Nov. 10, 2010
By Skip Myslenski
NUsports.com Special Contributor
They are older now and wiser and Saturday, before they face off with Iowa in their last game at Ryan Field, the 'Cats' dozen seniors will be honored and feted. But. . .
"I remember reporting," remembers one of them, the wide receiver Sidney Stewart. "My mom crying, my family crying, my girlfriend crying. Just craziness, you know. Being alone for the first time. Not knowing where to go, what to do, not having any friends. It's a long time from there to now."
"I definitely remember that," says another, the defensive tackle Corbin Bryant. "Meeting Sid, Sherrick (McManis), all those other guys, how we just jelled together, how we always hung out, things like that. It was like your first day of school, meeting all your new friends. You don't know anybody, but we were lucky to come in with a great group of guys."
They came in and they met and they did more than merely say hello. Like all curious teenagers, they also sized up the competition, checked each other out, looked their friendly rivals up and down. . .
"Of course, of course. I had to do that," remembers Stewart with a chuckle. "I had to see how tall people were, how big they were. I even looked up everybody's highlight tape from high school. It was a good time. But at the end of the day I realized we were teammates. We were going to be competitive, but we've got a long road. That road is almost over."
"Yeah. Yeah. Me, personally, because I only played one year of high school football," says Bryant. "I'm like, 'Man, let me see how big these guys are. Let me see if I can actually compete with these guys.' I was definitely a guy who checked things out. But then I was like, 'Man, I should be good.'"
They all had been more than good back in high school and, through the previous summer, had trained assiduously for what laid ahead. All, of course, felt they were buffed and well-conditioned, but then came their first experience with the conditioning test. . .
"That was the worst experience of this entire four-and-a-half years. The worst experience," remembers Stewart. "We ran it inside, back when it was turf inside. It was terrible, man. All the freshmen ran it together. We didn't have anybody to pace us, any of the older guys. So we all just took off as fast as we could, which is not what you're supposed to do in a conditioning test. You have to pace yourself, obviously. So it was terrible, man. People threw up. It was just terrible."
"It was one of the worst things I ever experienced," says Bryant. "I didn't know what to expect, but I thought I was in great shape. I was up here the whole summer working out with the team. I don't know what happened. I ran as fast as I could, but I just didn't make it. Everybody in my class failed it. It was a shocking thing to us. It was like, 'Man, if we can't do this, how can we do practice?' But we stayed the course and got better."
Now the course of that learning curve they were on took them 50 miles north to that place called Camp Kenosha. . .
"That was difficult too," remembers Stewart. "They had a little prank on the freshmen where everyone just started yelling at us. We're like, 'What did we do wrong?' They're, 'Line up.' We did down-ups, we ran drills, it was like 100 degrees. Corbin, I looked up and Corbin, he's about to pass out. Body cramps. It was terrible, man. But it was a long time ago. Growing pains."
They, all of the dozen who will be recognized on Saturday, have come far from those first experiences. . .
"It's amazing how much we've been through," says Pat Fitzgerald, who himself was a rookie head coach during their freshman season. "All the guys, like I said (Monday), it's a heck of a story. They're all a chapter and a book. Yeah. I'm extremely proud of them. They're one win away from being tied with last year's class as the all-time winningest class in program history with three left and hopefully a fourth. So they've got an opportunity to kind of write their legacy of being the most-successful class arguably in the history of Northwestern football."
But they are still authoring that legacy and now, with the games dwindling down to a precious few, they are going about their business driving even harder than they have throughout their career. . .
"I've known this time was going to come, as everybody does. The 'After football, what next?' kind of thing," explains Stewart. "But as far as finishing up, yeah, there's definitely a heightened sense of urgency. Just understanding time is running out. You say that in your third year and don't believe it. Fourth year comes, you kind of see it, but not really. But now that I've got three, four more games left, whatever it may be, it's a little more real this time."
"My goal when I came here was to be the best player I could be," says Bryant. "I didn't have a lot of experience when I came in, so I just worked my butt off. I got hurt a couple times, but I just kept on bouncing back, working hard, and trying to learn stuff the best I can. I've been able to be pretty successful out there, and I'm going to try to go out this weekend and play the best game I've ever played in my life. . . We've done a lot of great things in this program, but we're not satisfied yet. . . We've got to put it in the present and finish this season strong."
Their finishes, the last two weeks, have not been strong, yet lessons learned on their mutual journey have buoyed them and propel them still to persevere. . .
"A lot of things I learned I can take with me for life," explains Stewart. "As it pertains to football, knowing that everyday there's going to be an opportunity to get better. As long as you're willing to learn, as long as you're willing to flush bad situations, there's always going to be an opportunity to get better. That's going to go with me in life no matter what I choose to do. Never give up. Keep persevering."
"To always play tough in every situation and to always keep your focus," says Bryant of the lessons he has learned. "Sometimes we get down in games and we just can't lose our focus and say, 'Aww, it's over with.' We've come back in so many games and it's all because of how tough our team is and how focused we are on finishing the job."
On Saturday, for the last time, they will do that job at Ryan Field. But first, before they go to work, each of the dozen seniors will have his name called and he'll take a last walk and. . .
"It'll hit me," says Stewart. "When my parents are out there, standing with me, knowing they've brought me this far and it's almost over. Obviously this isn't the end of life by any means. It's the next chapter and we just have to turn that page and be able to look on this time and be proud."
"I've just been taking it one day at a time," says Bryant. "But now that I look at it, it's going to be tough not going to these stadiums every year and not playing at Ryan Field. I've just loved playing here so much, I didn't really want to think about the ending."
And, yet, it was only yesterday. . .
"Oh, yeah," says Stewart, and his smile is beatific. "It's been crazy, man. Crazy. A long road."
"It does seem like yesterday to me," says Bryant. "I've been here for a long time, but, you know, it's kind of bittersweet that it's coming to an end. But everything has to come to an end someday, so I'm just going to try and finish it strong."
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