Four years and a lifetime ago

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I remember it well, that New Year’s day in 2010, when Northwestern played the Auburn Tigers in the Outback Bowl. It was the first bowl game of the day, and I was ready for it with a mountain of alcohol. It was rare for me to start drinking before noon, but this was a big game and, well, football. That was all I needed, really.

By the time the game had ended, with Northwestern losing in overtime, I was already hammered, and the day was just getting started. By the time the last game ended late in the evening hours, I had watched a ton of football and consumed a ton of alcohol. The two had a symbiotic relationship with each other, to be honest about it.

I haven’t had a drink on New Year’s day since then. I’ve also just about cut television out of my life since then. New Year’s day this year consisted of two or three plays of the Wisconsin game (whichever bowl game it was) and–much more importantly–no alcohol whatsoever. It’s a decision that I’m comfortable with, because beer and television once had a long run in my life, and now I’m on to something else. Everything changes, after all.

Here’s to another year with little television, and even less liquor. And also to another year of wondering how I ever lived that way. I have no desire to go back to it, that’s for sure.

A trip through the past

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Every few months, an issue of the Northwestern Alumni magazine arrives in my mailbox. Some issues I scrutinize more than others, but I always try to look through it at least a little bit. I appreciate all of the effort that goes into putting it together, after all.

Specifically, I check to see the notices about marriages, births (both of which are rare for my class anymore) and death notices. Typically it’s a professor that I had in one of my classes, but I always check for the general student listings, too. I’d hate to see anyone I knew very well listed there, and so far I haven’t. But today’s issue did have someone from my class listed, and this caught my attention.

This was someone who left her home at the same time I did, who walked the campus when I did, who got her degree the same day that I did, and now, as of last September 10, she is no longer with us on this earth. I didn’t recognize the name, but I felt compelled to find out more about her.

I went to the Freshman Facebook (and yes, we did call it that) that Northwestern compiled for all of its incoming freshmen. In these days of social media, I’m sure that it’s no longer necessary to do this, but I hope the school still makes an effort of some type. All of those scared and anxious 18 year-olds–who are going to have their lives changed over the course of  their years on campus–need something to get the ball rolling in the way of introductions.

I got out my old facebook, looked up my recently deceased classmate, and realized that I had never met her at all. Perhaps we were in a class together at some point, or our paths had crossed in some other way, but I had no idea who she was. I learned that she was from Vermont, though, and this intrigued me on some level.

Northwestern, like all the other top schools, prides itself on its diversity. And diversity is exactly what I–and a lot of the others in my class–desperately needed to have. Over the first 18 years of my life, I knew my little slice of Springfield, Illinois quite well, but I knew nothing beyond it. I had never met a New Yorker before, or a Texan, or anyone from Cleveland, or Minneapolis, or Chicago. And I got to meet all of these people and more in the time I was on campus.

I once wondered a great deal about the world beyond my hometown, and four years as an undergraduate at Northwestern exposed me to people and ideas I had never encountered before. And it sounds trite, but it made me a better person. I’ll be forever grateful to have had the experiences I did while on the Evanston campus.

The Vermont thing made me curious as to how many of my classmates (there were over 1,000 in all) came from Vermont. So I started with the As, and began paging through, looking for anyone who came from Vermont. Along the way I encountered old roommates, and people who lived in my dorm, and girls I had crushes on and could never talk to, and people I would know from classes or activities on campus. It felt as though I had time-warped back to 1986 for an hour or so.

As I moved through the alphabet, page by page, I knew that I was going to get to my own entry, in about the middle of the book. I even gave some thought to giving up, rather than come face to face with the guy I used to be. But I was committed to seeing my research through, and I stopped long enough to consider what got me to the point that I was in the facebook to begin with.

At that moment, I realized that I never applied myself to studying as much as I should have, and yet I did fairly well, and I uncorked an admissions essay that must have made an impression on someone who read it. I like to think I wrote my way into a top-notch university, and then wrote well enough to hang around until I graduated four years later. And nobody can ever take that away from me, either.

I finished up with the book, after much contemplation and reflection about the fleeting nature of the college years. It was an important time when I transitioned to adulthood and went out to face the world, and all of my classmates did the same thing. And I felt exceedingly fortunate to be the one looking for a deceased classmate, instead of having someone else looking for me.

