After the purple sunset


October 5 seems like such a long time ago. On that date, I had high hopes for Northwestern’s football team, which was unbeaten and ranked in the national polls.

I had written an exuberant piece for Five Wide Sports a few days earlier, about how it wasn’t 1989 anymore for the two sports teams I truly care about. The Chicago Cubs were losing, but the Northwestern football team was winning. The latter helped to take my mind off of the former, and it was a tradeoff I was glad to make.

And then, just before Northwestern played Ohio State in a nationally-televised game in primetime, the skies opened up and it started to pour. I wasn’t tailgating at the time, but the thousands who were probably got soaked in the process.

I mention this because afternoon rain showers can lead to some interesting sunsets. I saw it when I was in Door County, Wisconsin last summer. An afternoon cloudburst led to a green and brown sunset that I hope I’ll never forget. And the rain before the football game on October 5 also led to a unique sunset. But this was a portentous Northwestern purple, or at least it seemed that way to me.

I was driving around in Evanston when I saw it, on my way to the game and trying to find a place to park. There was a buzz in the air, because the rains were gone and it was going to be time for football soon. There were lots of Ohio State fans dressed in scarlet red, but there was a lot of Northwestern purple on display, too. And nature had seemed to decide the matter in the Wildcats’ favor.

The picture above probably shouldn’t have been taken in the first place, as I was trying to drive in a crowded situation at the same time. And it doesn’t really doesn’t do the scene justice, either. You can see purple here if you want to see purple. But to me, the purple was impossible to miss.

After a parking snafu, I finally found a place to park the car, and my daughter and I went to the stadium to watch the game. Northwestern played Ohio State close right up to the end, and lost when they couldn’t flea-flicker their way to a miracle finish. Clearly, the purple sunset hadn’t meant what I thought it did.

Northwestern went into a tailspin after the Ohio State game, and they haven’t won a game since then. They have one get left, against Illinois on Saturday. I hope they win this game, at least, to avoid the indignity of a winless season in the Big Ten. It won’t be the first time that has happened, of course, but once upon a time such losing ways were expected. This year’s collapse was completely unforeseen.

The purple sunset turned out to have a far different meaning than I had imagined. And the postseason bowl scene won’t have Northwestern involved, for the first time in a while. I’ll miss that part of the holidays, for sure, but then again it’s only a football team.

There are more important things in the world, as this year’s tornadoes in central Illinois have made abundantly clear. There are more than false omens that can come from the skies. If disappointment with my alma mater’s football team is all I have to feel bad about, I’ve got a very good life, indeed.

A long way from marshmallow fights

In just a few hours, the Big Ten football season will begin. As a Northwestern alum, football hasn’t always been something I looked forward to. In fact, the team in 2012 already has as many wins (four) as they did in my last three years there combined.

If there’s anything more painful in sports than watching your school go 0-11 for a season, as they did when I was a senior in 1989, I haven’t experienced it yet. No, wait, I’m a Cubs fan. Yes, I have experienced something more painful.

So the football team’s success is something I won’t ever take for granted. I also like their chances to do some damage in the Big Ten this year. Playing eight games over the next two months will tell the tale of where they stand, and then maybe they can win a bowl game, too. That’s the final frontier, as far as football is concerned

I always hear Pat Fitzgerald say this, so I might as well say it too,


Hanging 70

I’m taking a break from baseball today because, well, it is the offseason and college football is trying to fill the gap. Nebraska last played against my Northwestern Wildcats in the 2000 Alamo Bowl. I was excited for the matchup, but Nebraska just put it to the Wildcats in every conceivable way, and the final score was 66-17. Not exactly compelling television.

Nebraska has always been something of a bully in college football. I think I’ve only ever heard the term “hang 70” when it comes to Nebraska beating up on other teams that were not up to the task of playing at their level. It’s not easy to score that many points in a football game, and there’s always the urge to step off the gas and keep the score at a reasonable level (scoring 45 or 50 points is usually more than enough to win). So to score 70 you need the ability to repeatedly score touchdowns, and the indifference about how it looks to score so many more points than you really need.

