Sayin Goodbye Like Tevin Campbell: Mike Kafka.

A college athlete has a brief lifespan. Much like a roach when you turn on the lights top 25 college basketball ranking, as soon as you figure out who they are, where they're from, and what they look like, they're gone. Sayin Goodbye Like Tevin Campbell will examine the good, bad, and whimsical about the dudes we won't see again in purple. 

First up: Mike Kafka. 

(In case you're wondering: the name of the post comes from one of two places: either the song "Goodbye", by Tevin Campbell, which I've never actually managed to listen to all the way through, or from Inspectah Deck's vicious first verse from Protect Ya Neck:

Canon: It's hard to believe that the dude who piloted NU from under center in 2009 was the same dude whose primary skill in 2006 was not screwing up handoffs. 

Mike Kafka's career changed violently on multiple occasions. It started when he was thrust into the starting role in 2006, and, looked a little bit ill-equipped, to say the least. You'd think it would be hard to judge somebody whose main job was facilitating NU's TYRELL SMASH offense of the time, but it was clear he was out of sorts. Against the four out-of-conference opponents he faced, he still managed to toss five picks to just one touchdown. Yeah, he could run. But his arm wasn't much of anything. When he got hurt, he lost his starting job to Andrew Brewer, and then CJ Bachér, and nobody got nostalgic. His injury was a convenient way of allowing Pat Fitzgerald to bench him without having to get up on a podium and hurt anybody's feelings. 

Kafka festered on the bench for a few years, and didn't do anything in spot duty to make us optimistic about what would happen if CJ got injured. Sure enough, when that day came, Kafka came into the game in the waning minutes of a loss to Indiana, and managed to hurtle the ball backwards for a -24 yard fumble. Things looked BLEAK. Kafka had the starting nod next week, and nobody could have been particularly confident.

What happened that next week was my personal favorite football game I've watched as an NU student. 217 rushing yards - TWO HUNDRED AND SEVENTEEN - later, Kafka had high-legged the Cats to a victory over the then-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers. Yeah, he threw a horrendous pick six, but Crazy Legs was born. Northwestern had a new hero.

Sure enough, he ducked back into oblivion for the rest of the season, occasionally reemerging for a drive to do the "hey, I'm going to thro-OHWAITI'MRUNNINGIT" routine that no opposing defenses bought. With Kafka in line to start the next year, it was unclear what we had. Here was this guy who could juke Minnesota linebackers from one Twin City to the next, and who just maybe had the ability to drop in picture-perfect throws on fly routes to Jeremy Ebert for touchdowns, but seemed more likely to throw into double coverage. So who would we see? Kafka 1.0, the scared, deer in the headlights pick machine from freshman year, or Kafka 2.0, the dude with the blazing speed and a hint of an arm?

The answer was neither. The dude that emerged at starting quarterback was one of the better ones in recent Northwestern history. Kafka came back looking nothing like the guy who couldn't complete anything besides a handoff, looking deadly accurate on any throw under ten yards. After about nine weeks of convincing defenses that he could shred them for six yards on any given passing play unless they did something about it, Kafka began to show that he could air it out, too, comfortably connecting on passes of 30 yards or more. Your average NU game in the 2009 season saw Kafka with a 60 percent completion percentage and 300 yards passing. And he had eschewed the running game to the point that it was his secondary option: Kafka didn't have any games of more than 63 yards rushing or bust out any 20 yard runs. 

Anybody who had seen Kafka's previous body of work should be shocked.

Goodness knows I've been blogging about NU sports for nearly a year, and have done my darndest to avoid any and all Kafka puns. First off, they're not funny. Secondly, I've never read any Kafka, and woah boy, I don't plan on doing so anytime soon. Thirdly, everybody and their grandpappy goes like "HEY, KAFKA, I BET HE PLAYS QUARTERBACK LIKE A COCKROACH GUFFAW HE'S PRETTY KAFKAESQUE HOOOOOO DOGGIE".

But shoot me in the freaking head. Because I'm contractually obligated that the four-year transformation of the dude you couldn't trust not to throw a pick against a I-AA school in 2006 to the sprinting maniac to the crisp pocket passer is anything but - WAIT FOR IT - a Metamorphosis.

Go ahead. Shoot me.

Nicknames, proposed/actual: Crazy Legs, semi-accepted. Etymology: coined after Kafka's performance at Minnesota, in which his running most resembled one of those gazelles on Planet Earth, except it got away every time instead of being scarfed down by a lion. Actually has been used by multiple reputable sources.

Legacy: (I probably should explain: it's my personal theory that college athletes are in our mindsets for too short a time to get remembered for big picture things, like their skillsets, personalities, and whatnot: college players get remembered for moments, individual games, and just these quirky little achievements that allow us to see their name years later and remember that one exact moment. I'll try to pinpoint one for each of these guys.)

Kafka's defining moment, oddly enough, came before his season as a starter. I don't think I would've believed you that NU would pull out a win on the road, against the No. 17 team in the country, missing their starting QB and RB. And if you told me they would, I would've had to believe that it was because of some monster defensive effort, and to be certain, the defense was phenomenal that day. But Kafka vaulted himself from anonymous backup to campus legend by prancing around for three hours.

If I had to single out a career-defining moment, I'd point to the 1:58 mark. Not because that 53 yard scramble would be Kafka's longest career play from scrimmage, pass or run, but because it happened directly after ESPN ran a NASCAR promo, and the sound effect of stock cars Doppler Effecting their way around the corner continues as Kafka vrooms his way through open space for about 35 yards, untouched. 

Deep Thoughts: A debate I've started before multiple times is thus. In the long run, which scenario makes NU better off: four years of Kafka, for better or worse, or the two year CJ Bachér interlude?

I think it's hard to argue that Kafka isn't a better quarterback. He's more talented - faster, more accurate -, and by the time he graduated, was as polished as CJ ever was: less likely to throw into coverage, better at throwing for distance. But the Kafka that was playing when CJ ascended to the starters role was nothing like the final product we saw from him: NU's win totals were certainly better served by two seasons of CJ Bachér as the starting quarterback.

But I'd like to imagine how much better a QB Kafka might have been with an extra two years of game situations under his belt. It seemed to me that Kafka improved as he became more comfortable as his starting season progressed. With that little extra seasoning, perhaps a few wins under CJ Bachér in 2007 might have turned into a few more - perhaps even a bowl win - in 2010. 

 

Next up - Corey Wootton. Probably not for a while, though.

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