I hope that she (and I’m refraining from using her name, to respect her privacy) had a good life, filled with things that made her happy. I wished that for everyone I encountered in the book, whether I knew them or not. I’m sure there are some others who are no longer with us, and that our ranks will only get thinner as the years go by. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote in “Slaughterhouse-Five,” and so it goes.

And to answer the question that drew me in to begin with, there were two of my classmates who hailed from Vermont. On the other end of the spectrum, I’m sure there were homerooms at New Trier that had more representation in my class than the state of Vermont did. But Northwestern could say, truthfully, that Vermont was indeed represented in its Freshman class that year. How well-represented is another story. But they had more Vermonters (if that’s the right term) than any other school I would have gone to, and that made the exercise seem worthwhile for me.

Purple Pride, win or lose

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Image from Flickriver.com

Last night I went to see my daughter in Romeo and Juliet. She’s an amazingly talented kid, and I marveled at her and the others in the cast. In just a few weeks, they’ve come together from all different places and brought this story to life. We give teenagers a bad rap sometimes, but knowing there are kids like this out there, who are willing to put their time and their energies into pulling this off–and without being paid to do it–leaves me very hopeful for the future.

As I was getting ready to attend opening night last night, I pulled on a purple Northwestern sweatshirt. I’ve always been proud of my alma mater, because it’s one of the best universities on the entire planet. Everybody says that about their own school, of course, but there’s evidence to support this, too. When people hear about colleges and universities, they usually associate the schools with their football team. Or maybe their basketball team. But the assumption–unless you’re MIT or an IVY League school–is that you’re only as good as your football team. Or maybe the school only exists to provide another college football team to the world. Neither of these is the truth, of course.

I didn’t put on my Northwestern sweatshirt to represent the football team, either. I’m genuinely proud of where I went to school, as everyone should be proud of the school they attended, wherever and whatever it is. Education is a sign of achievement, and if you’ve reached a level where a school grants you a degree or a diploma, go ahead and tell the world about it.

The football team was miserable when I was on campus in the late 1980s. When I was a senior, in the fall of 1989, they didn’t win a single game. So to see them resurrect the football program, under the masterful leadership of Pat Fitzgerald, has been gratifying to see. They’ve finally won a bowl game, even, and this fall should be one like I never thought I’d see.

I can’t wait to see what happens on October 5, when the B1G (or the Big Ten, for an old-timer like me) sees its game of the year played in Evanston when Ohio State comes calling. But win or lose, I’ll still wear the purple proudly. I’d much rather win, of course, but nobody wins all the time in life. Thank goodness nobody loses all the time, either.

Purple Reign

NCAA Football: Illinois at Northwestern

In anticipation of this year’s Super Bowl in New Orleans, Rolling Stone put together a list of the Top Halftime shows from years gone by. The top show, at least in my opinion, was Prince’s turn at Super Bowl XLI in Miami. In case you’ve blocked it out over what happened to the Bears on that day, here’s a quick recap:

Fireworks and pyrotechnics; two fine-looking dancing women; jaw-dropping guitar work; a marching band; some shadowy images of Prince’s, should we say, unique guitar; and a hypnotic, show-stopping finale; all against the backdrop of a healthy rainstorm.

In short, Purple Rain was performed in the purple rain. How does it get better than that?

Since watching this performance again online, Purple Rain has been stuck inside my head for nearly a week. And it was against this mental soundtrack that Northwestern University and the Chicago Cubs announced a partnership that will significantly raise the profile of both parties in the years ahead. It certainly points toward some very good things in the near future..

Northwestern could never build a 75,000 seat football stadium on Chicago’s North Shore. The neighbors wouldn’t stand for it, and the Wildcats’ fan base, as supportive as it is, sometimes struggles to fill up the 50,000 seats of Ryan Field. But who needs to do that, now that the Cats have access to iconic Wrigley Field?

And don’t think that this recruiting tool is going to go unused, either. What high school prospect–when faced with making the biggest decision of his young life–won’t jump at the chance to step onto the field at Clark and Addison? And who among us wouldn’t do the same thing, if we had that chance?

This arrangement, along with with the new sports facility being planned along the lakefront on Northwestern’s campus, is a sure sign that Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald isn’t going anywhere. That’s going to be another huge advantage Northwestern will have in recruiting during the years ahead.

