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Meet Dan Kubiuk, Northwestern football's — and baseball's — two-sport walk-on

Photo: @NUCatsBaseball on Twitter

EVANSTON — Something was missing.

It was early 2015, and the Northwestern football season had ended a few months prior. Dan Kubiuk, a walk-on specialist, had just redshirted his first season in Evanston. The 6-foot-2 freshman from Barrington, Illinois had proven to himself that he could play a sport at the collegiate level, but still, something was missing.

For the first time in years, Kubiuk wasn't getting ready to play baseball.

"I didn't realize it at the time how much I missed playing baseball," Kubiuk said. "It didn't hit me until after that season where I was like, ‘I'm not switching to baseball gear right now.' You know, I want to try this again."

However, for the time being, Kubiuk kept that thought to himself. He stayed with the football team through spring practices, while also making sure to keep up with his classmates on the baseball team. He would occasionally check in with them, but never actively pursued anything.

All this time, there was one thought gnawing at the back of his mind: "Hey, I still think I can do this."

Despite those baseball thoughts, Kubiuk continued on the football path. He attended summer workouts, went to Kenosha and eventually switched positions from specialist to quarterback. He ran the scout team and saw his first collegiate action in Northwestern's 41-0 victory over Eastern Illinois, handing off to Tom Hruby four times at the goal line to finish out the game.

As the season was wrapping up, Kubiuk finally decided to see if playing baseball was even a possibility. He began talking frequently to his father, Carl Kubiuk, and it was Carl who brought the topic into the realm of reality.

"Why don't you give it a shot, why don't you talk to coach?" he said. "You know, see what you can do. See if it's even a possibility, if there's a roster spot."

Kubiuk initially wanted some time to ponder the idea, but it only took "two seconds" for him to realize this was something he wanted to do.

If it weren't for an unlucky day in March three years earlier, all of this may not have been necessary.

However, the ability to even let Kubiuk pursue baseball rested solely with Northwestern football head coach Pat Fitzgerald.

Kubiuk met with Fitzgerald with high hopes. It wasn't too long of a meeting. Fitzgerald gave Kubiuk his approval and that was that. Officially cleared to play baseball, Kubiuk met with first-year head coach Spencer Allen the day after returning from the Outback Bowl. Everything was going smoothly.

But if it weren't for an unlucky day in March three years earlier, all of this may not have been necessary at all.

★ ★ ★

It's spring break 2013. Dan Kubiuk is a junior at Barrington High School, and he's taking part in the baseball team's first outdoor practice of the season. It's a time of optimism. The weather is just starting to warm up, the grass is beginning to turn green. Junior year is the most important time for high school athletes to get recruited to play at the next level. An important few months are ahead.

Then disaster strikes.

Kubiuk sprints down the third base line. As he nears home plate, he braces himself and slides feet first. But something is wrong, there isn't supposed to be this much pain. The pain throbs from the end of the leg. His ankle is broken. Gone is the optimism. In the span of a few seconds, his entire junior year is lost, and with it an important chance to impress college scouts.

Due to this injury, the calls from college coaches didn't come in bulk. Kubiuk waited, and a year later he was choosing between Northwestern and Washington University.

He chose Northwestern completely on a whim.

Even though he was being recruited to play football for the Division III Washington University Bears, Kubiuk still chose Northwestern. He had not been recruited by the Wildcats. In fact, he got in like everybody else, through admissions. There was no promise of preferred walk-on status or anything. Kubiuk had no idea if he'd even be able to play one sport at Northwestern, let alone two. However, he took his chances with Northwestern and now he wanted to take back the opportunity that had been taken away from him on that fateful spring afternoon.

By the time fall 2015 rolled around, Kubiuk hadn't thrown a ball competitively in almost two years. He needed to get his arm back in shape. In order to do this, he used some of the friendships he had made the year before. He started going out to Long Field, a wide open grass space on the north end of Northwestern's campus, or anywhere he could to throw with one of the players on the baseball team. It was just a simple long toss, but Kubiuk was already one step closer to resuming full baseball activities.

Now, in January, with football season behind him, he approached Allen, this time with Fitzgerald's approval. The second time around, Allen was excited to see what Kubiuk could do. He set up a tryout for Kubiuk with associate head coach and pitching coach Josh Reynolds. While not exactly a tryout in a traditional sense, Reynolds had Kubiuk throw off flat ground for a bit and then deemed he had seen enough. Kubiuk didn't know it at the time, but Reynolds was very impressed with what he saw.

"It was kind of cool," Kubiuk said. "I could roll right out of football season and throw off flat ground for Coach Reynolds, and he loved it."

