He has long dreamt, he said often this season, of playing college football. But not until he viewed the 2006 Rose Bowl did 'Cat true freshman superback Dan Vitale appreciate the special nature of the postseason. That affair matched Texas and quarterback Vince Young against USC and running back Reggie Bush, and even now Vitale will say, "I remember that game perfectly and how it finished up. That's when I got into the whole bowl-season thing as a young kid."
And now that he is part of a bowl-bound team?
"It's a cool feeling, seeing that on TV and knowing that I'm there now and, as a true freshman, being able to go to a different state and play in a game like this. It's crazy, especially at this school where we haven't had a bowl win in a while. It's crazy knowing that we get that shot (to end the drought) and I get to be part of that."
For Dean Lowry, the true defensive end, the postseason epiphany came later, came as he watched the 'Cats do battle with Auburn in the 2010 Outback Bowl. "That's the one that stuck out for me," he remembers. "After that, I was really interested in Northwestern. (I liked) the way they played and the intensity they had, that never-give-up mentality. So that game definitely sticks out for me."
And now that he is part of a bowl-bound team?
"At the time (he watched the Outback Bowl), I thought there was a chance I could do that. But I never really quite thought it was going to happen. So I basically dreamt about it and thought if I kept working hard, good things would happen. Now, it's crazy. We're playing in a really great bowl game in Florida, great weather. You can't ask for much more."
David Nwabuisi, the senior linebacker, certainly remembers his first postseason experience. It came when he was a redshirt freshman and the 'Cats were matched against Missouri in the 2008 Alamo Bowl, where he spent much time meandering around San Antonio's River Walk and engaging his school's fans. "It was a fun environment. It was a good time as a freshman," he recalls.
But his experiences changed as the calendar flipped forward and the 'Cats moved on to that game remembered by Lowry, then on to the TickeyCity Bowl against against Texas Tech, finally on to the Meineke Car Car Bowl of Texas against Texas A&M. This bowl game, then, will be Nwabuisi's final rodeo, and he pauses for a heartbeat when asked about that stark reality. "Last go 'round," he then says. "I'm sure it's going to be a little bit the same and a little bit different. I know it's my last one. Every time we've gone down there (to a bowl), we've gone with a mission. We've always prepared to win, we've always prepared to go down there and do our best. But this is my last one, so really, I mean, I'm probably a lot more determined than ever."
'Twas the week before Christmas on Tuesday morning, which the 'Cats spent practicing for their Jan. 1 meeting in the Gator Bowl with Mississippi State. This reality has long been part of Nwabuisi's holiday season, yet it was something very new in the lives of Dan Vitale and Dean Lowry. The former, a year ago, was coming off a loss in a state high school championship game and, he recalls, "Obviously I was very disappointed in how my senior season turned out. But I feel I had moved on at that point, and it was the time to get ready to get here [to Northwestern]. So I was definitely lifting as much as I could, trying to get as big as I could."
"Last year," remembers Lowry in turn, "I was just relaxing and just kind of hanging out. This year it's totally different. You wake up every morning, you've got to get up, and you go to work. It's a grind. But it's all worth it."
They will grind once more on Thursday, the 'Cats' last practice before disbanding for the holiday, and then Vitale will travel to his family's home in Wheaton, Lowry to his family's home in Rockford. But even then, as they celebrate the season with the ones they love, their experiences will be very new, will be very different from any in their collective past. "All the focus is on the game right now," explains Vitale. "Obviously, Christmas is a huge day and being a very devout kid as I am, I'm going to put my focus on Jesus once it comes to Christmas. But other than that it's strictly business. I'm definitely focusing on the game these few weeks."
"I'll cherish the time, being home with the family," Lowry says in turn. "But you'll think of football still. You're on vacation, but you have to still be of the mentality that you've got to play a game in a week. So you've got to stay on edge."
"It's cool. We get to go home," says Nwabuisi, the old hand. "But you've just got to make sure you don't make the mistake of forgetting you've got a game in a week. So you go home, but you've still got to work out. You ask coaches for DVDs you can put up online so you can watch film while you're home. You've got to stay into it even when you're home around all your friends and your family. Enjoy your friends and family. But separate a little time in every day for football."
Dan Vitale is a stripling, a true freshman about to play in his first bowl game. But since way back in training camp, since that day in Kenosha when fifth-year running back Tyris Jones gave a speech and exhorted all 'Cats to think of themselves as fifth-years, the young superback has performed with just that mentality. Now, with one more chance to end his school's bowl drought at hand, he will say, "For those guys, this is their last game, and I'm going to treat it like it's my last game as well. Put myself in their shoes, play like it's my fifth year. You know, this is the winningest senior class in school history and I'm sure they want to go out with a bang and a bowl win. We're going to get that win for them."
"You can see it in their eyes that they want to win this game, that we have a great chance to win this game," Lowry will add minutes later. "Us underclassmen, after how much they helped us go through the process, we want to get that win for them. It's important for us to do that."
"But it's not just about us. It's about everyone. It's everyone on the team," Nwabuisi, a fifth-year, will say when asked about that. "You can look at some of the younger guys and they want it just as bad. Everyone wants to be part of that team that ends that bowl stretch for this program. It's not a weight on our shoulders. It's more exciting. We get to go down in history as the team that ended the bowl drought. That's how I look at it, and I think a lot of fifth years and a lot of my younger teammates look at it the same way."
Does that drought eat at him, we wonder now.
"It doesn't eat at me. It's not really something I worry myself with," he firmly and finally declares. "I'm just worried about this year and, at the end of the day, I have a strong belief in this team. I believe in my teammates. I see what we've got. We've got a strong team this year. We should have done a lot more this year, and the way we go out and prove that is we take care of business in this bowl game. And we will."