Nate Hall was locked in.
On a chilly October night in Evanston, Northwestern led No. 16 Michigan State 39-31 in triple overtime. Spartan quarterback Brian Lewerke dropped back to pass on second and 10, and Hall fell into coverage. Then, all hell broke loose – defensive end Joe Gaziano stripped Lewerke and the ball squirted away.
Lewerke picked it up and hurled it across his body towards tight end Matt Sokol at the goal line. Hall tracked the ball as it floated towards the end zone.
A couple hours earlier, Hall was in the Northwestern locker room. He had jammed two of his fingers so far back on a helmet that they split open. Adrenaline and shock coursing through the linebacker’s veins, Hall didn’t notice a problem until two plays later when he saw blood pouring out of his glove.
In the locker room, doctors administered about 30 stitches, and because the tendons in Hall’s left hand were still intact, Hall could play.
As Lewerke’s pass hung in the air, Hall knew he had to make a play, busted hand aside.
“It was either catch the ball or have the ball caught on me,” Hall remembered.
Hall and Sokol leapt for the pass and tumbled to the ground. The Ryan Field faithful roaring, Hall got up first. He clutched the football in his good hand.
In the biggest game of the season, Hall had made the biggest play.
He wasn’t done either.
In ten years, we may look back at the 2017 season and remember breakout years from Paddy Fisher, Joe Gaziano, and Samdup Miller. Yet in his redshirt junior year, Hall turned himself into Northwestern’s certified disrupter. He racked up 16.5 tackles for loss, good for second in the Big Ten and the sixth-most in NU single-season history. He knocked away eight passes, and tallied five sacks, two interceptions, and a fumble recovery.
It was a year-long coming-out party for Hall, who had started in 12 games between 2015 and 2016 but struggled with consistency, saying he lacked maturity as a football player.
But, things began to click at the end of 2016. Hall amassed 23 tackles in his final three games of the season, including seven in the Pinstripe Bowl. As Hall looked ahead to the 2017 season, he knew he would probably step into a starting role with Anthony Walker, Joe Jones, and Jaylen Prater leaving the program.
Hall knew more snaps meant more responsibility. Habits needed to change. He made sure he was eating right. He devoted extra time to recovery. He spent even more time watching film.
“I became a more mature football player in my preparation, my approach to the game ... treating it more like my job,” Hall said.
Randy Bates, NU’s linebackers coach from 2006-17, always knew Hall had the physical abilities to succeed in the Big Ten. Still, Bates said Hall’s biggest adjustment between 2016 and 2017 came between the ears.
“[In 2017] he made big plays even before the play happened because he knew it was going to happen before it actually happened,” Bates said. “That comes with having a professional attitude, coming in and watching tape, doing a great job of preparing physically and mentally, and that’s where I believe his game took major steps.”
The switch flipped after NU fell to 2-3 following the Penn State game. Hall knew he had been playing well, but he was unhappy.
“I remember, it wasn’t even in a game, it was more so in practice at that week where, you know, nobody here is okay with losing,” Hall remembered. “So that was probably the first time in my life where I was truly angry even though I thought I’d played well.”
Confident in his capabilities on the field and harnessing his football intelligence, Hall knew that as the most experienced ‘backer in 2017, he needed to start setting the example for the rest of the position group.
It was time to test his abilities, or as former NU linebacker Brett Walsh put it, start “shooting the gap.”
“Shooting the gap” sounds awfully risky in a sport defined by discipline and assignments. But Walsh said Hall’s aggressiveness opened things up for NU’s defense.
“[If you shoot the gap] you’re putting everybody in a better position because then the running back wants bounce out and then the safety could get there or if he jukes inside, you know Paddy’s going to be down on the inside,” Walsh said.
So Hall began hunting ball-carriers in the backfield with a vengeance, leveraging his speed and decisiveness. It worked out – Hall began making big plays, and inspiring his fellow linebackers to play the same way.
