Hillcrest's M. Irving signs to play for Minnesota:

A big moment as Hillcrest running back Mar’Keise Irving signs to play football for Minnesota: ‘They’re getting a winner.’

Hillcrest’s Mar’Keise Irving could not fight back the tears Wednesday as he spoke just before signing his national letter of intent to play football at Minnesota.

During a ceremony at the high school, the 5-foot-10, 175-pound senior running back said he felt overwhelmed by the moment.

“I was just trying to thank everybody who has been with me throughout this process and who helped me get here,” he said. “It means a lot. I’m going to be the first one in my family to go play college football.

“I just want to go to Minnesota, do a great job and make it to the NFL so I can take care of my family one day.”

Irving ran for 1,655 yards and 21 touchdowns last season, adding 19 catches for 331 yards and three TDs. He was rated as a four-star recruit and the No. 4 player in Illinois for the 2021 class by 247Sports.com. He had 24 scholarship offers, including 10 from Big Ten schools.

“I was overthinking things,” he said. “People would tell me I couldn’t make Division I from Hillcrest and that I needed to go to a bigger school.

“I let that stuff get in my head a little bit, but I always had faith in myself. I knew I could go Division I from anywhere.”

Hillcrest coach Morgan Weaver knew Irving was a huge talent when he saw him play in junior high. It was a performance last year against Lemont, however, that cemented Weaver’s belief that Irving was going places.

Irving ran for 302 yards and two TDs, threw for another TD and had an interception in the 32-26 win.

“He’s always been a special kid,” Weaver said. “Once he came into our program and I was able to work with him and see what kind of kid he was, what kind of player he was, I knew this day was coming.

“He’s one of the most competitive athletes I’ve ever been around. That’s going to help him. You have to be competitive and strong-minded at the college level. I think he’s going to do well.”

Irving’s recruiting picked up his sophomore season. His Minnesota offer came on May 19, 2019 — the same day his grandmother, Darlene, died.

Irving committed to the Golden Gophers on May 10 — almost exactly a year later.

“I felt like it was meant to be after that,” Irving said. “They were there for me when my grandma passed away. Minnesota has always been recruiting me hard, sticking by my side and talking to me. They’re always there when I need their help.”

Irving said he was confident he had a big future in football from the time he was age 5.

“But back then, I wasn’t thinking about college,” he said. “I just wanted to win my Little League championship.”

Senior linebacker Elijawah Tolbert also was honored at the ceremony as he signed with Eastern Illinois.

Tolbert has yet to play for the Hawks after transferring from Thornton following his junior year.

“Coach Weaver has been great, contacting schools for me, showing the ropes and helping me get it done,” Tolbert said. “I feel like Eastern Illinois is going to get someone who really likes to win and will do anything it takes to win. They’re getting a winner.”

“I can’t wait to play,” Irving said. “I want to win a state championship before I get out of here.”
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