On the first day of the New Year, my alma mater, Northwestern University, ended a 64-year drought by winning the 2013 Gator Bowl. I started at Northwestern in 1994. I picked NU for the rich academic curriculum, distinguished Radio/Television/Film program, and proximity to home. (I wanted to go away, but not be too far from home). I did not pick NU for the sports. Routinely finishing last in the Big 10, the football program was dismal. My first year, students could attend games for free, but because the team was so bad, very few NU supporters (students, alums, or Evanston locals) went. Fans for the visiting team almost always outnumbered NU fans. Many of the black students (at less than 10% of the college body, there weren’t that many of us) would go and sit together on 50-yard line chanting along with the other NU students “That’s alright, that’s okay. We’re gon’ be your boss some day” and the taunting cries of “State School” at the University of Illinois, Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan State games. Yes, we were sore losers.
Coach Gary Barnett started a year before me. When he was introduced to the NU student body, he declared that he was taking the purple (Northwestern’s school color) to Pasadena (the Rose Bowl). But at the end of his first football season, Northwestern lost to every Big 10 opponent and finished last in the conference. My first year was Coach Barnett’s second and I saw that he was clearly something special. I loved listening to the football players talk about Coach Barnett’s motivational techniques. He not only coached his team, but he encouraged and inspired them. He dreamed big and he instilled that dream, that drive, and that determination into all his players and staff. At the end of his second year, the team beat two Big 10 opponents, but again finished last in the conference. Even though the team’s record wasn’t great, hope and change were in the air. It was like all the football players had a fire burning in their bellies and they told everyone that next year would be different.
The start of my second year, the school announced that games would no longer be free for students (new price was $10) and the assigned seats on tickets would be strictly enforced. Students laughed at the idea of having to pay to see the football team lose. The first game of the season was at Notre Dame and NU was a 28-point underdog. Northwestern hadn’t won an opener since 1975 and Notre Dame hadn’t lost one since 1986. My girlfriend Angie (who was on the NU LadyCats dance team and dating a football player) and I were supposed to go, but my mom’s car had mechanical trouble as we were about to drive down so we watched the heart-stopping game at my house. It was a close and hard fought game and we were thrilled as our friends and classmates beat Notre Dame 17-15. It was incredible and Angie and I knew that everything the football players had been saying about this year being different was about to come true. The seats at home games were full with NU supporters and the stadium staff actually had to enforce the assigned seats ticket policy. NU ended the season with a 10-2 overall record, 8-0 conference record, and an invitation to the Rose Bowl. (I think Angie is still mad at me that we missed the Notre Dame game, but she got to perform at the Rose Bowl so she’s alright.)
NU hadn’t won a bowl game since the 1949 Rose Bowl. In 1995, Cinderella was finally asked back to the ball. USC was a powerhouse, but everybody loved rooting for the underdog. We hoped. We prayed. We played hard, but lost 41-32. It was a hard loss, but still a fabulous season and there was always next year. The following year, NU had another great season and another loss at the Citrus Bowl. In the subsequent years, there have been nine bowl appearance and nine losses, until this year. On January 1, 2013, the Northwestern football team won the Gator Bowl ending a 64 year drought.
As Murphy's Law would have it, this is the first year that I didn’t watch the NU bowl. Nevertheless, I jumped for joy when I got a text that my beloved Wildcats had achieved this monumental goal. Can you image what it’s like to want to bring honor to your institution and program for 64-years? Can you imagine how it feels when no matter how much you win during the regular season you end each year as another notch in a losing streak? Can you image being the butt of jokes and a bad sports statistic for so long? Well not any more. Northwestern WON! What a great way to start 2013! What a testament to the adage that if at first you don’t succeed, you try, try again!
I decided to take this milestone to heart. This year, as trials come up (and they will) and when I find myself facing some of the same tribulations that I’ve faced before (and there will be some repeats), I will remind myself that if the NU football team can crush a 64-year streak, then I can make miracles happen in my life too. I’m a Wildcat. I bleed purple. I was proud of my school before, but I’m energized and inspired by it now. 2013 is the year to dream big, work hard, and turn those dreams into realities. Happy New Year!
Deanna Burrell is a Northwestern graduate and the author of the explosive novel, Single Girl Summer.
Find out more at http://www.singlegirlsummer.com.
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