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A heartfelt farewell to Ryan Field

Generations of memories.

Maine v Northwestern Photo by John Gress/Getty Images

On Oct. 5, 2013, the No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes marched into Ryan Field in one of the most anticipated games in Evanston’s history. The ‘Cats, ranked No. 16 in the country, were hosting not only their conference rival, but ESPN’s College Gameday crew ahead of a primetime ABC game with Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit on the call. On that evening, Ryan Field was over its 47,130 capacity.

As any diehard Northwestern fan knows all too well, the ‘Cats played admirably that Saturday night, keeping up with the Buckeyes and even possessing a fourth quarter lead, but the team came up short after a questionable spot on a Kain Colter fourth-down sneak. Ohio State emerged victorious, 40-30.

I, along with 47,329 others, was there that night. To be honest, I don’t really remember any of the fanfare or even the final score. I was 9 years old, and here is a complete list of the things I do remember from that October evening:

  1. The Wildcats lost
  2. The feeling of being a small boy in the concourses of a packed stadium, with large and sweaty Ohio State fans shoulder-to-shoulder with ‘Cats fans like sardines. I vaguely recall holding onto my parents’ hands as tightly as I could, scared as a bat in the daylight, as they led me through the crowd just to get to our seats.
  3. The Ryan Field crowd was the loudest thing I had ever heard, and the coolest place I had ever been to

A little bit over 10 years later, Northwestern is suiting up to play its (likely) final game at this iteration of Ryan Field. Even without the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia, the stadium still represents something deeply important to me and thousands of other Northwestern fans.

The past few seasons have made it difficult to imagine Ryan Field exceeding its capacity. Heck, even 75% of butts in seats would make me pretty happy. The stadium isn’t spectacular by any means — it lacks the grandeur of the Big House, the scenery of the Rose Bowl or the tradition of Camp Randall — but there’s still something undeniably charming about those two towers and Saturday afternoons at Ryan Field.

Opened in 1926, the venue was originally called Dyche Stadium, named after Evanston mayor William Dyche, who oversaw the project. Back in the day, it was one of the nicest stadiums in all of college football. Within a decade of its arrival, Dyche Stadium had hosted three different Big Ten champion Northwestern squads. Shortly after, it became the place to see phenom quarterback Otto Graham, as he dazzled his way to a third-place finish in the Heisman race in 1943, the springboard for a career that would see him enshrined in both the College and Pro Football Hall of Fames.

Fast forward through the rest of the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s, which mostly featured a lot of losing (save for the 1948 Rose Bowl, a handful of seasons under Ara Parseghian and 1970-1972) and that’s where I re-enter the story. Not me directly — I mentioned I was 9 in 2013, so you can do the math there — but my uncle, who arrived on campus in the fall of 1982.

At this point, Dyche Stadium had mostly become associated with pain and losing. On the heels of an NCAA record 34-game losing streak, the ‘Cats welcomed Northern Illinois to Evanston, with my uncle in attendance for his first ever game as a Northwestern student. The Wildcats escaped football damnation, enjoying the sweet taste of victory for the first time in 1,106 days. Naturally, the students stormed the field.

My uncle says he will never forget that day, as a crowd of students ripped the goalposts out of the ground, carried them up the bleachers and dropped them several stories down onto the pavement next to Dyche Stadium. Central Avenue filled up with students, who picked up the posts and carried them down the street (mind you, not a short walk, nor a light piece of luggage) and into Lake Michigan, completing the act now iconically known as “laking the posts.”

The Wildcats won again that same season, two weeks later against Minnesota, and again, the students stormed the field and chucked another $3,000 goalpost into the water. After that, additional protection was added to the uprights, and a police presence was enforced.

Seven years later, my parents would arrive on campus, meet each other on the first day of freshman year in Allison Hall, and eventually fall in love. In the early nineties, the team stank once again, so my parents’ best football memories from their time on campus are of throwing marshmallows. I’m not joking.

Back in the day, to provide the entertainment the football team could not, students would fling marshmallows and try to land them in the band’s tubas. Before games, students would buy bags of marshmallows, and instead of making s’mores, would participate in this absurd tradition. Eventually, this practice was banned at Dyche Stadium, and my parents even remember marshmallow sales were prohibited on Fridays and Saturdays in Evanston in an attempt to halt students’ efforts.

Despite the losing, like any good Northwestern fans would, my parents raised me in purple. In the time between their graduation and my arrival, Dyche Stadium had been renamed to Ryan Field, and the venue had served host to critical Northwestern wins during the 1995, 1996 and 2000 seasons, campaigns that still mean a great deal to Wildcat fans across the country.

I went to a handful of games growing up, but it wasn’t until that Ohio State game in 2013 that I began to truly fall in love with football. I almost immediately recognized Trevor Siemian as a football god, eventually to be replaced by the shrine of Justin Jackson. Crucial home wins in 2017 and 2018 helped provide some of my best sports memories as a kid, culminating in a trip to the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, where my whole family traveled to enjoy a New Year’s Eve comeback victory in the rain — a memory I’ll have forever. In 2020, I (and everybody else) watched from our couches as a 4-0 record at Ryan Field fueled the Wildcats to the conference title game in the pandemic-shortened season, a much-needed distraction from the craziness in the world.

My family and me at the Northwestern-Ohio State game in October 2013.

It all came full circle when, last fall, I ran across the grass at Ryan Field, partaking in the freshman tradition of the Wildcat Dash. Now at my dream school as a student, this was a poetic moment after years of Northwestern fandom. My trot down the sideline was a leisurely one — nothing like the way Jackson sprinted the field during his time in Evanston. Ryan Field, imperfect and mostly empty, was now part of my home, and I’ll always have a place in my heart for its vintage vibe and homey atmosphere.

Me, back at Ryan Field 10 years later, now as a member of the student media.

For me and ‘Cats fans everywhere, tomorrow marks goodbye to a venue that has been with Northwestern through thick and thin: miraculous wins, heartbreaking losses and goalpost thievings, running the gamut of human emotions. If everything goes according to plan, those emotions will be on full display Saturday — a mixture of elation from victory with verklempt bittersweetness from bidding adieu to Ryan Field.

It’ll be weird when the ‘Cats are playing at an offsite location in the next few seasons, and even weirder when Northwestern moves into the high-tech spaceship slated to come to the shores of Lake Michigan in 2026. But in the meantime, there’s only one thing to focus on: giving Ryan Field a proper send-off by securing a victory over Purdue to clinch bowl eligibility.

Here’s to hoping storybook endings do come true.

Please feel free to leave some of your favorite memories from Ryan Field (or Dyche Stadium) in the comments. I would love to read them!