When Notre Dame gets back to work next summer–seeking to quickly get to Manti Who?–they will be dogged by questions about Brian Kelly’s future. He’s already interviewed with an NFL team, after steadily rising through the coaching ranks in college. It’s naïve to think that he’ll be at Notre Dame long term. From watching how the annual Gary Barnett Soap Opera played out in the late 1990s, I can confidently say that one or two years of that will be more than enough for anyone in South Bend.

Bret Bielema, who seemed to be Wisconsin’s coach for the foreseeable future, has flown the coop in Madison for the greener pastures of the SEC. Urban Meyer, who will have National Championship pressures for however long he’ll be at Ohio State, is something of a coaching nomad, himself.

And then there’s Coach Fitz. You may recall how he first put Northwestern’s football program back on the map, as a player back in the 1990s. As an alumnus, and a tireless ambassador for the school and the program that he has built, he has the unwavering support of the University, the Athletic Department, and the student body. There’s no chance of him leaving anytime soon, and that stability means everything for teenagers who don’t want the rug pulled out from under them. That’s exactly what happens, whenever a head coach moves on to someplace else.

It’s taken several years, and many disappointments, but things are now falling into place very quickly for Northwestern football. With a bowl victory, a loaded team coming back in the Fall, a respected head coach, a new training facility on the drawing board, and an arrangement to play in Wrigley Field in the future, a golden age of Wildcat football seems to be just a few months away. It could even end up as a Purple reign.

Doing it the right way

September brings the return of football season. Baseball had the sporting world to itself in July and August (with the exception of the Olympics and a few sports that not too many people care about), but those days are gone now.

Yesterday was September 1, and football season began with college games. The NFL, which I stopped caring about in the late 1980s, starts play next weekend. But for now, there’s football in the air, for the first time since the end of the Super Bowl many months ago.

The only college team I can get worked up over is my alma mater, the Northwestern Wildcats. When I was at school there in the late 1980s, they were as terrible as a football team could be. The marshmallow fights that raged in the student section during the games were more interesting than anything on the field. Jangling your keys during a kickoff (and there were many of them during a typical game) was a chance to participate in the action in some small way. And I can’t remember which team’s fans started laughing at our team’s ineptitude after running a long touchdown play, but it really doesn’t matter which one it was. Hearing their laughter in the first place was bad enough.

In the four years that I was an undergraduate, the football team won eight games. Eight wins is a disappointing year for some football teams, but that’s all I got to see in four years. Two of those wins came against Illinois, so it’s not all bad, I suppose.

Things have improved dramatically since then, starting in 1995. Pat Fitzgerald will be around as the coach for many years to come, and he’ll keep the football program moving in a direction that’s both competitive on the field and successful in the classroom. He’ll make sure that the “student” part of student-athlete comes first, as it should be.

So playing, and winning, a road game against Syracuse yesterday was the best start to a season that can be anticipated. It was apparently an exciting, even thrilling, game to watch, but I was out with my family and have to learn about it through second-hand accounts in the news. Win or lose, I’m proud to be affiliated with a school that does it the right way in college football. Now bring on Vanderbilt!

Go Cats!

As a Northwestern alum, sports are not always a happy topic of conversation. Yes, the football team is a long way from the days of marshmallow fights in the stands. That, and tailgating, used to be the only thing to look forward to on a Saturday afternoon when I went to school there. But they can’t quite get over the hump when it comes to winning a bowl game. It’s great to play in bowl games in the first place, but the annual losing of a game to start the new year off is tiresome.

And the basketball team, well, let’s say if you can’t get to the NCAA tournament after having two very good four-year starters (Michael “Juice” Thompson and John Shurna), it’s not looking good for the near future. Every year they win a game against a ranked opponent, and get the conversation going about whether this will finally be THE YEAR, and every year there’s a flameout in the Big Ten tournament, followed by an NIT berth, and sometimes not even that. That, too, is getting to be very old now.

But what’s not old is the success of the women’s lacrosse team. They’ve won six national championships in the last seven years, and are going for their seventh title in eight years tonight. (UPDATE: They won. It’s now seven titles in eight years). If winning is important, I suggest this is a better place to focus attention than football or basketball.