“It just kind of caught on and caught on,” Walsh said. Hall and Co.’s aggressive play – and the TFLs and stuffs that followed – became a source of pride for the linebackers, with Hall developing into the group’s commander.
“Nate started to play confident, he started to play as fast as he could, as aggressive as he could,” Walsh said. “He was naturally becoming the leader, you know what I mean, without even trying.”
The Wildcats gave up 32 points per game in their first two Big Ten contests. They allowed 15.1 points per game the rest of the way, going 7-0.
As the Wildcats practiced ahead of their Music City Bowl matchup with Kentucky, Hall made a cut off of his right knee as he rushed the quarterback. He felt a pop.
“People say they can’t describe how it feels on until it happens to you and you know, I kinda knew immediately that it was ... some type of ligament tear,” Hall said.
He had torn his ACL. You can’t stitch that injury up and make a game-saving play later that night.
The only game Hall had missed in his career had come back in high school. Now, he would watch NU gun for its second 10-win season in three years from the sideline.
Even more arduous was the recovery process staring Hall in the face. Following an ACL surgery, an athlete has to incrementally re-learn how to move in ways that felt natural before his injury, according to Head Football Athletic Trainer Kevin Kikugawa.
“Initially it’s almost as if the muscle doesn’t work and so you’re just trying to get to teach it to work again,” Kikugawa said.
While his teammates participated in off-season workouts, Hall sat on a training table and tried to get his quad to fire like it used to. The process wasn’t always linear.
“Some days you feel like you’re 100 percent and some days you feel like 50 [percent],” Hall said. “You know, some days you wake up and you’re like, ‘Oh, man.’ You doubt yourself, if you’re gonna be able to make it back in time.”
Kikugawa said the athletic training staff encouraged Hall to meet with Dr. Julie Sutcliffe, a psychologist with NU Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) who often works with student-athletes.
Hall said Sutcliffe help him learn to “talk to himself” and supported him when he needed to let out frustrations about the rehab process.
“They have to cross a lot of mental barriers because it’s tough, you know, when a lot of kids ... identify themselves, say as a football player, as a soccer player and when you take them away from that, sometimes they get a little lost.” Kikugawa said.
Hall also had the benefit of rehabbing with Clayton Thorson, who Hall comforted in the bowels of Nissan Stadium after Thorson’s injury in the Music City Bowl.
During the rehab process, the duo talked about setbacks and encouraged each other to push through bumps in the road, Hall said.
On Instagram, Hall shared some photos of him and Thorson in the training room together with the caption “Comeback Chronicle.” Their rehabs are intrinsically tied together — both are seniors, emotional leaders, and crucial on-field cogs.
The fruits of their eight-month labor will define NU’s season.
Hall will return to the field this fall, but it remains to be seen if the senior can produce as he did in 2017. He says if there is one thing he’s learned in the past eight months, though, it’s the importance of confidence.
Anytime an athlete suffers a serious injury, there’s some element of doubt as to whether they can get back to where they were. Hall grappled with that this offseason, but he feels it’s made him stronger.
“I’ve always thought I was a pretty confident dude, and the knee happening kind of was the first shot of me losing some of my confidence,” Hall said. “And to regain that throughout the process, mentally and physically, and throughout practice in the fall, is huge and I think that’s probably the biggest benefit of the knee happening.
“Just mental fortitude and being able to trust yourself, trust your body, trust your mind to go out there and do what you do.”
Still, Hall said it was “nerve-wracking” when he attempted to cut for the first time, unsure if his body would cooperate with what his mind was telling him to do.
There were setbacks along the way, but Hall was able to leverage the resources around him and push himself through each step along the way. He says he feels he’s worked some muscles so much that he may have even improved certain aspects of his game. He’ll still be in the film room early, and now as a senior leader, he carries that same expectation for his teammates.
And he wants more.
“I think he’ll tell you, you know he had 16 [TFLs], he probably could have had maybe ten more if he just trusted himself a little bit more,” Walsh said.
And so eight months after his career season was cut one game short, Hall is back where he was. Prepared. Aggressive.