Incoming freshman Sam Carroll spent his senior year at Red Bud High School laser-focused on continuing his athletic career. A talented athlete in track and football, Carroll figured he had what it took to secure a scholarship.

“All throughout high school, I’ve done nothing but sports,” said Carroll, who resides in the St. Louis metro area. “For the last year, I was attending football camps, I was filling out student-athlete forms, I really was committed to running track or kicking at a collegiate level.”

Carroll’s hard work paid off. He successfully obtained a scholarship to play at the collegiate level, but not necessarily in a sport that anyone, especially his parents, expected. When Carroll wasn’t seeking athletic scholarships, he was quietly becoming one of the best players in the world at Rocket League.

“My parents knew I was into gaming, but I wasn’t really telling them my progression with Rocket League,” Carroll said. “They kind of sensed how good I am at the game when I told them about this opportunity.”

Sam Carroll kicks a football during a high school game

Carroll was an accomplished high school athlete, but the growing esports arena presented new opportunities.

Rocket League is a colorful, bombastic online video game where players compete in a version of soccer. The catch? Instead of controlling human players, gamers take the driver’s seat in lightning-fast cars and attempt to hit a giant ball into a goal.

Years of youth soccer helped him get a leg up on more casual players who don’t fully understand the ins and outs of the pitch.

“Knowing where your teammates are is a big part of Rocket League, and I kind of had an innate sense of that from playing soccer for so many years,” he said. “You always want to know what your options are: Should you shoot, pass, fall back to defend? I think having a general idea of what I want to do on the field helped me in Rocket League.”

Last spring, Carroll saw that the newly created Redbird Esports was holding open tryouts for its varsity Rocket League squad. Even though he was still committed to becoming a college athlete, he thought the new program at Illinois State presented a unique opportunity.

“With my success in Rocket League, different doorways opened, and Illinois State was there. It was perfect timing,” he said.

During the tryout, Carroll was impressed by the esports program, its leadership, and his future teammates. He was excited to learn that Illinois State has an excellent program in his planned major, allied health professions. When the offer to join the team was officially extended, it was easy for Carroll to say yes.

“After I was told I was good enough to join the team, it was a pretty easy decision for me,” Carroll said. “It was a no-brainer.”

Redbird Esports Program Director David Kirk said Carroll is exactly the kind of talented player he was looking for to join the first-ever varsity Rocket League team at Illinois State.

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Sam was a standout in the tryout not just because of his high skill, but he also displayed strong leadership qualities by helping his less experienced teammates with positioning and giving them the best chance to win the match,” Kirk said. “ISU is extremely lucky to have landed such a well-rounded player for our inaugural Rocket League team and I’m excited to work with him and help him reach his aspirations as a player and student.”

Carroll is honored to be among the first cohort of Redbirds representing Illinois State in the collegiate esports scene. He welcomes the challenge of building a new program and looks to get the team off to the best start possible.

“I hope to set a good precedent for the future teams,” he said. “I want to be the best player I can be for myself and my teammates. I look forward to supporting the players in the other varsity esports teams and supporting newcomers in the casual scene.”

And as he works to bring a Rocket League championship to Normal, he will have the support of a very proud family.

“Parents love the brag about their children’s opportunities, and this is a pretty crazy one,” Carroll said.

Read about all of the students featured in our “Newest Redbirds” series at