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TJ Green and Joe Gaziano: leaders on and off the field

A different kind of Northwestern football story.

TJ Green plays a game of knockout with a group of campers
Camp Kesem at Northwestern University

This article is a little different than most InsideNU pieces, serving as a more personal essay. The content in it is important to me, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to share this story with the InsideNU readership.

This past June, I, along with my rambunctious bunk of 11-12-year-old boys, was lucky enough to have lunch with TJ Green and Joe Gaziano. The duo (along with the Northwestern football coaching staff) had come to visit Northwestern’s chapter of Camp Kesem (CKNU) in Fredonia, Wisconsin.

For those unfamiliar with Camp Kesem, it is a national charity with chapters at universities across the country that supports children through and beyond a parent or guardian’s cancer, specifically by providing a free week of summer camp and by fostering a community that enables these children to find hope through friendship. The Northwestern chapter is entirely student-run, with most of the fundraising coming from counselor volunteers.

For the past two years, Northwestern Football has partnered with CKNU. Last year Northwestern invited campers’ families to come to the Notre Dame game. Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald even wore a CKNU shirt in his post-game press conference. The Wildcats have also begun a tradition of sending players and coaches to visit camp, last year’s delegation included Paddy Fisher among others. This year, Green and Gaziano were the headliners.

Coach Fitz wearing a Camp Kesem Northwestern shirt during his post-game press conference after facing Notre Dame last season
Tristan Jung

While at camp, the amount of time Green and Gaziano spent with my campers answering every question they could conceive about football and any other conceivable topic was inspirational.

At Kesem, everyone takes on a nickname, a secret identity allowing campers and counselors alike to separate their “camp selves” from their “home selves.” One of my campers, Wildcat**, was a young 11-year-old boy with a deep love of football. The second he saw all six-foot-four of Joe Gaziano appear in front of him, his face lit up in a way I hadn’t seen prior. Later that night, another camper spent nearly 30 minutes bragging about how Pat Fitzgerald promised him Northwestern would win a national championship for him and a fellow camper.

While at camp, Wildcats Joe Gaziano and TJ Green take part in various activities with campers.
Camp Kesem at Northwestern University

Seeing firsthand the impact they had on my campers, who have already dealt with so much, speaks volumes about their character and values. I think that is why seeing TJ go down on Saturday was so painful — it was no longer just about the football.

Having seen the man outside of the lens of a reporter, knowing the story of his ascendence — son of a Super Bowl champion quarterback, he walked on at Northwestern, patiently waiting to seize his turn in the spotlight — only to have that opportunity ripped away from him a little over one half of one game into his redshirt senior season, was difficult.

One of the best thing about sports writing is telling untold stories — especially stories like the one above — but at the same time, getting close to players to effectively do so can create some painful moments.

Through the many ups and the downs of Northwestern sports fandom, it is important, in my opinion, to remember things like this. You, the fan, may only see what the players do on game days, the performances are a mere fraction of the whole person.

Wildcat football has provided countless inspirational stories in the last season alone. Drew Luckenbaugh and his overtime game-winning field goal against Nebraska, Isaiah Bowser overcoming adversity to being thrust into the starting job mid-season as a true freshman, and Chad Hanaoka’s 3rd down run that allowed Northwestern to have the chance for Bennett Skowronek’s catch against Iowa, just to name a few. But those stories are only a small part of what makes these players special.

The past few years have been some of the best for Northwestern sports in school history, and it can be difficult to not take that for granted. As Wildcats in every sport surpass our expectations, it is just as important to reflect and acknowledge the fact that Northwestern hadn’t won a bowl game in 64 years before the team won the 2013 Gator Bowl.

The remains of the stuffed monkey the Wildcats carried in the lead up to the 2013 Gator Bowl
@NU_Sports on Twitter

I’ve been rooting for Northwestern sports for as long as I can remember, and at times it is difficult not to get caught up in the moment, but this bye week, even following an extremely disappointing loss, gives players, coaches, and fans alike a moment to take a breath and prepare for the hardest stretch of the schedule. But regardless of how we think the rest of the season will go, we should also use this time to reflect on things that are bigger than football.

The recent on-field success of Northwestern football is only part of the success of the program. Northwestern football players are part of a culture that encourages excellence beyond just the athletic field, but also in the classroom and the community. Green, Gaziano, and the coaching staff didn’t go to Camp Kesem because they needed to. Instead, they chose to spend their free time helping others.

That’s commendable, and something fans should recognize as wholly separate from the game of football and even its immediate surroundings. The players and staff gave the kids at CKNU as big of a gift as they could ever give from anything they will do on Saturday for the rest of the year, and that counts, too.

**Name changed for privacy purposes