For decades, Northwestern finished at the bottom of the Big Ten. But in 1992 new head coach Gary Barnett brought a winning attitude to Evanston and engineered one of the greatest turnarounds in college sports history, leading Northwestern to two Big Ten championships. Matt Stewart's experience as a safety mirrored the team. As a freshman, he walked-on to the team and ended up fifth string on the depth chart. But with hard work, determination and self-belief, Matt earned a full-ride scholarship and his efforts were rewarded in a remarkable way. This excerpt from Matt's book The Walk-On looks at the first two games of the 1995 season when the Wildcats ultimately made it to the Rose Bowl, bringing hope to underdogs everywhere.
My parents drove to South Bend, Indiana, to watch us play Notre Dame. They wanted to witness a game at the most storied football program in the nation. Notre Dame had more wins and more All-Americans than any other school. Some of the greatest players of all time created college football history here. There wasn't another football program in the country with a richer history.
I was excited to play in South Bend. Now that I backed up Eric Collier, I would no longer room with William Bennett on the road. Eric and I would share a room, and we got along great. I was his biggest supporter and truly hoped he wouldn't get hurt. He was too good to keep off the field -- and he knew it. Eric carried a quiet confidence about him. The secondary didn't experience any drop-off from Kory Singleton's graduation with Eric taking his place. In fact, I'd argue that Eric was a better playmaker. He had a nose for the ball and never backed down. He would "lay the wood" whenever a ball carrier ran toward him -- and then he would reach out his hand and help the guy up. And when he did make a rare mistake? I'd see a smile cross his face, one of those 'I'll-get-you-next-time' looks. I just hoped we'd blow out a few opponents this year so I could get some playing time. And if Eric did get hurt, I'd be ready to go.
The Thursday before the game during team drills, Coach Barnett pumped a soundtrack of crowd noise into the stadium. He wanted us to get used to how loud it would be in the stands Saturday. The cheers hurt my ears. We adjusted quickly to the high decibel level and looked sharp on the field. After practice, Coach Barnett played the song High Hopes through the sound system and we sang it loud and proud.
The next day, we wore suits as we bused to South Bend. When we arrived, we went to the College Football Hall of Fame. It had just opened, and we were the first team to visit. The coaches jumped at the chance to have us learn more about the game's history. We spent a couple hours in the museum walking through the brand new, state-of-the-art facility, soaking up the pictures, stories, and artifacts of games past. We hoped to make history of our own the next day against the ninth-ranked Fighting Irish.
After the tour we went to Notre Dame Stadium for our walk-thru. We changed into sweats and walked onto the hallowed field. I honestly was not that impressed. It wasn't as big as it felt on television. It also showed its age. The concrete stairs and plain bleachers didn't impress me. The mural of Touchdown Jesus on a building overlooking the field didn't look as big as I had pictured it. I arrived with high expectations for the stadium and left disappointed.
Before practice, Coach Barnett gathered us together.
Look around, men, he said. Do you see any ghosts?
We looked around with smiles on our face.
I didn't think so. This stadium is just like any other. It's 100 yards long. The end zone is the same size as our end zone back home. The football is the same size as the footballs we've practiced with. You know, the media likes to play up the history here and how Notre Dame is God's gift to football. I'll tell you what. That team over there -- he pointed to Notre Dame's locker room -- is no better than us. They may have history on their side, but we have something they don't. The element of surprise. They don't think we're very good, but we're better than they think and tomorrow afternoon we're going to beat them right here on this field to prove it to them!
We were fired up! We believed Coach Barnett and knew in our hearts we would win. No one else did. The odds makers made us 27-point underdogs. No one expected us to even compete! The last time Northwestern beat Notre Dame? 1962.
The next morning before leaving for the stadium, Coach Barnett gave his inspirational pre-game speech. He stood behind a table with the scale and stacks of pennies.
Men, he began, at the beginning of camp I told you we would have 19 days of practice to prepare for today's game against Notre Dame. I'm proud of you. Each and every one of you attacked practice like we asked. You got better, and we've become a good team.
Coach Barnett put 19 pennies on the scale and it tipped to one side.
