You might say that Riverside-Brookfield High School senior T.J. Sloan was born to play quarterback. But it was not an easy road for him to become the starting quarterback for the Bulldogs.

Sloan comes from a long line of quarterbacks. His grandfather is Bill VandeMerkt, who not only starred at quarterback for Oak Park and River Forest High School and earned All-American recognition as a quarterback at Western Illinois University, but was the head varsity football coach at RBHS for 20 years from 1962 through 1981. 

Bill VandeMerkt was also a long time athletic director at RBHS until retiring in 1990, and is a member of the Illinois Football Hall of Fame. VandeMerkt’s son, Scott, who died in 1991, played quarterback for RBHS, and Sloan’s cousins, Billy VandeMerkt and Jack VandeMerkt, also started at quarterback for the Bulldogs.

T.J. Sloan has completed 73 of 134 pass attempts (54%) for 757 yards and six touchdowns through eight games of the 2021 season. | FILE

“I feel like it’s kind of in my blood, the position,” Sloan told the Landmark in a telephone interview. “Knowing that there are guys who have gone through the same stuff I’m kind of going through, it gives me a lot confidence to know that you can find success in the position.”

Sloan gets advice from his 87-year-old grandfather, who comes to every game and from his cousins.

“I’m in touch with him a lot,” Sloan said of Bill VandeMerkt. “Whenever I’ve been struggling or needed some help … usually he calls me. I don’t even have to call him, he calls me as my grandpa.”

In fact, Bill VandeMerkt is perhaps most responsible for Sloan playing high school football in the first place. Sloan played one year of football in elementary school for St. Mary’s Riverside, but he didn’t like it. As he was about to enter high school his grandfather suggested he give football another try. 

As a freshman, Sloan went out for football at the last minute, without attending the football summer camp. At first Sloan was a wide receiver, but early in his freshman season the then freshman team quarterback, Owen Murphy, was called up to the sophomore team and then to the varsity. The freshman coaches needed a quarterback, and Bill VandeMerkt encouraged Sloan to try out for the position.

Bill VanderMerkt (right) with his son, Scott. | Provided

“My grandpa kind of stepped in and kind of pushed me toward asking them for a shot,” Sloan said. 

Sloan ended up starting at quarterback the last few games of that season and then started for the sophomore team.

But his chance to become the varsity starter didn’t look good, because he was behind Murphy, who started six games as the varsity quarterback as a freshman and all five games during the spring 2020 pandemic season as a junior. 

“After my sophomore year people were telling me that I was going to have to switch positions and I really had no chance,” Sloan said. “That kind of fueled me to work harder.”

When Murphy, an elite baseball player who made the Team USA 18-Under squad this summer, decided to focus on that sport, Sloan stepped in and won the starting varsity quarterback job. 

Sloan trained with Throw it Deep, a private quarterback school, lifted weights, ran, improved his diet and focused on the mental side of things.

“Throughout my sports career I’ve kind of struggled with self-confidence and getting into the right mindset,” Sloan said. “I’ve worked really hard to kind of train my brain to kind of respond to adversity and pressure.”

Sloan, a southpaw, has led the Bulldogs to a 5-3 record with one regular season game left to play Oct. 22 at home against Bishop McNamara. The Bulldogs dreams of a Metro Suburban Red Division conference championship were dashed on Oct. 15 when the Bulldogs (5-3, 4-1) lost to St. Francis 35-7 in Wheaton. Sloan threw a high arching 28 yard touchdown pass to Andrew Kallas in the third quarter for the Bulldogs’ only score. 

Listed at 6 feet tall and 180 pounds, Sloan doesn’t possess a rocket arm or blazing speed, but he excels in short and medium range passing game. 

“He’s got an extremely high football IQ,” said RBHS coach Brendan Curtin. “He’s a really sharp kid in the classroom and on the field, which is always an asset.”

Sloan has started every game this season but has split snaps with sophomore Diego Gutierrez, who is a physically gifted athlete. Sloan takes his role as a leader on the team seriously and tries to mentor and advise Gutierrez while still competing for playing time.

“I would say that we have a pretty good relationship,” said Sloan. “Obviously he’s very talented and he’s able to make plays with his legs as well as his arm. I’ve been kind of trying to teach him what I can, help him out in the best way possible and at the same time still trying to make it a healthy competition between us. You got to try a find a balance between competition and just what’s best for the team.”

Bill VandeMerkt, who now lives in a senior community in Burr Ridge, enjoys watching his grandson play.

“It’s been fun,” VandeMerkt told the Landmark.

Sloan is happy that he never gave up and finally achieved his goal of becoming the starting varsity quarterback. 

“It’s been a great experience,” Sloan said. “I’ve worked really hard to get to the position that I’m in right now.”