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Andrew Scanlan: Northwestern’s Philly-tough “Bull” on the outside

The fifth-year senior could have gone elsewhere to finish his college career. Instead, he blossomed in Evanston.

Illinois v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Tara Scanlan woke up early, as she always does.

She got out of bed and was on her way to wake up her two daughters when an unexpected sight gave her pause. The door to her son Andrew’s room was wide open. She peeked inside. He wasn’t there.

“That’s odd,” Tara thought to herself. It wasn’t long past 7:00 a.m., and she had anticipated being the first person in the house to rise. After all, Andrew had just gotten home from school the day before.

“You’d think a college kid wants to come home and sleep,” Tara said when recalling the experience. “Not him.”

She wasn’t worried about Andrew. In fact, once she thought about it, she had a pretty good idea of where he’d be.

Tara walked outside. It was a chilly early January morning in Royersford, Pennsylvania, a small borough located 30 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Just down the street from her family’s home is the Spring-Ford High School football field. That’s where she was headed.

She reached the gates, walked in, and her suspicion was confirmed. There was Andrew, all alone, turning the dewy grass on his old field into his personal training grounds.

Silently, Tara stood and watched. Andrew ran a perfect post route, throwing his hands up to catch an imaginary football as he came out of his break. He ran a curl. He ran a corner. Next, a simple go route, sprinting 40 yards downfield before his invisible quarterback hit him perfectly in stride. He just kept going and going.

“I’ve never seen him work out that hard, ever,” Tara said. “I thought to myself, ‘This is the workout he needs to get himself on that field. He’s working so he can get himself more playing time this year.’”

This early-morning session came just a few days after Northwestern had been thoroughly embarrassed in a 45-6 Outback Bowl loss to Tennessee. Redshirt junior wide receiver Andrew Scanlan, for the 28th time in 29 appearances, had gone without a catch.

He had graduated as Spring-Ford’s all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. But after four years in Evanston, Scanlan’s stat line was quite the opposite from his prep days:

1 reception, 5 yards

A couple of months earlier, Scanlan had sat down in Pat Fitzgerald’s office to discuss his future. Senior day was coming up, and the head coach wanted to be candid and clear about what Scanlan’s options were.

“All things being equal, with what I know right now, your role is not going to change,” Fitzgerald told him. “So do you want to come back, or do you want to be honored on senior day?”

“I just wanted to make sure he’s happy, and sometimes the best thing for some guys to do to be happy is to move on,” Fitzgerald said this year, recalling the meeting.

Scanlan was on track to graduate in June of 2016, meaning he also had the option to go somewhere else and play immediately with his final year of eligibility.

He wasn’t having any of it.

“Fitz was reeling off some places that I could possible transfer to, and stuff like that, and at that point I just blocked him out and made a decision right then and there that I’m going to change his mind and increase my role no matter what.”

October 11, 2014. Andrew Scanlan was riding high.

His team had suffered a tough road loss to Minnesota, snapping a three-game winning streak. But as Scanlan left the locker room and headed towards the team bus, he had something to be proud of. Late in the second quarter, he had finally caught his first ball in a Northwestern uniform. Now, it was nothing special. It was a five-yard gain on a pass from Trevor Siemian — nothing too noteworthy. Still, it was special to Scanlan. He had come a long way to finally get the ball in a live game situation. Years of work. Countless reps. He finally had something tangible.

Scanlan made his way up the bus’s steps and headed to his seat. He pulled out his phone, and in an instant he’ll never forget, his heart sunk to his stomach.

The screen displayed several text messages informing him that his best friend David Tyler had passed away at the age of 23 from a heroin overdose.

Scanlan couldn’t hold back the tears. He couldn’t believe what he had just read. So many feelings and emotions popped up in his head over the ensuing hours. Shock. Confusion. Most of all, emptiness. He was crushed.

“That was probably the lowest point I’ve ever hit in my life, just cause he was so close to me,” Scanlan said.

