BLOOMINGTON – The last Indiana quarterback to win at Ohio Stadium was so sure of himself and his team he incited Buckeye fans who jeered him each snap he took under center.
It was a fall afternoon in 1987, and Dave Schnell and the rest of the Hoosiers were just starting to fulfill their promise. Schnell was a blue chip prospect from Elkhart who spurned offers from throughout the country because he believed in then coach Bill Mallory’s vision IU could compete for Big Ten and national titles.
This was a time when cocky quarterbacks were cool – think Jim McMahon of the 1985 Bears. So as Indiana approached the goal line for an early score against No. 9 Ohio State, Schnell had some fun with the sea of scarlet in the stands in front him.
“The Ohio fans, they were yelling and screaming and this and that. They were trying to drown out the sound of Dave calling the cadence,” said former IU running back Anthony Thompson, who lined up behind Schnell for the play. “All of a sudden, before Dave gets under the center, he starts raising his hands to the crowd, just telling them to make more noise, make more noise. They were going to give the ball to me, and I said, ‘What are you doing?’ And so the crowd even went crazier because Dave was raising his hands, trying to provoke the crowd.”
The handoff was to Thompson, who plunged in 1 yard for the touchdown.
“I’ve never heard a death silence of over 100,000 people. You could hear a church mouse in that stadium after we scored that touchdown,” Thompson said. “But it started off with Dave starting raising his hands to provoke the crowd, and that’s one of the things I remember in that game.”
Indiana went on to upset the Buckeyes 31-10 that day, with Schnell completing 15 of 23 passes for 200 yards and two TDs. The following year, with Schnell under center, IU posted an even more lopsided score, beating Ohio State 41-7 at Memorial Stadium on Oct. 8, 1988, for its last win against the Buckeyes.
More than nine years after Schnell succumbed to leukemia on May 22, 2011, too young at 44, he is still remembered by friends and coaches for his leadership and resilience.
“He always played with a chip on his shoulder,” said Thompson, now an executive associate athletic director at IU. “He was about 6-(foot)-3, 225 pounds, just a solid quarterback and just would exude confidence in the huddle, and we were obliged just to follow him.”
Former Elkhart Central coach Tom Kurth was the first to notice Schnell’s talent. Kurth gave all incoming 10th graders the option to start at the position groups they wanted to at their first practice. Schnell went to the offensive line, where his older brother was playing.
After watching Schnell play quarterback in middle school, Kurth was puzzled. Kurth then walked over to the offensive line group and escorted Schnell back to the quarterbacks.
“He said ‘I thought I had a choice,’ and I responded, ‘Yeah, everyone but you,’” Kurth said.
“I said ‘David, I want to tell you something, son,’” Kurth continued. “You’ve got a future ahead of you that you don’t even realize, and if you just listen to me and do all the things I tell you to do, when you walk out of here you are going to be so highly recruited that you won’t know what to do. So he came back over with the quarterbacks, and he did everything that I asked him to do, and was very dedicated. His sophomore and junior and senior years in the offseason we would go to the gymnasium at 10 at night, three days a week and go through drills, quarterback drills, the drops, throwing the ball from a short arch, long arch, outs, all of that, and he never missed. He was always there.”
By Schnell’s senior year in high school, he was one of the most sought-after quarterback recruits in the country. Miami, Notre Dame and Michigan were among schools who recruited him.
“(Then Miami coach Howard) Schnellenberger practically lived in Elkhart for a while,” Kurth said.
But Schnell chose Indiana, based on his connection with Mallory. Kurth, whose son was on Mallory’s coaching staff, played a role.
“I did not want David to get caught up into a football factory, where he was going to play for four years, use up his eligibility and come out with nothing, you know?” Kurth said. “I wanted to make sure he had a degree and something to work with when he graduated, and Bill Mallory promised me he would get that at IU.”
Schnell got his degree, while finishing his IU career with 5,470 passing yards and 27 TDs. He led the Hoosiers to a 34-10 win over South Carolina in the Liberty Bowl in 1988, passing for 378 yards and two TDs.
After college, Schnell tried to latch on as an NFL free agent with the Buffalo Bills but was unable to break onto to a roster that included future NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly and a solid backup named Frank Reich, who is now the Indianapolis Colts head coach.
After a minor-league football stint in Florida, Schnell returned to his native Elkhart, where he sold insurance, got married and raised a family. He returned to IU football games from time to time.
“He would bring his boys down with him,” Thompson said. “They would come into the locker room and be a part of the festivities any time we won and things like that, and when we would take a crew to golf up in Elkhart, Dave would every once in a while show up.”
Then, in 2007, at 41, Schnell was diagnosed with leukemia. Thompson said Schnell always remained upbeat through treatment but admitted it was emotional to watch his close friend fight the disease. Schnell was survived by his four children, Samuel, Spencer, Vincent, Brook; his mother, Peg Everingham; ex-wife, Jill (Rodino) Schnell; twin brother, Douglas (Jacquelyn) Schnell; sister, Kathleen (O’Neill) Bollero; brothers, Tim and Jerry O’Neill; and many nieces and nephews.
“To see him in that state of just kind of deteriorating and things like that, and it was heart-wrenching to see his kids go through that,” Thompson said. “So it set me back a little bit, I have to be honest, but Dave is a trooper. I mean, he never wanted people to feel sorry for him or anything like that. He fought it to the end just with that Dave type of attitude. He fought to the end. I was very proud to be called his friend, to be called his teammate, as so many others.”