It's known as "the catch" and will forever be remembered in football history. But for Wheaton College wide receiver and former Hilltopper standout Mark Hiben, it was much more than that.
In November 2009, the highly touted Hilltoppers traveled to Lake Zurich in an IHSA Class 7A semifinal game with a birth to the state championship on the line. West’s depth chart was amassed with talent. But at the time, Hiben was a virtual unknown.
This game would change everything for Hiben. A late fourth quarter injury to then-starting wide-out J.T. Mesch would create the perfect opportunity for junior Hiben.
And for Hiben, a soft-spoken athlete, the chance couldn’t have come at a better time.
“To be honest, that moment and game changed football for me,” Hiben said. “Don’t mean to pout, but I was really down in the dumps. I mean, I was really down. I wasn’t playing. I didn’t feel like I was getting better and all these different things were adding up.
“I just felt like no one noticed me. I would try as hard as I could and nothing was coming of it. All I heard was, 'you're doing great' and I wasn’t seeing any fruition on the field. It was hard not getting playing time.”
One catch would change all of that for Hiben.
West, trailing 14-17 in the fourth quarter with the game-clock winding down, quarterback Tyler Warden rolled to the far-side of the field. In desperation, with six seconds left, Warden flung a pass toward the corner of the endzone.
The pass was the team's last chance to make it to state. Hiben leaped in the air and the ball met his outstretched hands.
"The catch” as locals call it, has changed Hiben forever both on and off the field.
“It was kind of like that switch, it flicked at Lake Zurich,” Hiben said. “The Mark Hiben before that catch is different than the Mark Hiben after. I feel a lot more confident in my abilities. It was just one play, and it was lucky, but it’s what I needed at the time.”
The next year, in his senior season at West, Hiben racked-up jaw dropping numbers including 319 yards and a four-touchdown performance against Lincoln-way East that broke the state’s record for receiving yardage in a single game.
Hiben’s standout season deemed him worthy of being named to Chicago Tribune’s All-State team, alongside being named first-team All-Western Suburban Silver.
However, Hiben’s high school accolades seem meager paired next his accomplishments in his first season playing football at Wheaton College.
“I was nervous, for sure,” Hiben said about preparing to play college football. “In the spring I went to practice and watched what was going on. There were these huge men. I was just thinking ‘Wow, I am not prepared to do this’.”
Many Wheaton football freshmen have probably thought the exact same thing, and for good reason.
In head coach Mike Swider’s 27 years with the program, Wheaton has only started five freshmen. Hiben not only started, but was the only freshman named to the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin All-Conference team.
“It’s so cool to see him, after the catch, how much confidence he gained from that,” said Adam Bruere, a teammate of Hiben at both West and Wheaton College. “But college football is a whole different story. And Wheaton never starts freshmen. It’s hard to do. The other players have been there awhile and know the plays and all that. Coming in as a freshman, for me, I had no clue half the time. For anyone, it can be overwhelming.”
Just like his football career at West, Hiben was greeted with many obstacles.
In his first football meeting at Wheaton, the coaching staff projected the depth chart on a pull-down screen in front of the entire team. Like all the other freshmen, Hiben’s name sat at the bottom.
But it didn’t take long for Swider to notice something special in Hiben.
“It wasn’t just a moment. When you see his high school tape, and I’ve seen enough tape to know, you can see that the kid is special,” Swider said. “I knew he wasn’t going to be off the field long. He came into camp, within days you could see his talent.”
Working his way into a starting role come Wheaton’s opener against Albion College, the obstacles would only continue to mount.
Leg shaking as he took the field for the first time, Hiben found himself staring into the eyes of Albion cornerback Chris Greenwood, who was selected in the fifth round of the NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions.
“I was literally shaking,” Hiben said with a smile. “Under the lights, first game, I go out there and my leg was shaking, I will always remember that. I could barely stand. And across from me was this stud.
"It felt like I finally worked out all the nerves then, bam, it happened.”
Early in the second half, Hiben streaked to the right pylon. Coming back to a fluttering pass, Hiben corralled the ball and dragged two would-be defenders into the endzone for his first touchdown at the college level. But on that same play, Hiben sprained his AC-joint in his left shoulder, sidelining him for the next two games.
“It says a lot about him, being able to come back from those injuries as a freshman,” Bruere said. “It’s tough. I talked to him after it happened. It had to be frustrating. But coming back after that, it says a lot about his character and work ethic.”
Despite missing a total of three games due to injury, Hiben fronted the Thunder, tallying 8 touchdowns on 628 yards in one season, Bruere deemed amazing.
“It really is cool to see this once shy guy come in and dominate,” Bruere said.
Setting high expectations for himself in his first season at Wheaton, Hiben says he will cling to his coach’s favorite saying as he looks to build on his success.
“You’re never as good as you think you are, but you’re never as bad as you think you are either,” said Hiben with a chuckle.
“It really is dumb when I think about it, but that moment (the catch) changed my philosophy on football. In fact, it changed me totally,” Hiben said with a laugh. “It’s kind of stupid, but that one freak play let me know this is where I’m supposed to be.”