HELLO: Last Saturday, on the first play of his college career, true freshman Traveon Henry ripped down Ryan Field with the rest of the 'Cat kickoff team. Then, Pat Fitzgerald says with a chuckle, "He got his lips knocked off. He got double-teamed, lifted off his feet and knocked on his can, and he gets up and gets in on the tackle. That's kind of exciting for a puppy."
INTO THE MIX: Fitzgerald, throughout this season, has talked of building depth, of competition among his 'Cats, of running out myriad players to discover the best combinations for success. Henry, a 6-foot-1, 215-pound safety from Lauderdale Lakes, would have been in that mix from the start, but he was dinged up before the Syracuse game and so his debut was delayed. But now, after his three-tackle performance on the kickoff team against Boston College, he is firmly in the defensive backfield rotation and sure to see significant time there Saturday when the 'Cats meet South Dakota.
TRAVEON'S TALE: Both his parents are from the countryside in Jamaica. His dad, Stafford, immigrated when he was 20, his mom Yvonne did the same at 18, and they met in Florida and married. They, he says, are the reason he is a fighter.
"They've always had their backs against the wall," he explains. "But they've always showed me there's always a way out. You've just got to keep fighting, keep working."
No one from either parent's family had attended college, but they stressed education and made the necessary sacrifices to send him and his older brother Travis (who now plays football at Yale) to a private school (Pine Crest) where the tuition was some $26,000 annually. "They said they were going to make that investment no matter what," says Henry. "They said they were going to put education first no matter what."
He first played baseball and admits that "football came around because I wanted to wear pads, to be honest with you. Then I fell in love with the sport, eventually." In both his junior and senior years at Pine Crest, which is in Fort Lauderdale, he was named all-state in football and basketball. No surprise, then, that he was heavily recruited. His final choices were Florida State, Duke and Northwestern.
"The best of both worlds," he says when asked why he picked the 'Cats. "I wanted a great education and I wanted a winning program, a program that would develop me as a player, a student and a person." His friends at Pine Crest had no idea where Northwestern was located. "I always told them, 'A little bit north of Chicago. Come visit me sometimes. You'll see what it's about,'" he says.
And, no, he has never seen snow. "It's going to be an experience," he finally says with a smile. "I'm looking forward to it. But I've got to get the right jacket first."
THE APPROACH: Fitzgerald had been talking of his team's growing maturity, which led us to wonder this: could it prove that maturity by the way it handles its business Saturday against a FCS opponent like South Dakota? "I really don't care who we're playing. I don't think they care who we're playing," he said, starting off on a pointed soliloquy. "That's for you guys to talk about, for our fans to talk about. We talk about the young men we're competing against, their strengths that we see, who they are, what they do schematically. But. You know. Why would we play the games? We had no chance to beat Nebraska last year on the road. Why did we even go? We could have saved about $85,000. It's why we play the game. Look at the teams around the country. Anybody can win on any Saturday in college football. That's why it's so much fun.
"ULM (Louisiana-Monroe) has done a great job going to Arkansas (where it won) and Auburn (where it lost narrowly). Are they going to the SEC now? No. It's not going to happen. They just played two really good games. They've got good players. Everybody's got good players. Like the 10 Chicagoans (on South Dakota) who are playing against us Saturday. I promise you, they're going to be excited to play in front of their family and friends with a chip on their shoulder because it didn't work out here for all those guys. So you can keep going down all those roads with that, but if I said that to the team, they'd look at me and say, "Coach, I really don't care. So what?'
"We know what we need to do to get better. We watch ourselves on tape and we're critical of ourselves and that's going to continue, as long as I'm head coach, to be our focus because all the other stuff is completely out of our control. You know, I've got a bunch of fans who sent me messages, 'Aren't you mad that you're not ranked?' No. I don't really care. It doesn't matter. If it was me, I don't know why we rank anybody prior to October anyway. It's a waste of time. Wait until everybody gets into conference play for a few weeks. But even then I wouldn't give a crap if we were ranked or not. It doesn't matter. What matters is we start to play better football each week, and we have."
QUICKLY NOTED: Running back Venric Mark, who sat out the fourth quarter last Saturday against BC after getting dinged up, fully returned to practice on Wednesday and is good to go against South Dakota ... This is Joe Glenn's first season as head coach of South Dakota, his alma mater. But it is his 25th season as a head coach ... Glenn, parenthetically, grew up in Lincoln as a fan of the Bears ... The Coyotes have split their first two games, losing at Montana by 11 and defeating Colgate by 10 ... According to Fitzgerald, all 10 of the Coyotes from the Chicagoland area are on their two-deep roster ... One of those is redshirt sophomore wide receiver Terrence Terry, who played quarterback at Barrington High School. He switched positions only after Glenn took over and, in his team's first two games, has 10 catches for 146 yards ... The Coyote catalyst is sophomore quarterback Josh Vander Maten, who on the season is 24-of-34 for 274 yards and two touchdowns. He has also been picked twice. "Everything offensively starts with him," says Fitzgerald ... The Coyote starter on defense is 6-foot-5, 230-pound junior linebacker Tyler Starr, a pre-season All American with 15 career sacks. Speaking of that defense he leads, Fitzgerald says, "They've got every pressure you've seen."
AND FINALLY: On a lighter note, Henry, when asked if his Jamaican-born parents understand football: "My father gets it. My mother, well, she's coming along."