“Although it's not the way I would want it, my big brother gets to watch me play today. Rest In Peace DT8. This one's for you.”

“I could see that my son’s heart was broken,” Tara said. “It broke my heart.”

Tyler was more than a best friend to Scanlan. He was family.

In eighth grade, Scanlan had an incident with a coach and was ready to give up on football altogether. Andrew and Tara sat down with the athletic director of the Spring-Ford school district, who tried to convince him to stay, telling Scanlan he was already the most talented kid to ever come through the district. The athletic director then linked him up with Jason Kirkus, the ninth-grade football coach and district mentor. Kirkus not only spoke to and mentored Scanlan, but he also introduced him to Tyler, who was a sophomore at the time.

The two became inseparable. They would play basketball together virtually every day at the park next to Scanlan’s house. Tyler, a star running back for Spring-Ford for several years, taught Scanlan a lot about football and more about life. He became a regular guest at the Scanlan household.

“Andrew followed him around everywhere,” Tara said. “Everywhere Dave was, you saw Andrew with him. So people assumed, because they were two years apart, that he was Dave’s little brother.”

To this day, Scanlan, who has two younger sisters, still refers to Tyler as his big brother.

“The one thing he always told Andrew was: ‘Don’t ever give up on something you want to do,’” Tara said. “‘If you wanna play ball, play ball. Don’t ever give up on that.’ And I think that stuck with Andrew.”

The question makes Scanlan laugh.

“Why do people call you The Bull?” a reporter asks.

It’s a mid-October Monday in 2016, and Scanlan is sitting in front of a microphone inside Northwestern’s Nicolet Football Center with a relaxed, confident look on his face. For the first time in his career, the assembly of media members are here to talk about him. That look quickly turns into a grin and a chuckle.

“It’s kind of a Philadelphia thing,” Scanlan says.

Scanlan was born and raised in Norristown, PA, a small borough just six miles from the western limits of Philadelphia. He was brought up by a young single mother (Tara had him when she was 16), in an area where he was exposed to considerable violence at a young age. Norristown was ranked as one of the 100 most dangerous cities in the United States in 2012, 2013 and 2015, and wasn’t any better in the early 2000s.

Tara moved Scanlan and his baby sister Kyra, now 15, to a safer neighborhood in the more suburban Royersford when Andrew was 9. But he stayed close with plenty of people from his childhood. When Andrew was a freshman in high school, he found out that his paternal cousin Kyrie, whom he had gone to school with in Norristown, had been shot and killed while trying to break up a fight.

“Growing up in that area, he saw a lot of things that you wouldn’t want your children to see,” Tara said. “What it did was it taught him he needed to break that cycle. He wants better for him and better for his family.”

“They deserve the world and everything it has to offer. Here's to another step toward providing that.”

The “Bull” nickname came from classic Philadelphia slang. “A lot of people call each other bull this, bull that,” Scanlan said. “My two roommates from last year, former players Mike McHugh and Cam Dickerson, kept calling me Bull because I kept calling them Bull.”

It stuck, and everyone, Fitzgerald included, started to call him Bull. But it also has come to signify a lot more than just the city Scanlan was raised in. It’s an attitude.

“You have to have some tough skin growing up in Norristown,” Scanlan said. “Gotta have a little cockiness to you, gotta have that bull mentality so to speak. That Philly attitude — a little arrogance and confidence — I’m trying to bring that to the offense.”

Scanlan has faced adversity in all of its forms dating back to his childhood, but he has always had the strength and drive to push through. And whenever he struggles to find that strength, he’s looked to Tyler to help him.

“He just approaches things with a chip on his shoulder,” Fitzgerald said.

Philly tough.


Something felt different.

Scanlan laced up his cleats the same way he always has. He pulled on his helmet the same way he always has. He warmed up the same way he always has. But as he stood there, surrounded by his brothers, what he was feeling wasn’t the same feeling he had experienced before all the games of the previous three years.