I assume Notre Dame made the most of their 19 practices too.
He stacked 19 pennies on the other side of the scale and it balanced out.
It's even, men. As you can see, we had 19 practices and Notre Dame had 19 practices. But ...
Coach Barnett held up a shiny penny in his hand.
Remember when we practiced that Sunday in Kenosha? Notre Dame took the day off, but we got in an extra practice.
He put the penny on the scale and it tipped to our side. An energy flew through the room. Confidence surged in our hearts. Coach Barnett looked up at us and said, Men, after we beat Notre Dame today, I do not want you to carry me off the field. We expect to win this game!
His speech made believers out of all of us.
In the locker room before kickoff, I felt an intensity unlike any I'd ever felt before. No one joked around. No one looked nervous. We all sat by our lockers, dressed in our white uniforms and purple pants, ready to take the field. We were locked in and focused. Five minutes before kickoff, Geoff Shein stood up and gave an impassioned speech. He urged each of us to play every play as if it were our last, to show the doubters we were for real. He worked hard to get us focused, but we already knew what we needed to do.
It was the 119th straight sellout for Notre Dame. Head coach Lou Holtz was going for his 200th win. Their band played the Notre Dame fight song as they ran onto the field wearing navy and gold uniforms, gold pants and gold helmets. The crowd roared. They expected to win, and why not? We hadn't won a season opener since 1975. We'd finished the previous season 3-7-1. They'd demolished us at Soldier Field the year before. They didn't think we stood a chance.
We came out fighting. Early in the first quarter, Danny Sutter recovered a fumble at the 50-yard line. Darnell Autry then gashed their defense and helped us get the ball to the six-yard line. On third down, Steve Schnur connected with David Beazley on a corner route. David stretched out and caught the ball right before crashing into the drum section of the Notre Dame band. We'd struck first and took the early 7-0 lead.
Our defense flew all over the field making play after play. We blitzed and sacked quarterback Ron Powlus. We intercepted passes and recovered fumbles. We frustrated them. They kicked a field goal in the second quarter to trim our lead to four points, but we answered with a nice drive of our own. On third and 7, Schnur connected with Brian Musso for 18 yards and the first down. A few plays later, Sam Valenzisi hit a field goal to regain the seven-point lead.
Notre Dame answered. In the second quarter they scored a touchdown on a three-yard run, but their freshman kicker shanked the extra point. His miss allowed us to keep a slim 10-9 lead.
Right before halftime, we forced Notre Dame to punt. With six seconds left, I ran onto the field. Coach Vanderlinden called a punt block, so I moved out to shadow the gunner as he ran down the field. On the snap, the gunner slipped inside me. I chased. As Musso caught the ball, I shoved my man in the back to prevent him from making the tackle. I threw my hands in the air to show the ref I hadn't clipped him, but he didn't buy it. The ref threw his flag. Not that it mattered. Musso only had a short return and Notre Dame declined the penalty.
We came out in the second half determined to put the game away. In years past, we would wilt in the second half and let the other team have their way with us. Coach Barnett didn't want that to happen to us again this year, so he prepared us to play two halves. Two weeks before the game, he'd blown his whistle halfway through practice and had us go into the locker room for thirty minutes. We then came back out to the field and started practice all over again. The first time we did this, we came out sluggish. But after berating us and making us start all over again, we learned to come out with fire in our bellies. His ploy trained us to play for 60 minutes, and we felt prepared to dominate for four quarters.
In the third quarter, D'Wayne Bates flashed the talent that would make him one of the Big Ten's most prolific receivers. D'Wayne had come to Northwestern from South Carolina as a quarterback, but since we already had plenty of talented throwers on our roster, Coach Barnett moved him to wide receiver. At 6-2, 210 lbs, D'Wayne had good speed and the size to jump over the smaller corners. Coach Barnett had him redshirt his freshmen year so he could learn how to play the position. Every day in practice he made impossible catches with his long arms and soft hands. In front of a sold out crowd, D'Wayne did what we saw him do every day in practice. He found a seam in the middle on a slant and caught Steve's 27-yard dart. The cornerback grabbed his legs and D'Wayne fell right on the chalk on the goal line. Touchdown! We went up 17-9. The crowd stood silent, stunned.