To be better than every other team in college athletics, in any sport, is a tremendous feat. There are many more schools playing the games than there are championships to be had. So why does Kentucky and their One-year-and-then-off-to-the-NBA basketball team deserve so much attention? Or the Whichever-school-from-the-SEC-wins-this-year football champions mean more than all the others? Colleges weren’t meant to be a developmental league for the NFL, the NBA, or any other sport. So why have they become that, over the years? It’s only because we have allowed it to be such.

I’m not a lacrosse fan, in the least. But I’m happy that, whenever someone wants to hold out athletic success as a gauge of a college’s worth, that I can point to a program that hasn’t just won over the past few years, but has dominated their sport to a degree that few others have ever done before.

So I wish the best to the Wildcats’ lacrosse team as they take on Syracuse for the national title this evening. Win or lose, they’ve already represented my alma mater quite well to the sporting world, or at least the part that cares to look in that direction.

Welcome to college

I remember the day I left home for college very well. After 18 years of living in my parents’ house, and seeing very little of the world outside of Springfield, Illinois, I was finally able to make my break. I wasn’t going that far away, geographically speaking. In truth, I wasn’t even leaving the state of Illinois. But I was leaving, and once I did that I realized that there wasn’t any going back. And that’s exactly as I wanted it to be.

All of my clothes were packed up, along with the typewriter I had received as a high school graduation gift. I may have been the last American teenager to get a present like this, but it was mine and I intended to use it. I really had nothing else to call my own. So my parents loaded us into our Chevy Impala for the drive northward toward Evanston, Illinois.

When we arrived on campus, my father stopped some students in the parking lot of my dorm to ask where Bobb Hall was located. I nearly died of embarrassment, since this was a college campus and asking for directions wasn’t cool. But on the other hand, the sooner that I got to the dorm, the sooner my college career could begin.

My dad parked the car, and everyone grabbed something to bring inside. Of course, I felt like all eyes were on me, and I was being judged by the older students who already knew their way around the campus. I was nervous and excited and terrified, but I was determined to let none of those emotions come out. Just act cool and everything will be OK, I told myself again and again.

Bobb Hall was, and still is, a dorm populated mostly by Northwestern‘s freshman students. It’s also the biggest party dorm on the campus, but I didn’t know that yet. All I knew is that it was going to be my home from that day until next spring, and that was good enough for me.

I knew that my room number was 104, but beyond that I had no idea of what to expect. Would it be more quiet than noisy? Would there be people there that I couldn’t stand? And where did the girls live? When you’re 18 and about to be turned loose into the wider world, those were the questions that needed to be answered.

When I got to my room, I paused for a moment. On the door there was a piece of construction paper with my name, my room number, and a cut-out from Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are“. Not some obscure philosopher, but a character from a children’s book. I immediately told myself that everything was going to be all right, and it was. I felt like I was at home.

Bobb Hall, and the neighboring McCulloch Hall, was indeed a wild place to spend my eighteenth year. There were many rumpuses there over the  course of the school year. My grades suffered as a result of this, and that might be the closest thing I have to a regret about my college years. But Maurice Sendak‘s characters effectively welcomed me, and my fellow dormmates, to college for the first time, and for that reason they will be with me always.

A voice to remember

I remember it like it happened yesterday. I probably begin a lot of posts in this way, but this memory is especially vivid.

It was February of 1986, which was my senior year of high school. My father had agreed to drive my sister and I up to Evanston, Illinois the next day, since I had been accepted at Northwestern (more on that here), and I had to give them my decision by March 1. It was one of my last remaining days of high school, and instead of roaming the halls I would be on a college campus instead. That was a very big deal for me.

Watching the Grammys, on a Sunday night that felt like a holiday in some sense, I saw–and heard–Whitney Houston for the first time. She looked positively stunning, but somehow she sounded even better than she looked. It hardly seemed possible for any person to have a voice like that. It was sweet and powerful, in equal measures. My words alone can’t really do it justice, so watch the clip above and hear it for yourself.

As my father drove our rusty, light blue Impala northward the next day, on a trip that was to ultimately change my life, I heard Whitney Houston’s voice inside my head and realized that the future held great things for her. And for several years, I was right about that.

I had nearly forgotten, as all of the madness swirled around her in later years, how amazing her voice was. But hearing the news of her passing on the radio, followed by the inevitable tribute songs, brought it all back to me. As Jackson Browne sang in one of his songs, “That girl could sing. She could sing!”

