It is game week and we are ramping up towards the season opener at Cal this Saturday night (9:30 pm ct, ESPN2). However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take part of this post to take you inside last night’s LTP NU 2013 Season Kickoff Party. The ambiance was great, the excitement was tangible and the experience, was, well, better than I had even hoped.
We had a packed private room at the classy Howells & Hood restaurant which had about 20 screens playing the 2012 season highlights (h/t NUHighlights and Ronny and Ashley Z). LTP readers and NU fans were mingling, networking and imbibing. I met so many folks who, until last night, I only recognized by their email address, LTP flag submission or comment handle. It was awesome.
However, the main event is what really made the night so memorable. Halfway through the festivities I introduced former Wildcat QBs, Dan Persa (’08-’11), Zak Kustok (’99-’01) and Steve Schnur (’93-’96). They killed it. It was one of those “you had to be there” kind of nights. Each player mixed in sarcasm, dry wit, self-deprecation and humor to just the right beat. I had the pleasure of standing in front of the room, which had an open bar going at the time and not one person, not a soul, did anything other than concentrate their full attention on the QB trio.
Steve Schnur and I joked about the fact the incoming freshman class was born in 1995 so the continuing “I get to play the old guy card” angle kept coming up. To hear Steve talk about the ‘Cats Rose Bowl run and how they had to take school buses up to Halas Hall to practice because they had no indoor facility and they left for California for three weeks because of that same reason, just gave you the context of how far we’ve come.
Dan Persa told a heartwarming story about Randy Walker’s note of encouragement that he received two days after Walk had passed away. Persa’s affection for the Walker family was authentic and sincere and you can tell how grateful he is for the chance he had to play in Evanston.
Zak Kustok had fans in disbelief as he recounted his zig-zag tale of transferring from Notre Dame, to what he thought was Minnesota. Only, when he showed up on campus at Minnesota, there was no scholarship for him. He had convinced Gary Barnett to take a look at him and Barnett had verbally given him a greenlight, but literally on the way up to visit Evanston he turned on the radio and heard that Barnett had accepted a job at Colorado. Zak had to lobby Randy Walker and cornered him after his day one press conference at Northwestern and Walker told him to send him some tape. He left out the part about having to rack up 24 credit hours at Moraine Valley Junior College to expedite his transfer (enabling him to play after game four of 1999 instead of missing the entire season).
For fans, the individual stories of the moments you know so well, were the ones they’ll be sharing at the tailgates and on the golf course. Zak probably had the most detail behind those moments we know so well. Two seemed to stand out to fans.
First, in the famous 54-51 Michigan win in 2000, I set-up the scenario of how Damien Anderson had run for seemingly 1,000 yards in the game and that it came down to a fourth down, with NU deep in Michigan territory and the ‘Cats trailing 51-46. While everyone remembers the fact Michigan’s Anthony Thomas would fumble the ball, the inner circle of ‘Cats fans remember Zak hoisting a 4th down ball to the end zone, only for Damien to have a wide open TD drop through his hands. This is where Zak picked up the story.
Zak recounted how he knew Michigan was bringing the kitchen sink. He joked about the second he snapped it he ran backwards as fast as he could and just threw it to an area where he thought a receiver might be, because every Michigan player was blitzing. He fell to the ground and said he heard the roar of the crowd, but then, quickly, he heard it turn to a groan. His initial instinct was “that I threw it out of bounds. I couldn’t believe I didn’t give it a chance.” Then, as he headed towards the sideline he learned that Damien Anderson had dropped it. “I thought, well, I fell a little better that he dropped it than me throwing it out of bounds.” The place erupted. Zak then described he had to come up with something to say to the guy who had carried NU on his back that day. “I didn’t know what to say, so I just said “those f-ing lights suck” in reference to the Ryan Field temporary lights. Damien wasn’t buying it. Kustok then told us how he didn’t know what else to do, so he just walked up and down the sideline talking to the linemen saying “get ready, we’re going to get the ball back”. Zak confided in the crowd, he had no clue and was just trying to find something to say to a group of people who were giving him the eye roll. It was clear he really didn’t believe it at the time either. “I was never good at math and I didn’t do the calculation that Michigan could run out the clock”. Then, when A-Train fumbled, everyone on the team was ecstatic and seemed to be dumbfounded that Zak knew that was going to happen. Again, you had to be there to hear it.