In the fourth quarter, Notre Dame came back. They scored on a two-yard run to cut the lead to 17-15. They needed a two-point conversion to tie. On the snap, Ron Powlus stepped back to pass but tripped over his left guard's leg. He quickly threw the ball in the air right as he fell to the ground. The refs ruled him down. No good! We still had the lead!
Some of us wondered if Marcel made that play for us.
Notre Dame would get one more shot. In the fourth quarter on fourth and two with four minutes left in the game, they decided to go for it. They ran a dive up the middle, but Danny Sutter and Matt Rice clogged the lane and threw running back Randy Kinder to the ground. Change of possession! We got the ball back!
Now we really felt the pressure. With less than four minutes left, we couldn't make a mistake. We needed to control the clock. We ran the ball a couple times. The clock kept ticking down. On third and 8, Steve hit D'Wayne for the first down.
Now it was Darnell's turn. He ripped off a couple long runs for first downs and the clock kept running. The seconds melted away. Less than 30 seconds now. Darnell ran it four yards. That was it! We watched the digital scoreboard clock countdown to zero.
We won 17-15!
We went crazy on the sideline. We'd beaten a Top Ten team on national television! We kept our poise and composure. We didn't lift Coach Barnett on our shoulders. We simply hugged each other and ran back to the locker room full of joy. All of our hard work over the past two years had paid off! We went all in with Coach Barnett and he led us to the promised land! We trusted him and he held true to his word. We'd beaten Notre Dame, just like he said we would! We expected victory and we won!
We did it thanks to the efforts of both the offense and defense. Darnell ran for 160 yards. Steve passed for 166 yards and didn't throw an interception. We only lost one fumble while Notre Dame lost two. Pat Fitzgerald had 15 tackles. Our defensive front sacked Powlus four times. It was a total team effort.
The next morning, the sports sections of every national newspaper highlighted our win over Notre Dame. "Upset Of The Century: Do You Believe In Miracles?" the Chicago Sun-Times headline read.
Reporters called our victory over Notre Dame one of the most surprising upsets of all time. That upset us. We'd expected to win. We knew we were going to win. Why couldn't the pundits see this wasn't a fluke? We really were a good team! But despite the good win, we knew we'd have to continue to fight the uphill battle against the losing history of Northwestern football. No one saw us as winners except us. Too bad the good feelings and positive vibes didn't last long.
The Sunday after beating Notre Dame, Chicago sports reporters crowded the Nicolet Center before practice to interview some of our star players and over the next few days, reporters from across the nation descended on Evanston. We had become the talk of the sports world. How in the heck did Northwestern beat Notre Dame? That just wasn't supposed to happen in the predictable world of college football. The powerhouse always beat the cupcake, right? We became an overnight sensation and everyone wanted to learn more about us.
We weren't used to seeing so many reporters on campus. For so many years the Chicago media had half-heartedly covered our team. A group of reporters would visit on media day to take pictures and gather quotes for a preview of our upcoming season and then rarely returned for a follow-up. They'd usually just give us a small paragraph in the Sunday morning paper to recap our game -- which was usually a loss. They hardly ever profiled our players or our efforts. A fan could go months without seeing a Northwestern football story in any paper but The Daily Northwestern, the campus rag. Yet here they were, dozens of scribes and television sports reporters from Chicago and beyond, all wanting to profile our amazing come-from-nowhere story. They all wanted a piece of us. As I walked into the Nicolet Center for meetings, I saw the lights of news cameras shining down on the faces of our newest stars -- Darnell Autry, Steve Schnur, D'Wayne Bates and Pat Fitzgerald. They gave them their sound bites before getting back to the business of football. Adding to the excitement was the fact the pollsters with the Associated Press decided to rank us as the 25th best team in the nation! It was the first time in more than 20 years that a Northwestern football team had been ranked. All of this was really good publicity for our program, but I wondered if the wanderlust might cause us to lose focus.