UPDATE: Neither team hung 70 on anybody, but the Wildcats pulled off the upset and may have kept themselves alive for bowl consideration. There are three games left, and they’re all at home. Go Cats!

The best game I ever saw

I’ll never forget the first time I became aware of Northwestern’s football team. It was in the fall of 1982, so I would have been a freshman in high school. The announcers during one of the game breaks said “They’re going crazy up in Evanston, because Northwestern’s got the lead late in the game.” It seemed odd that winning a game was a news story, but I didn’t know that they hadn’t yet won a game in the 1980s. That knowledge wouldn’t come until later.

When it came time to choose a college, the importance of a school’s football program  didn’t matter at all to me. I had already graduated from what seemed like Football high school, and that was enough. So many other things were more important. It’s a good thing I felt that way, too, because the Northwestern football team won exactly eight games in the four years I was there.

During my final year on campus–1989–the team went 0-11, and routinely heard laughter from the opposing teams’ fans. It was sad in every sense of the word. So sad that we amused ourselves during games by throwing marshmallows at each other, to take our minds off the carnage on the field.  Those days are happily a thing of the past.

The 1995 Rose Bowl season was the year that Gary Barnett broke through all of the losing ways, and for the following year, all of the important players were returning. It seemed like another good season lay ahead, so my wife and I purchased season tickets for the home football games. It was, and still remains, the only time I’ve ever had season tickets for anything. But for a college football team that’s only six games, which won’t break anyone’s budget. And it would allow us to buy bowl tickets too, so why not?

The game that loomed largest on the schedule that year was Michigan. Michigan was the team that everyone measured themselves against back then. And Northwestern had beat them in the “Big House” the previous year, so there was some doubt that beating them twice in a row was possible.

Through the first half, and into the third quarter, the game was very boring. Michigan had a 16-0 lead, and was driving for what looked to be another touchdown. The Michigan fans, who were decked out in their maize and blue gear, as always, began to chant “Go! Blue!” It didn’t look good for the Wildcats at all.

And then the momentum swung in the blink of an eye. A Michigan receiver named Tai Streets, who was all-everything in high school and went on to an NFL career after college, had caught a pass, but coughed up the ball and Northwestern recovered. It felt like someone had lit a match among the Northwestern fans. From that moment, it felt like every play that Northwestern needed, they got. Third conversions, fourth down conversions, muffed punts by the other team, it was all going the Wildcats’ way.

Pat Fitzgerald, the defensive player of the year in college football and now the head coach of the football program, was going out of his mind, getting the entire team fired up. The fans were on their feet the whole time, too, with the feeling that the game could not possibly be lost.

The game came down, late in the fourth quarter, to a field goal to win the game. The Northwestern kicker made it, and pandemonium erupted in the stands. I had heard that term before, but it was the first time I had ever experienced it. If you’ve ever felt it before, you know what an indescribable rush it is. And if you haven’t felt it before, I hope you get the chance to feel it one day. It’s pretty special.

But there was a problem. The ball had been snapped too early, and so the kick didn’t count. When the explanation for what happened came, and it became clear that another kick would be needed, the fans immediately went back on their feet. The past disappointments of years gone by didn’t matter. Michigan’s standing as the bully who routinely ate everyone else’s lunch in the Big Ten didn’t matter, either. The team had come just about all the way back, and it wasn’t going to come up short this time.

When the kick went up again, and was good again, the ensuing second wave of pandemonium was even more intense than the first. We stormed onto the field, relishing both the sunshine and the glow of an improbable, yet somehow inevitable, victory. Coach Barnett had told Northwestern fans to “Expect victory” that season, and that’s exactly what we got. I’m sure that it will never get any better than that, and if it does, I probably won’t be there to see it.

There was another epic game in Evanston between Northwestern and Michigan some years later, with Northwestern winning the game, 54-51. Although the players and coaches from these games have all moved on, there’s some hope that this weekend’s matchup in Evanston will be exciting, too.

Michigan has returned to national prominence after the end of the Rich Rod era, but they haven’t yet played a game away from the Big House, until this Saturday comes around. Northwestern has lost two straight games, and doesn’t want another loss to go 0-2 in the Big Ten, right out of the gate. And Coach Fitzgerald can probably fire up his players as well as ever. So I’m hoping for a great game, even if I’ll be watching it from the comfort of my living room. Go Cats!

