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A town, a bond, a star: How Paddy Fisher became the face of Northwestern’s defense

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Home is never far for the Texan trying to become Northwestern’s next great middle linebacker

Iowa v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

When Paddy Fisher was growing up in Katy, Tex., his family had a holiday tradition.

Along with his best friend, Travis Whillock, Fisher and his family would pile into their minivan and drive to Dallas or Houston to watch the Katy Tigers play in the state championship game. The boys would sit side-by-side in massive NFL stadiums, gazing onto a spectacle they would one day hope to dominate themselves.

“We were sitting there in the stands and we were like, ‘Man, hopefully one day that’s us,’” Whillock, now a redshirt sophomore, said.

Lo and behold, it would be.

In December 2015, the boys walked onto the field to a roaring sea of red, the raucous Katy supporters ready to cheer their team on to another state title.

“It’s definitely like we have the whole city behind our back,” Fisher said of the championship game. “The environment is awesome, it’s loud and we’re just focused in and ready to cut loose.”

Katy had every reason to come into the game with confidence. In ten regular season games, the Tigers allowed 18 points.

The result was never in question. Fisher and Whillock led a defense that only allowed seven points in a 27-point romp over Lake Travis. The boys had achieved what every young kid in Katy wants to one day — they were state champions.

In its perfect 16-0 season, Katy shut its opponent out 10 times, including three times in the playoffs. When the dust settled, Katy was named the No. 1 team in the country by USA Today.

Having accomplished all they could as Katy Tigers, Fisher and Whillock both matriculated as Northwestern Wildcats. In Evanston, Fisher has continued to excel.

As a redshirt freshman in 2017, Fisher led the Wildcats — and all first-year players nationally — with 113 tackles. He was the Big Ten Defensive Freshman of the Year and a Second Team All-Big Ten honoree. After a 19-tackle performance in a triple overtime win over Michigan State, he earned national defensive player of the week honors.

He doesn’t make the highlight-reel interceptions or rack up the bone-crushing sacks, but Paddy Fisher is Northwestern’s most important defender.

At 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, with great instincts and a nose for the ball, Fisher is built for the Big Ten. His production at his age has some Northwestern fans buzzing about the 2019 or 2020 NFL Draft. But it’s where Fisher is from, not where he is going, that defines him.

Stack.com, via screengrab

There’s a phrase on the wall above the trophy case at Katy High School. “When excellence becomes tradition, greatness has no limits,” it reads.

As football players pass by the exhibit, stuffed with trophies, the saying reminds them of why they slog through summer workouts ahead of the season, and why they commit to play for the Tigers.

It’s in this Houston suburb, population 17,166, where the new high school football stadium seats 12,000 fans. It’s in this small town where residents congregate at a local donut shop on Saturday mornings to dissect the last night’s action, where each business has a sign outside that says “Go Tigers” or “Good Luck, Katy.” And it’s Katy that’s home to the most successful Texas high school football program over the past two decades — six state titles since 2000, and four more appearances in the title game during that time.

“Winning is still an important tradition around here,” said head coach Gary Joseph.

Winning makes Katy unique, but it’s not the only thing. In an era of satellite camps and seven-on-seven football, Katy players eschew private trainers to work out as a team over the summer.

When parents inquire about the football program, Joseph tells them two things — that Katy is a great place to raise a family, and that four years of Katy football will make their son a man.

You don’t sign up to play for the Katy Tigers in hopes of getting a Division I scholarship. You choose to play because your grandfather, your father, your uncles, your brothers, and your friends were Tigers.

That’s why Paddy Fisher joined. He grew up in what he calls a “football family.” His father and uncle played football. His older brothers were Katy Tigers.

“It was just something that we were kinda forced to do,” Fisher said when asked about the beginning of his football career. “It’s not like we didn’t want to do it, we just got thrown out in the fire and we had fun doing it and we saw that we were good at it and we had fun with it.”

Travis Whillock (center) and Paddy Fisher (second from right) as pre-teens on the Katy Cowboys.
Courtesy of Travis Whillock

This is my brother, man,” Whillock begins.

Fisher interrupts his friend. “He knows me more than I know myself. It’s so weird because I’ll be doing something, talking to someone, whatever it is and we’ll go back after we’re talking with the big group and I’ll go and talk to him about something and he’ll be like ‘Yeah, I already knew that.’ It’s weird…”

Northwestern has a couple pairs of brothers on its football roster. Fisher and Whillock might as well be another.