We had two weeks before we played our next game and no classes to worry about. Just football. The coaches reminded us how teams made the most improvement from the first game to the second game, so we took that to heart. We came to work every single day with intensity and focus. We used every opportunity to improve. We ended our first week of practice with a full pad scrimmage involving the second-and-third string players. I played well and continued to build up my self-confidence.
I also used the bye week to move into the ZBT house. I secured a room on the first floor and lived with Bennett Penn. Bennett was a chemistry/pre-med major, and he wanted to get a doctorate in both science and medicine. Since he spent a lot of time in the lab doing experiments, I had a lot of time to myself in our room to study and relax.
Some of the guys stayed in the house over the summer, and they didn't take very good care of it. Dried beer mixed with mud covered the floors. The flimsy, smelly carpet hadn't been replaced in years. The bathrooms? Don't even go there. The furniture creaked, threatening to collapse every time someone sat in it. The small two-story structure at 576 Lincoln was on its last legs. Even though a cleaning crew came by every once in a while, it still looked like a dump. I didn't want to live there but had to according to the bylaws. I decided to make the most of it. At least I got along with all my fraternity brothers. Many of them smoked pot and asked me to join them, but I always declined. I didn't want anything to do with illegal drugs. I didn't want to fail a piss test and lose my full-ride scholarship.
Next up on our schedule? Miami of Ohio. We expected to beat them. They played in the inferior Mid-American Conference and didn’t match up to us talent-wise. We predicted a blowout, and I expected to get some playing time at safety.
Holding true to our expectations, we dominated the first half. On the opening drive Darnell hit the gaps hard and our offense drove down the field with ease. Steve hit D'Wayne on a 28-yard fly route for a score and just like that, we were up 7-0. A few minutes later, Steve threw to Darnell on a short flat route and he sprinted in from 12 yards out to make it 14-0. Everything was going our way. They attempted a field goal and missed. Paul Burton punted the ball to the one-yard line, pinning the Redhawks deep in their own territory. In the second quarter, Steve found D'Wayne on a 37-yard fly route. The scoreboard now read 21-0.
All it takes sometimes is one play to change the momentum of the game.
We were on cruise control at the end of the second quarter when a Miami of Ohio defender blocked Paul Burton's punt and ran it into the end zone for a touchdown. On their next possession, they drove down the field again. They had our defense on our heels. But during the drive we hit their starting quarterback late, and the ref threw the flag. We hurt his leg on the play yet he stayed in the game for one more play. At the snap, he threw a touchdown pass to trim the lead to 21-14.
The refs called offensive pass interference! The score was wiped out. Their injured quarterback limped off the field and would not return. It would now be up to their backup quarterback to rally the Redhawks. Miami of Ohio head coach Randy Walker -- the future coach of Northwestern– called on their field goal unit. Their kicker missed it again! That was two missed field goals in the first half! We went into the locker room up 21-7, knowing we'd dodged some bullets.
In the third quarter, we regained our mojo. Rodney Ray picked off a pass on the second play of the second half and ran it in 20 yards for the score. 28-7. On the sideline, I entertained thoughts of a blowout. I couldn’t wait to get in to play in the fourth quarter. We laughed on the sideline, knowing this game was ours.
But on our next offensive possession, they regained momentum.
As Sam Valenzisi attempted a 52-yard field goal, our long snapper, Larry Curry, didn't get the ball to the holder, Paul Burton, cleanly. Paul tried to lift up the ball as Sam's leg came through, but it wasn't fast enough. A Miami of Ohio guy blocked it.
In the fourth quarter, we drove again and set up for another field goal. Another bad snap. We lost six points due to bad snaps.
Miami of Ohio pounced. They began to find holes in our defense and drove down the field. On third and goal from the five-yard line, their backup quarterback completed the touchdown pass to make it 28-14. Then a few minutes later, he threw a nine-yard pass for another score to make it 28-21. We were now clinging to a seven-point lead. We lost our confidence. We lost our composure.
On their next possession they drove down the field and with less than three minutes left, scored from the two-yard line. It was now 28-27. An extra point would tie the game. But instead of going for the tie, Randy Walker decided to go for the win. He called a two-point play and their offense took the field. Tension built on the sideline. We had to stop them!
