By Paul M. Banks
For the first time since the 1930s, Northwestern football will have a winning decade. Indeed the program has taken a major step up to gain respectability and more during the 2000s. From about the 1960s up until 1995, going to Ryan Field and watching the home team lose was like walking into a Starbucks and hearing Norah Jones; 19 times out of 20 (Or thereabouts) it happens.
But since Pat Fitzgerald took over the program in 2006, the ‘Cats have nipped, clawed and scratched their way into bowl eligibility in every season but one during his tenure. If they win the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day, 2009’s season win total will tie 2008 for second most in school history. It’s clear that Northwestern bowl berths will soon become as much a part of the holidays as that annoying over-synthesized Paul McCartney tune “Wonderful Christmas Time.”
So who are the top ten players who made this Evanston renaissanace possible? I enlisted the help of a man who knows more about NU sports than any other journalist I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting; the Daily Herald’s Lindsey Wilhite. In addition to his reporting duties, check out the blog he currently pens at the Herald site entitled Joe Sports
1. Tyrell Sutton
During the 2000s, Northwestern had arguably more talent at the tailback position than at any other, at Sutton was by far the best of the bunch. The only thing he didn’t have going for him was health (and size, he’s listed as 5’9″, but I’m 5’10” on a good day, and he levels off at the same level as my chin) . Had Tyrell not missed so much time due to injury, he would have blown every school rushing record out of the water. Despite all the missed time, he still finished #2 in most of the major categories.
Sutton is a rookie with the Carolina Panthers this season, where has 9 carries for 53 yards through 12 games.
2. Brett Basanesz
In 2005, Basanesz was the Big Ten conference’s Offensive Player of the Year. After rewriting the entire book of passing records at NU, he had a cup of coffee in the NFL, and found a home on a couple different team’s practice squads. That’s how competitive it is to make it at the next level.
3. Zach Strief
You knew the big offensive tackle, the school’s most recent All-American (2005), would be a top five pick. Here’s how Lindsey Wilhite described him
“During his true freshman year, when he redshirted and served as a scout-team tackle for the 2000 team that shared the Big Ten championship, the veterans nicknamed Strief “Big Bitch.” It was a compliment. The 6-foot-7, 335-pounder, who also had a big sense of humor, paved the way for a lot of yards at right tackle.”
4. Tim McGarigle
I’ll let Wilhite take this one:
Due to injuries, McGarigle had to play as a true freshman and it wasn’t pretty. He probably remembers better, but I could swear Penn State’s Larry Johnson trucked McGarigle while running for a single-game Penn State record number of yards. Even then, Randy Walker saw something special in McGarigle. He grew up, busted his butt in the weight room and deservedly became the school’s record-holder for tackles.
A resume like that calls for the fight song!
5. Nick Roach
I asked Fitz about the two time all conference selection and current Chicago Bears starting Linebacker at a press conference earlier this year.
“I’m very proud of Nick. I’m not surprised that Nick is having a great career with the Bears. Number one he’s an extremely intelligent football player. I’m assuming he knows all three (linebacker) positions and he’s also been playing in the kicking game for them. That’s what he did here for us. He’s really bright, understood concepts, fundamental and technique and he did what he was coached to do. Number two, he’s really athletic and he plays football the way you want guys to play. He plays with passion and emotion. He’s a great teammate, he doesn’t speak a whole lot but when he does guys listen,” his text buddy and former position coach responded.
I also had an exclusive with Roach this fall, which you can read by clicking here.
6. Jason Wright
Wright’s just the second player in school history to earn back-to-back team MVP awards, as well as the school’s 5th leading rusher.
Or as Wilhite describes him:
“This guy is a Renaissance man. One of the most enjoyable young men I’ve ever had the privilege to cover. He was pre-med at NU and scored in the 92nd percentile on his MCAT. At Randy Walker’s memorial service, he sang an achingly beautiful version of “It is Well with my Soul.” And, by the way, he could run and catch the heck out of the ball.”
7. Corey Wootton
Overcame a REALLY slow start this season to turn it up down the stretch. Has shown that he’s all healed up from the gruesome injury suffered in last year’s Alamo Bowl, and should be a “first day guy” in the NFL Draft come April.
Here’s video of him sacking Wisconsin QB Scott Tolzien last month, complete with “Wildcat Roar” sound effect,
8. Damien Anderson
The school’s all-time leading rusher, and one of the greatest offensive weapons that Evanston has ever seen gave opposing defenses nightmares from 1998-2001. His numbers and records speak for themselves.
9. Zak Kustok
4th in school history in total offense, Kustok led the Cats to their most recent Big Ten title in 2000, guiding the spread-option system with productive precision, at a time when not everyone was doing it. Today, he’s a stock trader, and you can learn more about that by reading this article.
And of course his sister, Sarah Kustok, currently inspires legions of local male sports fans to salivate every time she appears on television, as a reporter for CSN Chicago.
10. Napoleon Harris
Like the previous two, would be higher on this list if half his career didn’t occur in the 1990s. You could say Napoleon “blown apart” opposing team’s backfields, as he’s 9th in school history for career tackles and tackles for a loss. Played on a ridiculously talented Thornton high school basketball team with the NFL WR Antwaan Randle El, former Fresno St. Forward Erik Herring and ex-Charlotte Bobcats Center Melvin Ely.
Just missed or Honorable Mention, if you will
Mike Kafka- The ’09 season was like classic Continental European literature, “Kafkaesque”
C. J. Bacher- (3rd in school history in total offense)
Luis Castillo- In Wilhite’s words “I don’t know a ton about Luis, except that he was respectful enough of Randy Walker that he allowed his coach to pronounce his name “Louis” for four years without correcting him. Like McGarigle, he was thrown into the fire as a too-small freshman. Unlike McGarigle, he had extra God-given ability to accompany the absurd work ethic.”
Noah Herron- 6th all-time in career rushing
WRs Ross Lane (3rd in receiving yards in school history) Eric Peterman and Kunle Patrick– (both join Lane in the top ten in all major receiving marks)