Dan and Tommy Vitale are different in many ways.
First, and perhaps most obvious, Dan is entering the final year of his collegiate career while Tommy is still a high school senior. Dan, the quintessential people person, has never met a stranger, whereas Tommy is a bit more reserved when you first meet him. Dan lines up at superback, while Tommy prefers the defensive side of the ball and primarily plays linebacker.
But it's their commonalities that have cultivated a friendship that both describe as the strongest they've ever known. One passion, in particular, has united the two brothers throughout adolescence: football. They are three years apart in school--close enough to hang out and have similar interests, but just far enough in physical development to prevent them from ever playing on the same football team.
That's all about to change.
This fall, Tommy, a member of the 2015 recruiting class, will enroll at Northwestern and join his brother Dan, a superback entering his senior year, on the football team.
Neither can contain their excitement. And can you blame them? The Vitales are about to live out every pair of brothers' dream, really--to be able to play the sport you love with your brother in front of family and friends.
"I'm so pumped," Tommy says with audible enthusiasm. "We talk about it everyday, we're always texting, talking about it constantly."
Dan, too, isn't afraid to vocalize just how much it will mean to him to finally get to lineup alongside his brother.
"The situation couldn't be any better," Dan says. "We live 45 minutes away. It's not only good for my parents, but for my grandparents, who are getting older, my cousins... everybody can come out and see us at some point."
While their football journeys have brought them to common destination, their paths to Evanston were unique. Dan, who became a Northwestern fan after one of his middle school coaches flipped his allegiance from Notre Dame to the Wildcats, made it known from a young age--freshman year, his mom recalls--that he'd one day play Division I football. Despite his conviction, it seemed like anything but a certainty at the time.
"Danny told us at the age of 14: 'I will play football and get a full ride to Northwestern,'" says his mother Lisa, a former neonatal nurse at Loyola University Medical Center who retired three years ago to take care of her parents, the same ones Dan is so honored to play in front of. "Now, mind you, when he said that he was about 5-foot-8 and not more than 135 pounds."
But the Vitales are hard working, self-driven people, and Dan worked his tail off, kept his grades up and, probably most importantly, grew. A lot. He's blossomed from that scrawny, 5-foot-8 high school freshman to a 6-foot-2, 225-pound superback who has started for Northwestern since his freshman year and has realistic hopes of setting the all-time Northwestern record for receptions by a superback/tight end.
"They are stubborn in the sense that when they decide what they're gonna do, they will do everything in their power to reach their goal," Lisa says.
Many in the Vitale's circle assumed that Tommy, as the younger son, would, of course, want to follow in Dan's footsteps, that his goal was to play Division I football just like his big bro. But unlike Dan, Tommy wasn't outwardly vocal about wanting to play football in college.
"He would always say, 'I'm not going to play football in college, Danny works a full-time job. I'm just going to go to California, lift weights and just go to school,'" Lisa remembers.
But perhaps that's just what Tommy told other people. If you ask him, he'll tell you that he did indeed look up to his brother, and that Dan's success provided inspiration; it helped him realize what was possible if he paired his size and natural talent with the kind of hard work essential to accomplishing anything great.
"I've always wanted to catch up to him, I've always looked up to him," Tommy says. "I've looked up to him knowing what I can do if I work hard like he did. That was always a huge part of my motivation to keep going."
When it became clear that Tommy had Division I talent and his recruiting began, a sizable elephant-in-the-room symbolically became a reality the Vitale house. Both Dan and his parents believed in letting Tommy make a decision for himself, sure. But Dan's love for Northwestern, Evanston's proximity to the Vitale home in Wheaton, and the Vitale parents' respect for the coaches made Northwestern a natural preference.
"We (my husband and I) said privately, ‘oh my gosh, wouldn't it be awesome if Northwestern gave Tom an offer and he took it?' That was the pie in the sky dream."
Yet Dan and his parents both bit their respective tongues and let Tommy go through the recruiting process independently, even reminding him constantly not to let Dan's presence at Northwestern affect his choice. After all, Dan and Tommy would only be together at Northwestern for one year, as Dan will graduate in 2016 with a degree in Economics before ideally embarking on a career in the NFL.
Still, the Vitales privately hoped that Tommy would choose Northwestern for the right reasons. In the end, he narrowed down his options to Northwestern and Syracuse, and a visit to Evanston in the spring proved to be the difference. When Pat Fitzgerald offered Tommy Vitale a scholarship, he made a point to tell him that he wasn't doing so because of the Vitale name. "This isn't about your brother," he said. That struck a note with Tommy, and after just a few hours of consideration he decided to give Fitzgerald his commitment.
Lisa remembers the details of that fateful day as though it were yesterday, re-telling the events with the pride you'd expect the mother of two Division I football players to have.
"Tommy told us, ‘this is right. I know this is right.' Then he went with Danny to go tell Coach Fitz, and my husband and I did a happy dance. We didn't want anyone to pinch us, because if it was a dream, we didn't want to wake up."
If you ask Tommy why he chose Northwestern, he, like the vast majority of Northwestern athletes, cites the unmatched student-athlete experience and the unique balance of elite academics and Big Ten sports. But after just a bit of prodding, Tommy admits that, although he didn't push Northwestern on him at all, Dan's being in the program certainly didn't hurt Northwestern's chances.
"I'd be lying if I said it didn't affect me at all," he says. "I had that inside look and had been around the program for what felt like my entire life, so it did have a part in my decision."
Another factor in Tommy's decision was the character of Fitzgerald and his staff, who were straightforward during the recruiting process and whom the Vitale parents wholeheartedly trust. After all, they wouldn't have given Northwestern a second son if they didn't.
"I always tell people, if I can't be there to mentor my sons, these guys are the guys you want mentoring your sons," Lisa says of Northwestern's coaches. "They are the real deal."
The Vitales won't be the only pair of brothers on Northwestern's roster this season, as the Queiro and Dickerson brothers will too suit up in purple next fall. But they will be the only pair of brothers this season--and in recent memory--that play opposite sides of the ball. Furthermore, superbacks and linebackers are often grouped together in practice, so it's reasonable to assume that there will be an all-Vitale open-field collision in the near future.
Despite having three years on his brother, Dan says that Tommy is just as big and strong as he is, referring to his little bro as a "BA dude."
"He can probably give me a run for my money in the weight room and on the field, for sure. It'll be interesting once he gets here. We're on opposite sides of the ball, so it should be fun."
But will Dan let his little brother take solace from dorm life in the house he shares with other upperclassmen, even after competing head to head on the practice field?
"Oh yeah, hopefully all the time," he says with a smile. "It'll be great to have my best friend back."