EVANSTON — “Maybe it’s in the blood.”
No, Bennett Skowronek wasn’t alluding to the Northwestern pride that runs through his veins. Rather, the receiver referenced his connection with a quarterback who threw him passes long before the two donned matching purple and white jerseys.
“We’re pretty much always on the same page,” Skowronek said. “We’re so close.”
That quarterback is Northwestern signal-caller TJ Green. But, to Skowronek, he has a different title: cousin.
Skowronek and Green have not had many opportunities to play together yet in collegiate games because Green has been buried behind starter Clayton Thorson on the depth chart. Now, however, with Thorson out for at least the near future, Skowronek and Green finally get to do what they’ve been practicing for since they were kids.
“Naturally, he was always the quarterback,” Skowronek said. “Every kid liked playing the quarterback growing up but I always liked catching the ball for him.”
They grew up over 600 miles apart — Skowronek in Indiana and Green in Kansas. But that didn’t matter. Only getting to see each other a few times per year didn’t stop the two from forming a bond closer to that of brothers than extended family.
“We always dreamed of playing football together,” Green said. “And now we’re here.”
Green recounted family spring break trips filled with nerf ball games on the beach or pick-up games on the turf of Skowronek’s alma mater, Homestead High School. However, one particular location may well have had the strongest impact on the cousins’ football careers: Arrowhead Stadium.
For over five years, the stadium that was home to the Kansas City Chiefs was also Skowronek and Green’s post-game playground. The fairy-tale like practice facilities were courtesy of Super Bowl champion and two-time Pro Bowl champion Trent Green – TJ’s father and Skowronek’s uncle.
“His last season was when I was in sixth grade,” TJ said. “We’d go to all the home games with my mom, sit in the lower bowl area like 14 rows up and watch all his games.”
Although the trip was quite a bit quicker for TJ, Skowronek said his family traveled down as often as possible. “That’s how I fell in love with the game,” Skowronek said. “I was around it so much…and then having the chance to go out there, watch the games in person, go to the facilities, go on the field after the games, meet all the players…it was a special experience.”
Trent described spending Saturday afternoons after the final pre-game practice and walk-through where he’d send the two boys diving for catches in the end zone.
“They’d meet some of the players and coaches and then of course everybody else would head off home and I would stick around there with some of my brother- and sister-in-laws with the nieces and nephews and let them run around for a while,” Trent Green said. “Having them down there, whether it be in the locker room or down on the game field afterward, taking pictures, those kinds of things, those are all pretty special memories.”
As for whether he pictured TJ and Skowronek following in his football footsteps, Trent said he and his wife, Julie Green, never pushed them to play the game. “I wanted to expose them to so many different things and then have them find whatever their passion was and whatever they wanted to pursue,” Trent said.
Once it became clear that it was the path they chose, Trent got involved early — beginning with YMCA flag football where he was TJ’s coach.
Once TJ got older and began playing middle school and high school football, Trent stepped away from that position. “I wanted there to be a difference between coach and dad, so that’s why once it got to a certain level I was always there and willing to throw with him and watch tape, but I always wanted to make sure I kept that separation,” Trent said. “I didn’t want to put any added pressure on him, I wanted him to have his own identity.”
According to TJ, from the days of watching film together after high school games to phone calls after college game day, Trent has undeniably played a big role in his football career.
“He’s my idol, that was my whole reason why I played football,” TJ said. “I wanted to be like him growing up…he’s my inspiration.”
As Skowronek and TJ both worked toward their goal of achieving Trent’s success, they initially hoped to play at Indiana University together, the family school where Trent met Julie and various members of Skowronek’s family attended. However, Trent maintained his no-pressure mentality and encouraged them to commit to whichever university was the best fit.
That didn’t stop TJ from “doing some pretty heavy recruiting” to make the cousins’ dreams of finally being teammates a reality, Trent said.
Just short of five months after TJ committed as a preferred walk-on, Skowronek followed.
“When he committed to Northwestern, that kind of sealed the deal for me,” Skowronek said. “I knew that was where I wanted to play.”
Now, Skowronek said, many of the family members are able to make it to every game in order to support both he and TJ. “It’s like a big family reunion every weekend, it’s awesome,” he said. “Just the support from our families is unreal.”
To Trent’s disappointment, he was not able to attend last season’s games as often as the rest of the family due to his work broadcasting NFL games for CBS. He makes sure to check in every chance he gets, though. “I’ve got the Big Ten Network app, I’ve got the ESPN app, I’ve got all of the stuff so I’m watching everything I can when I’m on the road with meetings.”
Trent was able to attend two games last season, the opener and the Music City Bowl game.
For him, the game experience is very different from a parenting perspective, “It’s a lot more nerve-wracking in the stands than it ever was on the field,” Trent said. “I could be in a two-minute situation, game on the line, it is a completely different deal when you’re sitting there and you have no control from the stands.”
No matter the stresses associated with watching his son and nephew, Trent said he’s glad to see them have those opportunities and get a chance to play. “The thing that’s been cool for me is watching TJ work hard, pursue his dreams and gradually seeing it all come together,” Trent said. “Obviously there’s a long way to go, but it’s just been fun seeing the work he’s put in and how it pays off.”
The pride he’s felt from watching Skowronek on the field is no different.
“From a distance, it’s been equally enjoyable to see the work that Ben has put in,” Trent said. “We would usually see him a couple times a year and just to see the amount of work he was putting in…for him to have the success that he’s had and look to build on that success this year, that’s been very cool for me to see.”
Last season marked the end of both of their sophomore season’s, as TJ redshirted his freshman year. Although TJ hasn’t seen much time at the quarterback position, as Thorson cemented his starting role beginning in 2015, he and Skowronek still work on virtually every other aspect of the game together. “We’ll watch film together, we’ll run routes outside of practice together, so we’ve been on the same page the past couple of years even though we haven’t necessarily gotten the game reps,” Skowronek said. “We have a really good connection and it just helps.”
That connection could very well come in handy next season, given Thorson’s injury and Skowronek’s emergence as the team’s leading receiver last season.
Although Skowronek and TJ haven’t played much at all together in game situations, it is very possible that may change this Fall. After Thorson suffered an ACL injury in the bowl game in late December, the competition for starting quarterback was blasted open. Both Skowronek and TJ are very excited about the possibility of seeing the field together next year, as is the rest of their family.
“They’re really excited... obviously the competition is ongoing, Clayton may come back, we don’t really know,” TJ said. “But just to have this opportunity is really exciting for the whole family.”
To make matters more personal for their family, Northwestern’s first game is against Purdue, a massive rival for a substantial amount of their relatives. “It’s a Thursday night primetime game so it’s going to be a big deal and the whole family’s going to be there,” TJ said.
TJ added that he and Ben starting together would be “really special.”
“Something that we’ve always talked about our whole lives,” he said.