I've been covering Northwestern football games since my very first week at school. I probably should have been out at a party, or making friends in my dorm, but instead, I hopped in my grandpa's car and drove to Champaign at 5 a.m. — witnessing my first sunrise over Lakeshore Drive — to watch NU lose to Illinois in a 38-35 thriller.
A lot has changed on the field since then. Northwestern no longer wears Adidas uniforms. Dan Persa is long gone from Evanston. Ron Zook is no longer the head coach at Illinois. And fans no longer go to Illinois games.
A lot has changed in my life, too. Inside NU wouldn't exist until nine months or so after that game. I was still writing for Scout and The Daily Northwestern. I only wanted to write about sports, and, enthralled by the spectacle of college football, thought I would want to be a beat writer for the rest of my life. Now I write about lawsuits far more than I ever thought possible.
It's crazy how much has changed, both in my life and in Northwestern sports, and hundreds of games later (when you count both basketball and football), they sort of blur together, with moments sticking out above the others — the Gator Bowl, the 2012 Michigan State basketball game, the Ohio State football games (and GameDay) and others.
But for some reason, I still remember everything about that first game. I don't know why that's significant, and maybe it isn't. But as much as things have changed, thinking back to that day feels utterly similar to my life right now. I hopped in a car and drove to a random place in the Midwest to watch sports — a game insignificant on a larger scale, and really, unmemorable to a layperson even a year later.
Those trips are what have defined my college experience, and they've provided me with some of my greatest memories. Showing my friends from all over the country my home state, driving for hours on end to State College and Lincoln, exploring the Bay Area on the trip to Cal, and of course, learning every landmark on I-65, I-80 and I-94 — those trips put me in my element. That's where I've done my best thinking, done my most laughing and done my most bonding with friends.
Traveling on roads throughout the Midwest is where life makes the most sense to me. And covering Northwestern sports allowed me, more than anything, to come away from college with a decade's worth (or more) of adventures. Those adventures are where I learned a lot about myself, too.
Northwestern sports could not be more opposite. Northwestern sports don't make sense.
Parts of sports make sense — I've done enough analysis of those things — but parts don't. Journalists always want to find some sort of narrative to tie things together, and thus, we apply labels to things that simply can't be labeled. We talk about leadership, and toughness. But maybe NU didn't win that game because of their leadership or toughness, or because they wanted it more — maybe they just won because sports are weird.
There is no narrative arc that fits Northwestern sports over my four years in Evanston. I wanted there to be, but there isn't. Sometimes Northwestern basketball wins at Wisconsin. Sometimes NU football wins at Nebraska. Sometimes the Wildcats lose to Tim Beckman. There are trends that develop within a season, sure, but over the course of my four years, there was no pattern, no way to explain it.
That's what make sports fun, you know?
The last game I ever watched as a student on Northwestern's campus was a lot like the first. It was Northwestern-Michigan basketball, two insignificant teams playing a game that, I thought, nobody would remember.
As the Wildcats went down by double digits, I began to get angry. I thought about how I would tweet that sappy underdog Northwestern was a perennial underachiever, failing to ever reach the low bar of potential that fans had set. Then Tre Demps did his thing and knocked down two improbable threes for an impossible win. And again, Northwestern sports made no damn sense.
That was the most fun I'd ever had watching Northwestern sports, just as the Illinois game four years earlier was the most fun I'd ever had covering a game to that point.
There is nothing else to tie these two moments together, except for what they represented to me at the beginning and end of my Northwestern experience. I spent four years following around a group that makes no damn sense. And it was absolutely the time of my life.