The duo grew up in the same neighborhood and started their football careers together at the age of five, playing flag football. Paddy’s mother, Kathiann who looked after the boys from the age of two, noticed something unique about their relationship. Fisher and his brothers would roughhouse and fight all the time, leaving holes in drywall and busted bannisters. But Fisher and Whillock?

“Paddy and Travis don’t fight. They don’t bicker, they don’t hold grudges,” Kathiann said.

Their relationship began as five-year-olds on the football field. It became unshakeable after tragedy befell the Fisher family.

Steven Fisher, Paddy’s father, was Paddy’s ultimate role model. A former Division II fullback at Bloomsberg University in Pennsylvania, he coached the eldest Fisher boys and encouraged all his sons to pick up football. In middle school, Paddy proudly donned the same No. 35 his father wore in high school.

Paddy Fisher (second from left), and his brothers (from left) Jonathon, Josef, and Alex.
Courtesy of Kathiann Fisher

As Katy made its run to the state title game in the fall of 2009, Steven got sick. On Feb. 1, 2010, he passed away from cancer at the age of 46.

The family was devastated. Married 22 years, Steven and Kathiann were high school sweethearts in Lancaster, Penn. The four Fisher boys no longer had the role model they had admired their whole lives. Josef, two years younger than Paddy, took the loss the hardest.

“They’re young kids, they were upstairs playing video games and then the next thing you know, we were at a funeral for your dad,” Kathiann said.

Before he entered high school, Fisher had to assume an outsized burden for a pre-teen. When he and his friends hung out or went out to dinner, he invited his younger brother along. More importantly, Fisher showed his younger brother how to move on.

“He didn’t really know what was going on so I had step into that role and that really has made me into the person I am today, just taking that leadership role and just being there for him, and being an example,” Fisher said.

When Fisher needed support after his father passed, Whillock was there. Distraction was important — the two would go hunting together to take Paddy’s mind off his dad. According to Whillock’s father Kirk, the boys became closer than ever before after Steven Fisher passed away.

That would continue all the way to Katy.

Travis and Paddy show off their state championship rings as seniors at Katy High School
Courtesy of Travis Whillock

The coaching staff noticed Fisher and Whillock from the moment they stepped on the field as freshman. As the starting inside linebacker for the freshman team, Fisher’s consistency and instincts impressed Coach Joseph. Nonetheless, Fisher took his lumps.

“They had their eyes on us but they didn’t treat us any differently,” Fisher. “They still took us through and humiliated us and made sure that we were the guys leading but we were also going through what everyone else was going through.”

Coach Joseph’s egalitarian approach combined with Katy’s illustrious tradition creates a program where younger players learn how to do things from the oldest players, and the team’s yearly success is defined by the strength of its upperclassman leadership.

Joseph barely took time to think when asked what makes the program successful. “The kids. I’ve got great coaches here but it’s the kids’ willingness to work.”

Fisher and Whillock worked hard with the rest of their teammates, but it was clear they were special football players. After playing on the freshman team during their first year in the program, the duo jumped to varsity as sophomores.

Even then, playing at the next level didn’t cross their minds.

“Really, me and my boys, we were just playing football, we were having a great time,” Whillock recalled.

Nonetheless, college coaches were beginning to flock to Katy to watch the boys play. A month after their loss in the 2014 state championship as juniors, Fisher and Whillock were offered by Kansas on the same day. Their Northwestern offer came in April, then their Wisconsin offer a month later.

Neither Fisher nor Whillock had envisioned playing football with the other in college, but the idea was quickly becoming more likely. On a visit to Evanston, both were struck by how close Northwestern’s players were off the field. Just like Katy.

Sitting together at Fisher’s house on a summer afternoon, it all came together.

“I think I’m going to commit,” Whillock said.

“I think I’m going to commit too,” Fisher replied.

Within an hour of each other, Fisher and Whillock pledged to play for the Wildcats. Still, the significance of the moment didn’t sink in.

“Looking back at it, I didn’t think how special it actually was but now it’s just being able to always have someone up here if I need anything, or even just to talk to somebody,” Whillock said.

Fisher and Whillock commit to Northwestern on the same afternoon.

Their commitments were undoubtedly significant, but they still had one season of high school football left, a final opportunity to finish what they had started years earlier. The boys slogged through summer workouts in hundred-degree heat with one goal in mind — to finally win the state championship after falling short the previous two years. That type of mindset wasn’t uncommon in the Katy football program, but the 2015 team was special.