The smells of sweat and grass filled the Ryan Field tunnel. It was a perfect day for football, with the temperature in Evanston creeping up over 70 degrees and nothing but blue skies above. Fans began to roar, readying for the start of another season of Northwestern football.

“Let’s go!” a voice shouted.

The 2016 Wildcats were off. Scanlan began the jog from the tunnel to the field. He could hardly control his excitement, but made sure he didn’t run so fast that he knocks down the guy in front of him. He slapped the “Trust Yourself” sign as he exited the tunnel and emerged onto the grass.

The final go-round was here.

All around him, teammates headed to the sidelines or onto the field for their final preparations. Scanlan had a different destination in mind. He ran out with the team, then immediately headed for the near end zone. As he does before every game, Scanlan dropped to knee and said a quick prayer.


“I think about my big brother before every game,” Scanlan said. “I ask God for his strength, for his goofiness, for a little looseness out there.”

Western Michigan blasted the kick into the end zone for a touchback. It was time for the Northwestern offense to get out there. And for the first time in his career, Scanlan was part of the 11 men ready in on the first play of the game. As he ran onto the field, it hit him.

“It was so surreal,” Scanlan recalls. “I was just like, ‘Hey you finally made it; let’s go make it happen.’”

The early morning winter workouts back home had paid off. The relentless effort he gave in spring ball, summer workouts and fall camp had paid off. He proved Fitzgerald wrong and earned a role. It was a role he wouldn’t give up.

On the fourth play of that game, Clayton Thorson found Scanlan for a 6-yard gain. In the fourth quarter, he made a big 13-yard catch for a first down. He would go on to finish the regular season with 25 catches for 296 yards, the yardage good for the third-highest total on the team. He had 5 catches for 78 yards at Purdue. He caught at least one pass in all but one game. He didn’t light the world on fire like his good friend Austin Carr, but he was a key contributor. And for a guy who used to work his tail off as a scout team receiver and on special teams, that’s all he could’ve ever asked for.

“This season has been a dream come true, really,” Scanlan said.

Throughout an up and down season for the Wildcats, Scanlan has had one source of motivation right by his side on every play, no matter how tough the situation.

“At the end of the day, this season was really to honor my brother, my best friend David Tyler,” Scanlan said. “It’s been something that’s been right there to keep me going. When I’m out on the field, maybe the situation’s getting a little tense, I think of him and all the goofy moments I’ve had with him.”

Scanlan has a tattoo on his right arm that reads “Leave your Legacy.”

“Do Something. Be Something.”

His legacy will be felt in a number of ways. Above all, his teammates say they’ll remember the passion he brought for the game of football every day. One of the things Scanlan is best known for is that he’s an incredible motivator. He takes the experience of everything he’s been through and uses it to instill in his teammates that they can get through anything, too.

“He’s a genuine guy,” right tackle Eric Olson said. “You can feel his passion when he talks to us. He’s up there speaking from his heart. You can tell Scanlan wants to win more than anybody, he’s going to go out there and fight. When you see it in his eyes and in the way he’s talking, it gets everybody going.”

“Scan brings the fire,” Carr said.

Whenever he’s back at Spring-Ford, his former head coach Chad Brubaker asks him to speak to the team. This fall, he gave a speech at halftime of the team’s game against its biggest rival.

On the field, he has one more opportunity to add to his legacy and finish off an incredible senior season. And in many ways, his story will come full circle Dec. 28 at Yankee Stadium. Scanlan chose a Yankees hat when he was 2 years old and has been a fan of the Bronx Bombers ever since. To get to play in their stadium, against the rivals of his home city, is a perfect last chapter of his career.

It was a chapter he had to work and persevere to get to. But Scanlan has spent his whole life working and persevering, so it was no surprise to his mother, Tara, that he has made it this far.

She’ll be in the stands on the 28th. So will Kyra and his younger sister, 5-year-old Jovanna.

And when the going gets tough, as it does every gameday, his big brother will be there too.