Vander Laan wins second straight Harlon Hill trophy

Ferris State quarterback Jason Vander Laan gives an emotional speech after being presented the Harlon Hill trophy Jan. 8 in the GUC. The award is presented to the best player in Division II football and is the equivalent of the Heisman trophy.

by Sports Editor Mike Ezekiel

If Ferris State quarterback Jason Vander Laan thought one Harlon Hill trophy was heavy, wait until he holds two.

A host of representatives from UNA, the Shoals area and Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, gathered for the 30th annual Harlon Hill Trophy ceremony in the Guillot University Center Jan. 8.

Vander Laan, a graduating senior from Frankfort, Illinois, won the Harlon Hill trophy for the second year in a row. The trophy, named in honor of UNA legend Harlon Hill, goes to the best player in Division II football each season.

“I was moved just as much this year as I was last year,” Vander Laan said. “With the support from Alabama, the support from the committee and my university, it was a great experience to come back to Florence again.”

Vander Laan finished ahead of seven other players, including UNA quarterback Luke Wingo.

Vander Laan set the NCAA record for career rushing yards by a quarterback on any level his senior season. He finished his senior campaign with 2,625 passing yards and rushing for 1,542, more than any quarterback in college football. He accounted for 52 of his team’s 70 touchdowns this season en route to a second round playoff visit.

Despite numerous individual accomplishments, Vander Laan said his most memorable achievement is the Bulldogs winning 25 straight regular season victories, with the last loss coming his sophomore season.

“I don’t remember the last time going into a film session during the season after a loss,” Vander Laan said. “It’s been two and a half years since we lost (in the regular season), so going undefeated in back-to-back seasons will always stick with me.”

Ferris State head coach Tony Annese, who is in his fourth year as the Bulldog’s head coach, said Vander Laan’s character is a big part of his success.

“It’s an exceptional honor for our whole university,” Annese said. “I’m just proud to have Jason, who has been such an accomplished young man for four years in every aspect of what we hope to be at Ferris State.”

Annese said it made his job as a coach easier having a leader like Vander Laan.

“As a coach, sometimes you try to describe what the perfect student-athlete is, but I just have to point my finger,” he said. “We had four academic All-Americans, and he was one of them. He was the right kind of player and person.”

Vander Laan became the fourth student-athlete in Division II history to win the Harlon Hill more than once. His 217 votes from the Division II sports information directors make him the fourth-highest voted player in the award’s prestigious history.

Jerry Hill, the son of Harlon and the former head coach at Brooks High School, said Vander Laan is the type of player his father would have wanted to see win.

“I told Jason my only regret is that he couldn’t meet (Harlon),” Hill said. “Dad pulled for the underdog, the Division II guys like Jason, who have never been in trouble and doesn’t care about the spotlight. ”

Vander Laan, who graduated in December, plans to train in Atlanta, Georgia to prepare for the NFL draft. Vander Laan said scouts have shown interest in him playing multiple positions, including quarterback, tight end and running back.

“The NFL has been my ultimate goal since I was a kid,” he said. “I didn’t know coming to college what my chances would be, but fortunately it looks like I have a shot. I’m going to give it my all and see what happens.”