After throwing on a Tuesday, Allen invited Kubiuk to start lifting with the team that week. Then that Saturday, just six days after returning from Tampa, it became official. That one flat ground session had earned him a spot on the team. Kubiuk was officially a two-sport athlete.

★ ★ ★

Kubiuk walks off the mound and strides towards the dugout. It's March 10, and in just his fifth collegiate appearance, Kubiuk has thrown an absolute gem: 6 innings and 1 earned run on only 5 hits. Kubiuk ends the outing with a bang, striking out San Diego State left fielder Spencer Thornton on his 70th pitch of the game.

This comes a little under a month after his Northwestern debut against Nevada, when he pitched one scoreless inning in relief. By the end of February, Kubiuk had worked his way into the rotation. The outing against San Diego St. was just his second collegiate start.

Kubiuk had finally filled that gap that had been missing the year before. Baseball was back in his life.

However, he was not only a walk-on baseball player. He was more of a rarity than that. He was a two-sport athlete.

Multi-sport athletes are very rare at the collegiate level. Most who are skilled enough to play multiple sports specialize in order to improve their game and pro prospects. Also a factor is that these are still students. Juggling one sport with schoolwork and social life is difficult enough.

The overflowing schedule was one of the reasons Northwestern kicker Jack Mitchell is no longer a two-sport athlete. Mitchell did double-dip through his junior year, playing in 102 games for the baseball team. But after earning a football scholarship prior to this past season, he dropped baseball to focus on kicking.

Staying healthy was also a factor in Mitchell's decision. More playing time increases the probability of injury, and with the length of the seasons, it's tough to recover in between. That's one of the reasons Fitzgerald was excited to have Mitchell exclusively with the football team this season.

"No. Hell no." -Spencer Allen on whether he could have emulated Kubiuk and played two sports in college.

"I think it's great for Jack," Fitzgerald said. "He's stayed healthy, which fires me up because the previous two years, he's had injury issues that he's gone into camp with."

Kubiuk has managed to stay healthy through two years, but playing two sports means he has to juggle two different team schedules with his schoolwork. Of course, Kubiuk doesn't play football while he's playing baseball and vice versa, but he's still involved in one or the other almost year-round.

In the fall, Kubiuk is up at 5:30 or 6 a.m. and eating breakfast. Then he has meetings at 7, which last for about an hour. After meetings, there's practice for a couple hours. Then shower, change, eat again and off to his first class by 11 o'clock. It's roughly a five-hour morning Monday through Thursday.

"You've got to find time to go to practice, get all your classes in, try not to schedule any classes on Friday for travel, and you've just got to make it work on weekends," Kubiuk said. "Every time we have a half hour break, you've got to study or do some homework, you've just got to get something in."

Kubiuk admits that his baseball schedule is a little lighter, especially since the team practices in the afternoon, but "it's still baseball practice, it's some grueling workouts."

However, Kubiuk's roommate and Northwestern running back Chad Hanaoka is a little skeptical.

"I know pitchers work very hard, but it's typically not as taxing as football offseason workouts," Hanaoka joked. "So while I'm waking up at 5:45 in the morning or 6:30 in the morning or something, he's still there sleeping. We would end our workouts and then the baseball team would be coming in, so that would be pretty funny."

Difficulty of practices aside, Kubiuk is still skilled enough to be a Division I athlete in two different sports, that's what matters. He's no slouch off the field either. After baseball season ends, he'll be interning in downtown Chicago for most of the summer before reporting for football camp in August.

With all the responsibilities that Kubiuk manages to handle year-round, the question remains: Does anyone else thinkthey could pull off being a two-sport athlete?

"I just don't think I could," Hanaoka says. "Especially with football, the offseason is a really big time for me. Also, I don't think I'd be able to balance that with school. I'm pre-med with [biology] and [economics] so the offseason for me is a big time to relax a little bit."

What about head coach Spencer Allen?

"No. Hell no," Allen says. "I was not athletic enough."

But Kubiuk thinks Allen is selling himself short.

"You know, he's a spry guy," Kubiuk says. "He's leaping out there for foul balls and he's pretty agile, I think he could do it."

It's challenging, but Kubiuk truly loves what he does. He's able to play both sports he's passionate about at a D-1 level. As for which sport he enjoys more though, he isn't tipping any pitches.

"I get asked that quite a bit," he says. "I feel just blessed to be able to play both sports at Northwestern, it's an amazing opportunity, the guys on both teams have been just absolutely amazing, and I wouldn't give up either of them for anything. I hope I don't have to make a choice and pick one or the other, but being able to play both, this is really living the college dream. It's awesome."