December 10, 1995 in Sports

Northwestern Rewards Its Own For Life Of Abuse

Eric Torbenson Staff writer

My life sentence in the Prison of Gridiron Shame has been commuted.

Seven grueling years buried under heaps of football misery. At the very mention of Northwestern, booming guffaws from sports-savvy companions.

I attended the kitten farm of football universities. Opponents would get a warm, fuzzy feeling while strangling my hapless Wildpurrers. Fifty points later, they’d flush us down the Big 10 toilet like some unwanted litter.

The last time NU had a winning season, I was spitting Gerber’s carrot chunks at my mother. The last time NU went to a bowl game, my mother was spitting Gerber’s at my grandmother.

I did my time in the Pigskin Prison. Hope for my release died every fall Saturday as scores scrolled across the TV screen: Michigan 55, Northwestern 7. Indiana 42, Northwestern 3.

This year, coach Gary Barnett mailed us cakes with saw blades inside. My Northwestern Mildcats went rabid. Foaming at the mouth. Actually preventing opponents from lunching in our end zone.

Nothing was more satisfying than 80,000 gape-mouth Notre Dame fans watching purple-clad bodies hog-tie their Fighting Irish on national television.

Or hearing Michigan fans become the quietest 100,000 people ever convened in a football stadium as Northwestern put their boots to the Wolverines’ backsides.

Yummy. Better than the Mariners winning their division after sucking rosin bags for two decades.

At 10-1, the ‘Cats had coughed up the losing demons like a half-century-old furball. Wrapped in that hairy mess were single plays like this one, which probably boils down the whole NU football experience for me:

It was a bitter cold Thanksgiving Weekend. Our athletic department had shamelessly sold a home game against Ohio State to the “neutral” site of Cleveland. The 3,000 NU fans who made the 7-hour drive found themselves somewhat muffled by the 75,000 “away” Buckeyes fans, who belched their own fight song.

With our team down by just a few points, Ohio State felt sudden compassion and found themselves 35 yards away from a first down. Then their center hiked the ball over their punter’s head. Way over.

Trouble was, the Buckeyes’ PUNTER was a better athlete than most of our guys. He ran back near the goal line, scooped the thing up, scrambled to the far sideline, and calmly completed a deep pass for the first down like some PeeWee league travesty.

We sold our soul for a few bucks so the Buckeyes could castrate us, 44-6, in the comfort of their own state. With no feeling in my extremities, I left the stadium wondering if football agony made you a better person.

No, it turns out. It just makes you a smarmy little butthead when the tables turn.

Ah, revenge. The dish best served on a football field. Three weeks ago, the Buckeyes, which are literally large, wormy nuts, needed to beat archrival Michigan to do everything. To win the Big Ten, to smell the roses, to win the national championship. But after some Michigan guy with three dozen syllables for a name played nutcracker for four quarters, they ended up whupped.

Northwestern in the Rose Bowl. Gary Hart in the White House. O.J. Simpson in prison. While technically possible, these are sucker bets. I almost made one, having 1,000 to 1 odds for NU to frolic in Pasadena at a Las Vegas casino in June. I looked at the bookies. I looked at the odds again. I blew the cash on craps. I hate myself.

A thinner wallet remains an acceptable side effect to the feel-good team of the decade. But here’s the best thing about the Wildcat Revival:

We’re not the worst anymore. It is with great pleasure that we take off the National Collar of Football Futility from our necks and pass it to the next bearer: Oregon State. Careful - the thing chafes like you wouldn’t believe.

I’ve walked away from my football incarceration days. No longer are we grape-colored fumblekitties who once formed the concrete slab UNDER the Big 10 Doormat.

After being kicked around for decades, you can bet I’ll be kicking this horse for as long as there’s a rib left to boot.

And to borrow a line from Barnett, I look forward to the days of explaining to people that, Northwestern, in fact, wasn’t always a football school.

, DataTimes MEMO: Staff writer Eric Torbenson attended Northwestern from 1988-1993.

Staff writer Eric Torbenson attended Northwestern from 1988-1993.

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