“It wasn’t about them, it was about the team,” Joseph said of the 2015 team. “They were very unselfish kids. They didn’t care who got accolades or anything else like that. They wanted our football team to be successful.”

With a single purpose, the Tigers dominated, largely due to a ferocious defense led by Fisher and Whillock. The Tigers shut out their first two opponents by a combined score of 103-0.

After a perfect regular season, Katy then dismantled its first three opponents in the gauntlet that is the Texas state football playoffs.

In the quarterfinals, they ran into an opponent (Manvel) they had faced each of the previous two years in the same round of the playoffs, and a quarterback in D’Eriq King who was one of the top college prospects in the Houston area.

King, the current starting quarterback at the University of Houston, racked up over 10,000 passing yards and nearly 3,500 rushing yards in his high school career. To beat Manvel, Katy would need to limit King’s output. That responsibility fell on Fisher, who at 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, faced a significant speed deficiency against the 5-foot-10 dual-threat quarterback.

It didn’t matter.

“[Fisher] found a way to get it done,” Coach Joseph remembered. “He found a way to get the kid on the ground. That right there, showed that he wasn’t going to back down from anybody or anything.”

“There wasn’t ever an inclination of ‘Hey, I can’t do this.’ It was always, ‘Hey, I’ve got this coach.’ That kind of maturity and leadership and reassurance to kids, I think, was as valuable to us as anything we had.”

Katy won 35-17 to move one step closer to a title.

Two blowouts later, Fisher, Whillock, and the Katy Tigers were state champions, on the turf of NRG Stadium, where the boys used to watch the Tiger teams of the past play.

Northwestern stood out to Fisher because of the character of the coaches and players and the team’s cohesion — both aspects mirrored Katy closely. Upon arriving in Evanston, he found that the program was structured similarly as well.

“The way practice is structured here, game week, we’ve literally been doing it since we were 14,” Fisher said.

While adjusting to the grind of college-style practices wasn’t difficult, Fisher said adapting to the high level intensity needed on a daily basis was more difficult.

He redshirted during his first year on campus, taking cues from All-American middle linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. on how to man the position in defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz’s 4-3 scheme.

Towards the end of his first year in Evanston, Fisher bought a notebook. In it, he began to record his notes from film sessions, and ways to improve himself as a football player. He also wrote down personal goals for himself off the field. He still jots down notes in the morning and reviews them at night, checking back in at the end of the week to mark his progress.

It’s the one item he carries in his backpack wherever he goes.

“It just helps me be a better person in general, a better teammate, a better friend, a better brother, a son, a student, an athlete, a football player, you name it,” Fisher said.

After Walker was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in the 2017 NFL Draft, the notebook prepared Fisher for what was to come.

Northwestern v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Fisher was ready when his younger brother needed support following their father’s death. He was ready when he was given the task of bringing down the rival quarterback in the playoffs. And he was ready when, as a redshirt freshman, it was his job to fill the shoes of Walker as Northwestern’s middle linebacker.

“One thing about my personality and what I do is I listen and I watch, and then I go and do it,” Fisher said.

That’s a lot easier said than done, but no one can dispute Fisher’s production from the get-go in 2017. In the second game of the season against Duke, Fisher broke out with 18 tackles and a fumble recovery. Of course, Fisher was chasing Blue Devil ball carriers all over the field during Northwestern’s 45-17 loss that Saturday, but the redshirt freshman showed he belonged on the field. Moreover, his high-energy performance stood out against a flat Northwestern effort in Durham. According to Coach Joseph, that’s what makes Fisher so special.

“The kid lines up and plays hard every down. Regardless of the score, regardless of people blocking him, regardless of how well he’s doing, he’s going to do his best,” Joseph said.

In 2018, Fisher will help lead a defense that lost four players to the NFL. Joining him on that side of the ball will be Whillock, who should compete for a starting safety job after redshirting his first year in Evanston and not seeing game action in 2017.

It will be a reunion of sorts — after thirteen consecutive seasons on a football field together, the duo from Katy hasn’t played a snap together since they earned a state championship back in 2015.

For Fisher and Whillock, home will never be farther than the handful of yards on football field that separate the safety and middle linebacker positions.

The last line of text in the Katy High School weight room reads “Remember, we are Katy.”

After all that Fisher and Whillock have been through together, how could they forget?