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For a day in Indianapolis, Northwestern was a football school

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Saturday was different.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Conference-Football Championship-Northwestern vs Ohio State Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Over 47 years, the Norris University Center had never seen anything like this. Before the doors to the aging student center on Lake Michigan had even opened, there were students lined up waiting. They would soon be joined by thousands of their compatriots on a pilgrimage to Indianapolis, filling a caravan of buses down I-65 and into the maw of the Midwest.

The Norris Center has hosted thousands of meetings and social events since it was constructed in 1971. It wasn’t supposed to make it this far. A plan to refurbish Norris into a glass palace starting in 2017 still sits in the ground floor. But the donations have dried up and the school is in debt, leaving Norris intact to become the staging ground for one of the most surreal events in Northwestern history, as it should be.

“It’s cool to see Northwestern hyped for something like this,” my friend and, full disclosure, erstwhile Indianapolis traveling partner, Grace Kelly said.

Never before had Northwestern sent thousands of students via bus to a football game, for free. The full realization of this moment, the idea that Northwestern as a school would both have the ability to make a Big Ten Championship Game and care enough to make this worthwhile, was there. The vast chain of unlikely events for this grand migration to occur, from the hiring of Gary Barnett to the 99-yard drive against Nebraska, at least felt worth it.

They lined up in droves near the bookstore. They lined up out the door into a cold Evanston morning. They lined up: engineers, English students, violinists and even a smattering graduate students. There were hundreds waiting before the noon departure time. In all, Northwestern sent 37 buses and about 3,000 students to Indianapolis. They funneled through a hastily improvised set of tables with six laptops accessing a huge Google Sheet to mark down names. They walked to the buses on the other side of the building and ventured to watch a Northwestern football game.

“I’m just so thankful for our fans. I’m so thankful for our students that made the commitment and the trip to come down here this weekend,” Clayton Thorson said after the game. “You know, I can’t thank them enough and I hope they get used to this being the new normal. We’re going to need them wherever we get to go and you know for us to continue to go to great destinations.”

In that moment, watching people stream into the ground floor of Norris, there was unity. They would be joined by a wave of alumni supporters who created a block of purple in the corner of the stadium. And that, in and of itself, was enough for the day, no matter how the game went.

The original plan was to charge students $45 to attend, which would’ve depressed turnout to a pitiful amount. Northwestern students are notoriously fickle. On a good day, they will fill one section at Ryan Field. A $45 surcharge would’ve been devastating. Then, an anonymous donor handed Northwestern an absurd sum of money to make sure the school looked respectable. It was exorbitant. You must account for the cost of the sandwiches and chips provided for every attendee, as well as the huge stacks of $14 Lucas Oil Stadium meal vouchers and thousands of seats. Not all seats were used, of course. Northwestern’s sports culture may never reach that level. But it was enough to make a solid showing, enough to give this remarkable season an atmosphere to remember. Northwestern fans were heavily outnumbered, but present.

While queueing to leave, a panicked administrator went around imploring students to volunteer with handing out wristbands. I couldn’t say no, for some reason, and I spent an hour handing out purple wristbands to students. They kept on coming. It was a logistical nightmare. The lines were crowded, the process was slow. The buses leaked in the pouring rain. But none of that mattered. For the first time in forever, I felt an overwhelming since of unity, the giddiness you feel when you are part of something that has never been done before. This actually happened.

At around 2 p.m., the final buses left Evanston. The remaining student staffers cleaned up the wreckage and put the tables back in their normal places. The sandwiches were eaten and discarded. Lucas Oil concessions were purchased. The students returned to a confusing maze of buses in a parking lot and fumbled around for their correct buses for hours. They returned to campus around 2 a.m. But even as the physical spaces and objects are changed and forgotten, the memory will endure.

“At the end of the day, we may have lost, but we played a classy game of college football, made school history and brought together fans of all ages coast to coast,” Keiko Quinones-Osumi, a graduate student, said.

That, in the end, was enough to make Northwestern a presence in the stadium. That corner of the stadium rocked from John Moten IV’s 77-yard score through to the last five minutes of the game. In a Northwestern football season that I would describe as surreal and brilliant, Northwestern’s fanbase fully shared in the spectacle.