I never really was a Whitney Houston fan, because teen-aged males weren’t allowed to publicly say that. But I realize now, as I did back then, that her voice was indeed something special. And for the next few days, I’ll be hearing a lot of it on the radio and on TV. But for me, at least, it can never sound any better than it did inside my head, during that car ride from many years ago.

A memory of Sandberg (and Sundberg)

The first of my mini blue helmets goes to reader Chris, who indicated that he wanted to hear a story about Ryne Sandberg. He didn’t say that in so many words, actually. He just gave me Sandberg’s name, and I’m taking it from there.

You might think that there’s not a lot that can be written about Ryne Sandberg that hasn’t already been said–he’s a Hall of Famer, with his name and number on a flag hanging from a foul pole at Wrigley Field, and soon to be the Cubs’ new manager (I hope, I hope). I’ll let better writers than I am go on about those. But here’s a story that has never, ever been told about Ryne Sandberg, and will never be told again. So get comfortable as I take you back in time for a little bit.

It was the spring of 1988. Wrigley Field was still the only ballpark that didn’t have lights (but that would change in a couple of months). I was a sophomore at Northwestern, and my class schedule had been carefully chosen so that my afternoons were free and clear. I think the content of a class, or the professor who taught it, was secondary in those days to when the class actually met. If only we could always pick the schedule that we want.

The el that was a block or two from the campus, and was always ready to take me into the city of Chicago. It’s a large, vibrant, and diverse city, and one day it would become my home. But at that time in my life, the city for me consisted of the general vicinity of the corner of Sheffield and Waveland Avenues on the North side. And that’s where I was headed on a sunny Friday afternoon.

I usually sat in the bleachers, because the tickets cost less than 10 dollars, but on this day I was sitting on the first base side of the grandstand. I went with some people from my dorm who hadn’t been to Wrigley Field before, and I was showing them how easy it was to get there. I was being a tour guide, of sorts. Taking them to attend services at an urban cathedral! Yeah, that’s the ticket!

What I remember the most about this game was that it was the first time I ever noticed Wrigley Field doesn’t have a jumbotron. It didn’t have one then, and it doesn’t have one now. I’d like to see that change, but the matter isn’t really up to me, either.

At some point during the game, I went to get some hot dogs or whatever else there was at the concession stand (I wasn’t yet 21, and didn’t feel confident enough to try getting beers at the concession stand. They card hard, you know). As I was walking up the stairs to my seat, I heard a  loud roar. I came up the steps in time to see Ryne Sandberg crossing home plate.

I sat down in my seat, distributed whatever food I had acquired, and lamented the fact that there was no replay at the ballpark. If you miss something, well, that’s just too bad.  Pay closer attention next time. A lesson learned, I thought to myself.

The next inning, I was engaged in a conversation with somebody about something when I heard a loud crack of the bat. We all got to our feet and watched the ball disappear into the bleachers, and I had missed my second home run of the game. Again, no replay for me or anybody else who wasn’t watching. But at least the runs still counted.

The player who hit the second home run was a catcher named Jim Sundberg. I found it interesting that their last names were just one letter apart from each other. Sandberg and Sundberg. It sounded like a law firm or something. But they both hit homers for the Cubs, and that was enough to make me happy.

It wasn’t until I googled Jim Sundberg, in preparation for writing this, that I learned just how different these two players were:

  • Sandberg was a long-time Cub who got all but one of his career hits with the team, while Sundberg played just a handful of games over a season and a half with the Cubs.
  • Sandberg was a National Leaguer for his entire career, while Sundberg played all but 85 games (in a career that lasted nearly 2000 games) in the American League.
  • Sandberg won an MVP award in 1984, but not a World Series title, while Sundberg never won an MVP award but did win a World Series with Kansas City in 1985.
These players have also taken different paths since their playing days ended. Ryne Sandberg has positioned himself as a future major league manager (hopefully for the Cubs), while Jim Sundberg works in the front office of the Texas Rangers, where he spent most of his career.
Although the two players had similar last names, they didn’t have too much else in common with each other, save for the fact that they both homered in a game at Wrigley Field in 1988, and I managed to miss out on seeing both of them. But at least I got a story to tell out of it. And I would suggest that’s better than seeing two home runs, anyway.