>Purple Mafia Profile – Zak Kustok


You already know I am biased for the Purple, but after today’s Purple Mafia guest, Zak Kustok, you’ll see why I now may be biased to vote for Zak Kustok as my favorite QB. Zak was the NU QB from mid 1999 through 2001 and has a Big Ten Championship (2000) to show for it. Stastically his 2000 and 2001 seasons are two of the top five alltime NU best as far as total offensive yards (3,272 and 2,894 respectively). Kustok’s combined 39 TD passes in consecutive seasons (2000 and 2001) are a school best (CJ needs 21 in 2008 to beat Zak). Zak, however, is synonymous with the 2000 season and the amazing come-from-behind Cardiac Cats year none of us will ever forget. Zak’s true impact takes place far from the statistical records as he was a ballsy, do-anything-to-get-a-first-down kind of QB rarely taking a slide and usually taking on defenders head-on. He is also the best fit we’ve had for the spread and arguably the most athletic QB we’ve ever had – and judging by the current QB poll, one of the most popular.

For once, I praise Notre Dame, as if not for Bob Davie’s astute judge of talent (sarcasm) we would not be having Zak as a guest today. Zak is currently working in sales for a medical device company, and was kind enough to give up some valuable time to appease LTP.

LTP: Symmetry can be a beautiful thing. I recently was grinning as Fitz was elected to the Hall of Fame in the same class with Lou Holtz. Considering it was the signature moment in Fitz’ career and the lowpoint of Holtz’ tenure, at the time, I found myself thinking there was no way I would have been able to resist joking with Holtz. Yet you went to the SAME high school as Fitz at a time when he was leading NU to national prominence. Tell us how your Sandburg HS-to South Bend-to-Evanston route worked.

Zak: I know that for a lot of the guys that came to NU in my recruiting class, they say that was the game that opened their eyes to the Northwestern football. I never grew up being an ND fan, and being a Sandburg student, I was pulling for Fitz and the Cats to beat the Irish. However, I committed to ND in the spring of my junior year at Sandburg and at the time, NU did not have an indoor practice facility and Coach Holtz was just too hard to say ‘no’ to. Coach Holtz left Notre Dame before my freshman year, and oddly enough, Coach Davie viewed me as their drop back passing QB and didn’t give me the opportunity to run the option, which is the direction they wanted to take their offense. I didn’t quite see eye to eye with Davie’s opinion of my running ability, having never been given a chance, so I decided to pursue my dream of playing college football elsewhere. That’s where the fun began. I left four games into my redshirt freshman year and was set to enroll at Minnesota, after being told that they had a scholarship for me. When I got there, they told me I could walk-on. I unfortunately can’t say what I wanted to tell them.

I then spoke with Gary Barnett and he had promised John Navarre that they wouldn’t bring in another QB. So NU was out. I found out through the NCAA, that if I took a year’s worth of classes at a junior college, that I would be eligible one year from when I left ND, so that’s what I decided to do (I took 24 credit hours in one semester) while looking for anyone that would take me. At the junior college, it was a very humbling experience trying to tell everyone why I left playing football at Notre Dame to attend the local junior college with no major football programs that wanted me. I told them it would all work out great, everyone thought I was crazy. Out of the blue, Coach Barnett called to offer me a scholarship because John Navarre had taken a visit to Michigan (ed note: speaking of symmetry, consider the fact that John Navarre was the place holder on the botched attempt for Michigan’s last-second FG in 2000!). I set up a meeting to go up to Evanston to talk with Coach Barnett, and that morning, as my dad and I got in the car to drive up there, it came across the radio that Gary was leaving for Colorado, so we drove up to Evanston anyway because they were announcing Coach Walk as the new head coach. I introduced myself for a few minutes after his press conference, and became the first player Coach Walker recruited to NU.

LTP: You have got to be kidding me. That is absolutely unbelievable. And to think there was a feature film made about a walk-on who made one stinkin’ tackle at Notre Dame. This is yet another movie plot…I’m going after you movie rights first! On we go…considering you and Fitz are both from Sandburg what is your relationship with #51 like? What are your thoughts on the current program and how much are you involved?

