When the Northwestern Football Class of 2009 stepped foot on campus five years ago, they entered a program that was just a toddler.
The new era had begun in 2006, the year that a young Pat Fitzgerald took over as the team coped with the sudden death of its former head coach Randy Walker. After a 4-8 record that first year, NU took its first baby steps the next season with a 6-6 record. Next came its first words, as it announced to the Big Ten that it was back—a 9-4 record in 2008 and its first bowl game since 2005.
Enter the class of 2009: Jeff Budzien, Davion Fleming, Pat Hickey, Mike Jensen, Damien Proby, Tyler Scott, Mike Trumpy, Timmy Vernon, and Brandon Williams.
All of those young freshman sat out that first year and began their playing careers in 2010, along with three other true freshman: Kain Colter, Will Hampton and Rashad Lawrence.
On the backs of these players, the program navigated its elementary school years: some periods of rapid growth and some stretches of growing pains as the team relearned how to handle winning and expectations.
Last year, they led the program to its first bowl victory in 64 years—a huge step in any young program’s life, but only the beginning of a journey to adulthood that will be paved with many more challenges and roadblocks.
This year, they hit those dreaded middle school years. Some may see it as a step backward, but everybody—be it 12-year-old kid or a college football team—goes through a period of doubt and decline. It takes a lot of trial and error to reach any level of steady success.
“I think number one, what will be a lasting memory for me is the job the captains and the leadership council and the seniors did in keeping this team together with as many tough punches as we took throughout the whole course of the year,” Fitzgerald said. “…This group, especially the seniors, have meant so much to the team off the field, from a work ethic standpoint, from a commitment to what it means to be a Wildcat.”
Last Saturday, that group of 12 played its last game at Ryan Field.
This Saturday, they will step onto the field for their last game as Wildcats.
The outcome of that game won’t define the legacy these seniors will leave. Their legacy is in the journey.
“This is all their last time to play for the Wildcats and to put on the purple and white,” Fitzgerald said. “So just enjoy the week. Embrace it, enjoy it and have fun.”