for years. Nourishment for both. But this time there was more sustenance in it for Fr. Dan Mallette, who has been going through a rough time after being relocated involuntarily from his beloved South Side parish, St. Margaret of Scotland, to a home in the suburbs.

But there was also something in it for Nabal Jefferson, who had grown up poor in the parish, learned how to be a giver from the priest and gone on to be a defensive lineman for the 5-1 Northern Illinois Huskies. There was more wisdom to sop up.

What kind of kid drives from DeKalb to Oak Lawn to spend a few hours with an 80-year-old man in need of some cheering up?

The kind of kid who, as an eighth-grader, decides to live with an aunt in Chicago and pursue his dreams in a tough neighborhood, rather than move with his brothers and sisters to Florida. The kind of kid who receives just one college football scholarship, works hard enough to be a starter by his junior year and does so well at his studies that he gets an internship at one of the Big Four accounting firms.

That kind of kid.

“He’s just a magnificent young man,’’ Mallette said. “What a guy. He’s as good as they come. He makes life worthwhile.’’

Everyone seems to have an opinion on Mallette’s very public situation. The Archdiocese of Chicago had asked him to leave the parish he had served for 35 years to make room for a new pastor. Some believe the church hierarchy handled the matter poorly and without sensitivity. Others think it was time for the priest to retire for good and take advantage of the housing and 24-hour care the archdiocese was offering.

It’s no surprise where Jefferson sits on the issue. Mallette had given tuition help to him and his seven sisters and three brothers at St. Margaret. But it was more than that.

“I meditate a lot,’’ the senior tackle said. “I got that from him. I used to work there during the summers. He would go sit outside by himself and just meditate. One day I was like, ‘I’m going to do it, too.’ I went out there and just sat next to him. It was such a cleansing feeling. I do that a lot.

“He’s offered a lot of advice and leadership in my life. He’s always been there.’’

Friendships work both ways, so when burglars brutally beat Mallette inside the rectory in December, Jefferson raced home. He helped set up a schedule for volunteers who wanted to watch over the priest, who had suffered broken ribs. He came home as often as he could.

Jefferson would know something about getting beat up. It happened to him during his senior year at Marist High School. Three guys jumped him near his home. He fought back. One pulled out a gun. Jefferson got away without a shot ­being fired, but he was bruised inside and out.

He made another bold decision, with the same maturity he had shown as an eighth-grader after his grandmother died. That time he chose to stay in Chicago with his aunt rather than follow his brothers and sisters to join their mother in Florida. The parish would help raise him. After the beating, he decided life near 96th and Carpenter streets wasn’t conducive to helping him reach his goals. So he spent his senior year at Marist on the move, first living with a cousin, then with classmates and coaches.

Mallette had stayed with the parish through difficult times, welcoming all when the neighborhood turned from white to black. The football player wasn’t going to desert the priest or the church.

Jefferson, who has a 3.78 grade-point average in accounting, talks often with kids from his parish who have questions about life. He tells them about the fruits of hard work. He doesn’t tell them he’s a semifinalist for the National Football Foundation’s Campbell Trophy, which goes to the player with the best combination of leadership, academics and success on the field. Hard to lend a hand if you’re patting yourself on the back.

It’s how Mallette, who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., mentored him to be.

“I didn’t get here by myself,’’ Jefferson said. “I had a lot of people helping me. It’s like paying it forward, helping others out, doing whatever I can to help the next person. Because the next person might be going through something like I went through.’’

The next person could be a friend or a teammate. Or it could be a priest just looking for some conversation.

“He’s out of this world,’’ Mallette said. “I want to get to DeKalb to see him play before life goes by.’’

Saturday would be perfect. It’s Homecoming.

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