Zak: Fitz is just a great, standup guy, both on and off the field. He was the perfect hire for NU at a very difficult time for the program. For me, when I think of Northwestern football, I will always think of Coach Walker, but Fitz was the face of NU football in his playing days and is again as a head coach. He knows what it takes to win at Northwestern and knows first hand the high academic expectations set on the student athletes, which is just as important. I try to stay involved as much as I can, and make it to as many games as I can. My wife’s brother plays wide receiver at Minnesota (ed note: Zak’s brother-in-law is WR, Ben Kuznia), so we are at a football game every Saturday.

LTP: Glory days time. The 2000 season was truly a signature Cardiac Cats season. Improbable comeback wins at Wisconsin (down 3 with :51 left and won in 2OT), at Minnesota (Victory Right Hail Mary TD as time expired) and of course the Michigan (down 9 in 4th quarter) classic. When I say “2000 season” which is the first game that pops into your mind and why (I won’t take “all of them” as acceptable!).

Zak: All of them? Wow, tough question. Personally, the one the would pop into my mind for the longest time was the disaster up in Iowa City that kept us from going to the Rose Bowl (if they ever find a way to remove something from your memory, that will be the first to go), and then the following week, coming back and thumping Illinois to win a share of the Big Ten title. That was great because the starters were out the whole fourth quarter, and that was the first time all season that we were able to relax at the end of a game and soak in what was happening.

What truly made that year amazing were those comeback wins, and that is what everyone remembers. Any team can do it once in a season, but after three times, it’s hard for anyone to say it’s luck. If I had to choose a favorite game, it would be Michigan. It was at home. It was late in the year. Michigan had a bye the week before, so they didn’t have any excuses that they were unprepared for our offense. I always had a vivid imagination as a little kid, so when I would give the play-by-play of myself as a college quarterback while playing catch with my dad in the backyard, that is how it always went…. and it was usually against Michigan.

LTP: I’m glad you opened the door to Michigan. I’ve watched the 2000 NU 54-Michigan 51 game on YouTube 100 times (at least). One of the most unheralded plays is your amazing TD run in the 4th quarter. Tell me the specifics of a favorite play you were involved in at NU.

Zak: Thanks, I appreciate that. I am one of those guys that can remember almost every play, of every game, good and bad. I was on the phone with Lance Clelland (who had just recently done an interview for LTP) and he wanted to know what questions I had to answer. I told him this one, and he said he could hardly remember any plays as a player. I told him it was because on every play he had a 300 lb. D-lineman a few inches from his face so they all seemed the same. I didn’t want to break it to him that it was probably because he got hit in the head too many times protecting me, but that’s why I love him.

Of all my favorite plays, there are a few that stand out. There is nothing better in sports than the walk off win. In 1999 against Iowa, my first home start at NU, I ran in an option play on 4th down on the last play of the game. No one really ever brings up this comeback win because we had such a terrible season that year, but it was probably the most significant to me because it was NU’s first Big Ten win in two years and my first collegiate victory (ed note: NU won 23-21).

Second would probably be Damien’s 2OT touchdown run again Wisconsin. This is what started the great comeback wins of that year. In that second OT, we had the ball last and needed a TD to win. Wisconsin’s weakside LB lined up on the wrong side, I went up to the line to change the play, and as I was coming back to Damien I said, “Touchdown, let’s get the #%$! out of here”.

The other one was Victory Right in the Metrodome. When the play is memorable enough that every NU fan knows it by name, it has to be a good one. I unfortunately didn’t see it live because I was laying on the turf, but the from the highlight of it, it looks like it should one of my favorite. The pandemonium that ensued afterwards was definitely my favorite.

LTP:I’ve read several articles about how modest you are about your NU days. Tell me how often the NU stories come into your day-to-day?