Their quarterback took the snap, stepped back and threw it. He overthrew his receiver! No good! We still had the lead! Now all we had to do was run out the clock!
We regained the ball and made a couple first downs, forcing Miami of Ohio to use up all their timeouts. But with 55 seconds left to play, they forced us into a fourth down situation. A good punt deep in their territory would seal the win. Our punt team lined up. Larry Curry lined up over the ball. He put his hands around it.
The unthinkable happened. For the third time that game, Larry Curry made a bad snap. The ball rolled past Paul Burton. He made a mad dash to get to it. Paul landed on it at the one-yard line. Miami of Ohio regained possession at the one-yard line! They had one-yard to go to win the game!
Our defense buckled down. On the first play, we stuffed the quarterback on a sneak.
Time kept running down.
On the second play, their quarterback fumbled the ball but jumped on it to regain possession.
Time's still running. :06, :05, :04.
Their quarterback spiked the ball to stop the clock.
Their field goal unit came on the field. The kicker who missed two previous field goal attempts lined up for the kick. The snap. The kick.
Miami of Ohio won the game 30-28.
We stood there in disbelief. What had just happened? How did we lose the game? I felt bad for Larry Curry. He was a great guy, a tough defensive lineman and, usually, a solid long snapper. His bad day cost us our second win of the season.
We'd gone from hero to zero in two weeks. All of a sudden our win over Notre Dame looked like a fluke. This loss stung because it ruined our dreams of a perfect season. If only we'd played hard all four quarters. We'd gotten too cocky, arrogant and lazy, and Miami of Ohio took advantage. Give them credit -- they never gave up. Down by 21-points, they kept battling with their second-string quarterback running the show, and their persistence helped them win the game. There was a lesson in there for us, but it was hard to see through the tears.
I'd never seen Coach Barnett so mad and upset. I'm sure he was embarrassed facing the same reporters who'd just hailed him as the best coach in the land for beating Notre Dame. Now what would they write? He ran us hard the next day. Our confidence escaped us. We were broken, unsure as to whether we were really as good as we thought we were. The insecurities of old crept into our consciousness. It felt like we'd never win another game.
Like a ship adrift at sea, Coach Barnett became our lighthouse. After a terrible Tuesday practice, Coach Barnett called a team meeting the next day. He stood on the stage with a coconut in one hand and an Oreo cookie in the other, and he told us a story.
There's a tribe in Africa that traps monkeys in the jungle, he said. They catch the monkeys and then sell them to the zoos. Now to catch the monkeys, the tribesmen build traps out of coconuts. They take a coconut like this one, carve a hole in the top and drain out the milk. Then they take a banana and put it inside. I couldn’t find a banana, so let’s pretend this Oreo cookie is a banana.
Coach Barnett put the Oreo inside the coconut.
They then chain the coconut to a tree and leave it there, he continued. Monkeys are stubborn animals. When they come across one of these coconuts, they stick their hand in it to grab a hold of the cookie. Watch.
Coach Barnett put his hand in the hole in the coconut and made a fist. He pulled up but his hand would not come out.
When the monkey grabs the Oreo, he's trapped, Coach Barnett said. He can't get his hand out. But watch.
Coach Barnett let go of the cookie and his hand slipped out of the coconut.
All the monkey has to do is let go, but they are so stubborn, they hold on to that banana -- or cookie -- until they starve to death. Our loss to Miami is that cookie. Men, if we hold on to that loss, it will ruin the rest of our season. We need to let it go so we can move on and win the rest of our games.
We realized what we needed to do. We needed to let go. We needed to put it behind us. We needed to move forward.
We needed to beat our next opponent, the best medicine for any ailing team.
-- The Walk-On is available through the publisher, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Northwestern University. A portion of the proceeds from the book will go toward the Matt Hartl Scholarship Foundation. To learn more about Matt Stewart, visit his website at MattStewartBooks.com.
Excerpted by permission from The Walk-On by Matt Stewart. Copyright (c) 2012 by Matt Stewart. Published by Lulu.com. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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