This New Year's Day, I will be proudly watching my favorite College Football team, the Northern Illinois University Huskies play Florida State on ESPN in the Orange Bowl. Just typing that sentence is crazy and awesome because of all of the things that happened to lead up to this game.
For me, this story starts in 1997. I remember being in my room, watching college football on a Saturday when my mom walked in and telling me what she thought was good news. My god-cousin, Vince Thompson, was getting a full ride to NIU. I remember feeling my face drop and if I was swearing back then, I'm sure the first words out of my mouth would have been "You gotta be fucking kidding, right?" but in '97, the first words I uttered was, "They Suck!"
Vince was a multi-sport star athlete and top student at St. Rita High School in Chicago, A Catholic League powerhouse for football (and the shithole I would end up stuck in a decade later) With his great grades and even better on-field numbers, I thought for sure he was a shoe-in to go to either Northwestern or Purdue (which made since because he was into engineering as well) or any other Big 10 or even Big East schools (When the Big East had decent football programs like Syracuse and Miami)
I found out later that he went to Northern for 2 reasons, It was a full ride and he was rejected from Northwestern and Purdue as far as athletic scholarships due to his size (As a Cornerback/Wide Reciever and Return man, he was only 5'7" and 155, very short and small for a D-Back going up against wideouts 6'2" and up)
Despite this, it was still going to be cool to finally get to go see some Division 1-A college football live. Me and my folks and my god-uncle and his wife would load our cars up with food, pop and booze and make the near 3-hour trip to DeKalb and watch the Huskies, well, Pretty much get their asses kicked every home game the first years in 98 and 99 (they were 0-11 in 1997) But this team started showing small improvements, They had some solid players such as WR P.J. Fleck (Who ended up having a cup of coffee with the 49ers for a year) and O-Lineman Ryan Diem (Who went on to be a Super Bowl Champ with the Colts) They also had a power run game led by Thomas Hammock, who would have been a serviceable back on Sundays had he not had a heart condition that ended his career. My Cousin wasn't too bad either, Leading the Mid-American Conference one season with 5 Interceptions and was mentioned as a player to watch out for in 2002 for the Nagurski Award.
The Huskies had started to win a few games here and there along the way, and once Vince graduated from NIU in '03, they had a blueprint to draw with for the future. Power running football with a solid defense that can make key stops and takeaways. They made a big jump and splash in 2003, beating Maryland at home in OT on regional TV, then beating ranked Alabama on the road (No easy task the last 20 years) and also beating Iowa State. It was weird to finally see NIU games on TV every other weekend and hear ESPN mention them in the polls and on broadcasts. They even cracked the bottom of this newfangled system they call the Bowl Championship Series for a week. Then they lost some conference games late and that was the end of it. The 2003 team went 10-2 and didn't even get invited to a bowl game. All of the hard work and dedication those men put in went for nought.
However, Under the leadership of Coach Joe Novak, this club kept winning and eventually made it into some mid-level bowl games. They were turning out some key players too such as Running Backs Garrett Wolfe and Michael Turner, both having good careers in the NFL. They hit a bump in the road and had a bad year in 2007 and Novak decided it was time for a change. He retired and the team signed long time successful coach at Southern Illinois, Jerry Kill.
J. Kill made a significant impact right off the bat in DeKalb. They made it to 3 straight bowl games and was now mentioned year after year in the Chicagoland area right along with the Northwestern's and Illinois's of the state. After dropping the 2010 MAC Title game, and 2 weeks before a bowl bid, Jerry Kill took off and left to go to Minnesota (Big mistake on his part and the Gophers part) and ended up signing coach Dave Doeren to head the team.
Doeren finally did what J.Kill couldn't and Joe Novak never could have imagined in 2 seasons. NIU finally won the MAC Championship Game last season, beating Ohio on a last second field goal. They finished 11-3 and won another bowl game. This season, with the arm and legs of QB Jordan Lynch, The Huskies, after dropping a close game against Iowa at Soldier Field, went on an absolute assault, crushing everyone the rest of their season, winning a second straight MAC Title, and because of how bad a ton of big schools were this year along with good programs facing bowl bans, The Dog finally got it's shot. Northern Illinois is about to play a meaningful New Year's Day Bowl Game versus a big conference school.
So while Kirk Herbstreit can be a conceited prick and think that this game is a "Joke" match-up, the System that he and so many of these brainless assholes in college football thinks works to pick a National Champion, is why NIU is in the Orange Bowl. But in reality, it's way more than that. It was the work of Tons of Players, Coaches and Staff from the last 15-16 seasons that made this happen. Guys who went un-noticed and never made a dent in any draft talks, Guys like Doug Free, Dan Sheldon, Vinson Renyolds, Steve Azar, Chandler Harnish, Benji Peacock, Chris Finlen, Marlon Rucker, Darrell Hill and Vince Thompson. Guys who weren't exactly Blue-Chip recruits or 1st Round Picks, but men who played their hearts out and transformed a shitty football program at a western suburban college outside of Chicago, into a school that could change the landscape of midwestern football in the 21st Century. This bowl game is for those guys who worked and bled and made strides but never made it this far. And while my God-Uncle is no longer here on earth with us, I know he'll be looking down in Miami January 1st, wearing his Huskie fleece pullover, watching what none of us ever thought would happen back in 1997.