Zak: Less and less every day. Apparently I’m getting old…

LTP: Since I know you won’t talk much about your accomplishments, tell fans about how Damien Anderson rates as a RB in your perspective. What was it about Damien that separates him from the pack? Any specific moments that still have you shaking your head?

Zak: The best. There have been a lot of great running backs at NU, and I don’t want to offend any of them, but there is no other RB that I would want standing next to me. Damien is just a competitor. We worked so well together because there is only one thing that we cared about, and that was winning. No one worked harder than Damien. If you were going to get in a street fight, you wanted Damien on your side.The thing that separated Damien was that every time he touched the ball, it had the chance of going for a touchdown, and many times it did. The Michigan game was the greatest performance I have ever seen by a RB.

LTP: I’ve got to ask. What did you say to Damien after the dropped TD pass that nearly marred, what you consider to be the best performance by any RB you’ve ever seen?

Zak: What do you say to a guy who has played his heart out all game and run all over Michigan? I said the first thing that popped into my head (this is the truth), “Those lights they brought in are complete sh*t. They’ll blind you when you look up. My bad for throwing it up into them.” Then I told the offensive guys sitting there to keep their heads up because we were going to get the ball back. Obviously, no one believed me (including maybe myself, but isn’t that what the QB is supposed to say?). That game just had that feeling though… I don’t want to say that God cared who won that game, but SomeOne was looking out for us! (Either that or someone made a deal with the devil in exchange for the Iowa game that year and the whole next season. Whatever it was, it was worth it.)

LTP: Agreed! And yet another reason to include the highlights of the epic game here….see you in a few minutes…

LTP: Attendance is down considerably from when you played. What do you make of it and more importantly, aside from a 10-2 season, what would you do to correct the trend?

Zak: One of my favorite stories from 2000… The night before our first game of the season against Northern Illinois, who was actually the favorite in that game, Coach Walk sat us down at the team meeting and told us not to be discouraged when we run out onto the field tomorrow if the stadium is only half filled. He went on to say that he promised by the end of the year, people will be lined up outside trying to get in to watch us play. Well, when we went out for that Northern game, the stands were half full. And as the bus was driving from the hotel the day of the Michigan game, there were people lined up from off the highway all the way down Central with “Need Tickets” signs. It gives me the chills everytime I think about it. The moral of this story is: WIN!!!

LTP:The 2001 season has to be a major disappointment to you. After starting 4-1, the Cats lost a heartbreaker at home to Penn State and went 0-6 the rest of the way. Damien was hampered by injuries, but what happened that season that let it slip away?

Zak: I am the last person that will ever make excuses and if I said that the 2001 season turned out the way I was hoping, I would be obviously lying. There is a lot to be said for confidence and momentum within a season. The funny thing about that season, for as disappointing as it looks on paper, it wasn’t a whole lot different than the 2000 season, except a few plays. In 2000, if you take out just one play from each of the Wisconsin, Minnesota, or Michigan games, and place them in the Penn State, Bowling Green and Illinois games of 2001, you could be looking at a flip flop in records for the two seasons. We did have some unfortunate situations come up in 2001, but I would never use that as an excuse for not winning. It really goes to show what a fine line there is between winning and losing.

LTP: Back to the positive! What is your relationship like with the NU QB club? Do you stay connected with the likes of Schnur, Basanez or even a CJ Bacher or are you simply tight with your teammates from your playing days like Lance Clelland?

Zak: Talk about a great group of guys and great QBs. I may be a little bias, but I can say this because they are all better than me, I’m not sure you will find a better group of QBs in a 12 year span at any other school in the country. I still see Steve quite a bit at football games, and he is definitely someone I looked up to and had a lot of respect for while playing. I probably talk to Brett the most. I just went to his wedding a couple weeks ago and he came to mine back in March. Coach Fitz had me stop in and talk with the QBs last year, so CJ emailed me after the Ohio State game last, and I gave him what little words of wisdom I had. We continued to email each other throughout the season, or rather I continued to congratulate him on his great games. He is going to have a great season this year.