Zak’s other story that really stuck was his recounting of the 2000 Wisconsin game in Madtown. He set the story up perfectly with a tale about Randy Walker having them walk on a 2X4 and how easy it was for everyone to do. Walk used to ask the players that if he lifted that same 2X4 100 feet, how many of them would trust themselves to do what had been easy moments before? Well, after taking the field to stretch on that day in Wisconsin, the players returned to the locker room to find a black shirt with the word “Trust” written across the chest. Walk asked every player to that t-shirt on under the jersey. The Badgers, the #6 team in the country at the time were in for a battle. Zak talked about the impact that had and the confidence that grew within the team within that game. It was the origin of the “Trust Yourself” black bar that Fitz holds up for his players before every single game.
As only Zak can do, he turned the story from one that was emotional and had fans eating out of the palm of his hands, hanging on his words, and he took a turn down funny street. Zak described how the game went in to 2OT and reminded everyone in the room “I was a junior in college, let’s not forget”. He talked about the huddle, right before the ‘Cats walk-off game-winning TD by Damien Anderson. Zak told the LTP crowd “I told the guys, let’s end this thing right here and we can get home and party. The parties will be a heckuva lot more fun with a win.” They did just that and when they returned home to Evanston there were hundreds of students, including many girls, waiting for the team. Zak described how the group of guys realized this was pretty fun and they better keep winning if they wanted more fun.
There were more stories and great moments. Each of the QBs told me how much fun they had hanging with the fans, networking and reliving some of the greatest moments in NU history. I’d especially like to thank Jeff Goodwin and James Klock, both of whom made significant contributions to help underwrite the party. I think we’ve cemented something pretty special and have a pretty high bar to eclipse in 2014. Thank you everyone!
Crunch Time Chat
With all of the LTP festivities, we have gotten a tad behind this week. Don’t worry, catch-up mode will be fun. Yesterday marked the first weekly Pat Fitzgerald press conference/teleconference and there are a ton of news and notes to highlight.
PRR weighed in on the depth chart yesterday, and I’ll do so tomorrow as I keep an eye on 2014 thanks to so many young guys populating the 2-deep. However, when it comes to true freshmen, Fitz was as direct as one can be when asked whether or not any true freshmen will appear on the 2-deep. “No”. Mike Jensen earning a starting spot at WR caught my eye. I know Fitz has been very high on him, but I didn’t know this high. Let the Zeke Markshausen one-year-wonder comparisons begin.
Getting Serious About Late Night
The game week preparations for Cal have been much discussed already. Northwestern, as you know, has moved its practice time to 9pm ct and Fitz is urging his players to stay up past midnight. The morning meetings have been shifted to late morning on the flip side. I thought it was neat to see how seriously Fitz is taking the physiology of body clocks. He mentioned yesterday that he had the McCormick School of Engineering design wrist devices that monitor every player’s sleep. It will be interesting to see how Fitz adjusts for the Syracuse game (5:30 pm ct kickoff). Yet another luxury of NU’s quarter system, which doesn’t have students starting class until September 24 and affords Fitz the ability to do whatever he pleases with the practice schedule.
Fitz commented on the linebacker unit, as WildcatReport.com’s Aric DiLalla pointed out. With the buzz surrounding Collin Ellis winning the starting nod at the SAM LB slot, Fitz was quick to mention that he believes he has four starters, including Drew Smith, who will get plenty of playing time.
ESPN2 Announce Team Announced
I really should chart NU’s success based on television announcer line-ups. The ESPN2 announce team for NU-Cal was revealed yesterday to the public. Mark Jones is on play-by-play, Brock Huard is color and Lewis Johnson gets sideline duties.