The game that matters most

This post isn’t about baseball, but college football, instead (impressive depth I’m showing, isn’t it?) I wanted to get these thoughts out before the Northwestern-Illinois game coming up this Saturday, which will have offenses moving in both directions for the first time in an NU-Illini game since 2009. I’ll probably turn last year’s Wrigley Field game into a post at some point, but it won’t be before Saturday, at least.

I spent my first 3 and a half years of high school thinking that I would go to college at the U of I in Champaign-Urbana. I cheered for their sports teams, and didn’t have the money to go to a private school or another state’s university, and that was just fine with me. The Orange Crush, Chief Illiniwek, the orange and blue colors, all of it was just what I wanted. If tatoos were the thing for high school kids back then, I’d still have a blocky orange I on me somewhere.

But fate changes things. I wasn’t meant to go to school at the U of I, even though it seemed like the place for me. My acceptance letter got held up for a week or two, and in the meantime I had to think about other places to go to college. I had gathered a stack of college applications from Career Days at my school, but was daunted by the fact that they all required essays and an application fee.

I decided to focus on one school, to save myself the trouble of composing multiple essays (there were no computers to save things on in those days, or if there were, I didn’t have one available to me). I also thought that convincing my parents to spend the money for one application fee would be hard enough, and any more than that wouldn’t be worth wasting any breath over. It just wouldn’t happen.

One of the applications, to Northwestern University in Evanston, also had a letter that had come to my house. They must have received my home address from my high school, or possibly from the ACT people. Nope, there were no emails in those days, either. It was a primitive time back then. I read this two page letter, basically selling the school and saying something to the effect of “don’t let the sticker price scare you away.”

This was important for me to know, because the first time I became aware of Northwestern was through a little throwaway listing of the “most expensive colleges” that appeared in Parade Magazine one weekend. A place called “Northwestern” was at the bottom of the list, and I don’t remember what the other schools were, but I could probably guess them if I had to. But Northwestern’s yearly tuition back then was five digits, and to a kid who thought $50 was a lot of money, any five digits you could throw at me seemed like too much.

So I filled out the application, convinced my mom to write a check for the application fee, and applied for an early admission decision. It was sometime in December, so I figured this would get it over with sooner rather than later. And I needed a deadline to get just about anything done, then and now.

In a matter of days, the acceptance letter from U of I arrived, and I remember how relieved I felt. I frankly even forgot about the Northwestern application, and reverted to my senioritis-filled final days at the high school I was now officially killing time at.

At some point in the spring, perhaps in late January, a letter arrived at my house from Northwestern. By that time, a housing deposit check had been sent to Champaign-Urbana, which–as soon as money started changing hands–meant that I was an official member of the Illinois class of whatever it was (the year doesn’t really matter, does it?) I opened the letter, and remember an involuntary jump in the air when I read the word “Congratulations!” I truly wasn’t expecting it, and haven’t been that surprised by too many things since.

To make a long story short–if it’s not already too late for that–the decision to go to Northwestern meant that I had to completely and thoroughly repudiate the orange and blue. The Chief and I? Splitsville, baby. Otherwise, it would have been second guess city there in Champaign-Urbana. I would have changed the name to Champaign-Urbana-ShouldaGoneThereWhenIHadTheChance. But that’s no way to live, is it?

So the other schools in the Big Ten (and strangely enough, there are eleven of them now) are fine, but only one school gets my interest for football and basketball games. The NU football team was awful when I went to school there, winning just eight games in four years. But two of those games were against Illinois, and I could live with that.

The game coming up this week, which usually ended the regular season for both teams, will now be the start of Big Ten play instead. Illinois is unbeaten, ranked, and playing at home. And they won convincingly last year, too. Northwestern has lost a game, isn’t even in the “also receiving votes” category of the polls, and hasn’t played a down with Dan Persa at quarterback since last November. With all that said, it’s still the biggest game of the year, and I like our chances. I have no other choice. Go ‘Cats!