I was fortunate enough to meet and take a picture with the greatest NU QB ever, Otto Graham, at the Alamo Bowl. I still have it in my bedroom. I just got married at the end of March. Lance Clelland was my best man and Austin King was one of my groomsmen. Eric Worley, Billy Silva, Napoleon Harris, Derrick Thompson, Jon Schweighardt, Carl Matejka and Dave Wasielewski were all there, along with Baz. Looking back, the best thing about Northwestern football, better than all the great wins and Big Ten Championship, is that I got to play with the best group of guys in the country. That is what I feel most fortunate about.

LTP: The magic Purple football is yours. You have the ability to go back and change one thing about your NU experience. What is it?

Zak: I am of the belief that in order to change one thing, it will change the course of everything else. So for this average sized (with a below average arm) kid who grew up throwing the ball in the backyard, dreaming of beating Michigan in the final seconds, I can honestly say that I wouldn’t change a single thing that happened. I truly feel so lucky and blessed to have had the opportunity I did and play with the teammates that I did.

But, in the fun of the magic Purple football game, I will play along….It was shortly after the ’99 season, and I lived with seven other football players. We were having a little “get-together” at our house and there was this freshman former Miss Teen Minnesota cross country phenom who was also there that I had a little bit of a crush on. Now if the magic football could have made me a little smoother with the girls, I would have just asked for that, but I’m not sure its powers are that far reaching. So in my attempt to talk to her (and trust me, I did not bring up football or being the quarterback after the embarrassing year we had), she informed me that she was very impressed with my running skills and ability to run the option, but she was not at all impressed with my throwing ability and didn’t think I had a very good arm. Talk about a kick in the …. and from a freshman girl no less. On some level, the truth hurts. I mean I read that all the time in the Daily Northwestern and heard it from the coaches, but none of them were good looking. That was my real motivation for the 2000 season.

All I am asking of the magic Purple football is enough spirals and a few more completed passes in 1999, nothing game changing, for a freshman track star to have gone on a date with me. I know our offense wasn’t very good, but is that too much purple magic to ask for?

LTP: Zak, that is a hilarious story. At the risk of throwing any journalistic objectivity out the window, I have to tell you, as a happily married man, I feel that you are about to do severe damage to your newlywed status here. Are you OK with me printing this?

Zak: Yes! Here is the punchline – the hottie is now my wife. After seven years went by, she finally agreed to go on a date with me. Apparently, she lowered her standards and realized that my throwing arm wasn’t such a big turnoff that she couldn’t get past it.

LTP: You are mean. Here I am sweating it out and you had me all along. Goes to show you what a Big Ten title can do not only for the resume, but for life improvement! Zak, this is phenomenal stuff, we’d love to have you back sometime soon.

  • Look Good In Purple

    >Thanks, Zak. Great Purple Mafia Profile, LTP. I voted for ZK as well. In my post college days, I remember huddling with the purple faithful in New York City to watch those games. I have wonderful memories of watching Zak scramble for a first down. He made those days in NYC that much more enjoyable for me. Oh and I have a soft spot in my heart for Sandburg grads since my wife is an alum!

  • NUCubs

    >LTP – You made my morning! Very entertaining. Thanks, Zak!

  • Lake The Posts

    >@thank Zak…not me. Quite the interview wouldn’t you say? My 2 favorite parts – the crazy backstory on getting to NU and the comments to Damien after the dropped pass.

  • carlton

    >Great interview. Anyone who’s met Zak knows that he’s a nice, down-to-earth guy. But he was also one hell of a QB and a great field general.

    Good luck to you, Zak. Hope that you can stay involved with the program.

  • buckyor

    >Zak is probably the best NU quarterback since my days at NU. (Better even than Randy Dean from my hometown of Whitefish Bay.) But it was good to see him give credit to the greatest NU QB of all time, Otto Graham.

    No offense to your earlier PMPs, all of which have been good to excellent, but this one is the best so far. I don’t know Zak Kustok outside of watching him play, but he certainly comes across as a very decent guy. Gotta say that’s not what I was expecting.

    Now I have to watch those videos again.

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