This is the self-portrait running back Jacob Schmidt drew through his first two seasons with the 'Cats, and that is why his failures early last fall were as unexpected as one of the Kardashians actually accomplishing something. For here he fumbled in the opener against Vanderbilt and then, a week later against Illinois State, he fumbled again. Never before in his career had he put the ball on the ground and even now, when asked if he can explain what happened, he will simply shake his head and say, "No, I can't. It was as big a surprise to me as it was to anybody. I pride myself on doing stuff right and having the trust of the coaches to go in there and do what they want me to do. So when I started putting the ball on the ground, I was the hardest on myself. I was down for a couple weeks in a row."
Did that fumble play with his mind during the off-season?
"Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I thought about the fumble everyday. You know. The Big Ten Network replays games and if that game was on, I'd say, 'Turn the channel. I can't watch it.' Even if it's in the third quarter and I'm already injured, I can't watch it because that was a bad memory. But I guess it served to help me too. It fueled my off-season work."
Adam was the oldest and next there was Jacob and after him came Jordan and Nathan. They were the Schmidt brothers up in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, and, remembers Jacob, "If we weren't fighting, we were out in the yard competing, playing football or basketball or baseball. Something. Growing up, we played sports our whole lives, so competing was just ingrained in us from when we were real young. At the end of the day, we loved each other. But we got into it and we brought out the best in each other."
Did they ever get into it, we wonder, at the dining room table and fight over who would get the last piece of meat?
He laughs. "No. Mom usually made enough meat to go around. But we did have our scuffles."
Did your dad ever have to separate you?
"Oh. Definitely. More than once. And it was always mom yelling, 'Here comes dad.' It got to the point where we didn't care. We were just going to keep fighting no matter what."
This is why those fumbles so played with Jacob Schmidt's mind. He is, at root, a competitor in the vey best sense of the word. This is also why, after collecting 11 varsity letters in four high school sports and getting scholarship offers from Division II colleges, he chose to pay his own way and be a preferred walk-on at Northwestern. Now he was spitting in the face of long odds. Now he was setting off on an arduous journey that promised no reward. Now he was embarking on a trek that would most certainly not deliver that immediate gratification so coveted by so many in this era of instant messaging and instant coffee and instant mashed potatoes.
"Number one, he was tough, he was tough," 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald says when asked why he chose Schmidt as a preferred walk-on. "He did a lot of stuff on the tape, so we thought he could definitely have a role in the kicking game. Then, where he went as a tailback, would be determined by his strength and speed."
"To be honest, I'm a competitive person," Schmidt himself says when asked about taking on such a daunting challenge. "When I sat down and decided I wanted to play big time football, I was going to go DI and if that meant walk on and prove myself and earn my spot on the team, then that's what I had to do. So, when I met with Fitz, NU was the perfect fit. It was academics. It was big time Big Ten athletics. And it was a challenge. I'm a competitive person, like I said, I'm goal oriented, so when I set that goal to come here and make the team and contribute, I embraced that challenge."
"My initial goal," Jacob Schmidt is saying, "was to come in and prove myself, prove I belong. As a walk-on, nobody expects anything of you. So to come in, to prove that you deserve to be here and play at this level, that was my initial goal. From there, once I did that, it was to contribute, to get on the field anyway possible."
What, in his mind, did he have to do to prove he belonged?
"I had to, one, be quiet. I had to, two, learn the system fast and, when I got my chance on the field, I had to prove that I knew everything and could compete. One of the worst things you can do as a young guy is come in and talk and sort of get ahead of yourself. Older guys don't like that. You come in, be respectful, learn the system, do things right, they respect people on the field, not what your high school credentials were. So at the end of the day, my walk-on status didn't really matter. As long as I came here and proved I belonged, that's what mattered."
When did he finally feel he did belong?
"At the end of (redshirt) freshman year of camp. Our first game, I can't even tell you who we played that year, I earned special team practice player of the week that week. That meant a lot. That meant the coaches noticed me, the players noticed me, I came out and worked hard and, again, I proved that I belonged. To get that award was sort of 'You did it.' You made it, but now the real work starts."
Did he ever get discouraged on his long journey?
"Discouraged? No. Was I ever challenged, was I ever second guessing maybe a little? Yeah. Because it is hard work and when you come in as a no name, you've got to earn your way up the ladder. But as I said before, I'm competitive and that was just a challenge to me and, at the end of the day, I was going to overcome that."
Fitzgerald often says one of the hardest realities for young players to grasp is just how hard it is to succeed at this level. Is that something Schmidt had to learn?
"It's not something I had to learn. Coming in with a chip on my shoulder, I knew it was going to be a long journey. I knew that with each success there was going to b a setback. If you were successful once, you had to work that much harder to be successful twice. And, yes. Some guys don't get that. Some guys'll go out and have a great game and think they're good, and two weeks later they don't play well and all of a sudden they start creeping down. They don't know what it takes to work each day, week in and week out for each opponent, and to thrive."
Jacob Schmidt has never stopped working, has never stopped competing, has never lost touch with that piece of himself that was formed in his family yard and in those scuffles with his brothers. He received a scholarship in September of '09, emerged as part of the 'Cats running back rotation that same year, but even now, on the cusp of his final season in Evanston, he labors with the diligence and determination of the scrappy walk-on. "You can feel the clock ticking down," is what he will finally say here.
"We've got a great group of guys, a huge fifth year class, guys that I came in with that have played a lot and contributed a lot and won a lot of games. But nobody cares what you did in the past. People care about what you do for them right now and we're looking to have a big year. So we're excited. We're getting to game week soon and we're excited. We're looking for big things."
You say "we." What about you?
He smiles broadly and then he simply says: "I'm incredibly excited."