Athlete alums recall days of Magic, Roses

Sam Eifling is a Medill senior. He can be reached at [email protected].

This gathering seemed misplaced at Norris University Center, in a room with carpet and fluorescent lights and air conditioning. It seemed far better suited for a windy cranny of old Dyche Stadium, or in Welsh-Ryan Arena back when a dirt track encircled the basketball court. Somewhere haunted by the sweat and screams of athletic competition.

Despite its venue, surely no Sesquicentennial event showcased past decades as viscerally as the gathering of former Northwestern athletes and a current NU softball assistant coach, Kate Drohan. On display Saturday morning were, appropriately, about 150 years of firsthand NU sports history. That includes the experience of the emcee, senior associate athletic director Ken Kraft, a man who once upon a time wrestled and coached here and may be the most passionate Wildcats fan alive.

According to Kraft, NU won its first national title in tug-of-war, in the 1890s. The program was yanked three years later, if that demonstrates the bittersweet history of NU sports.

Present on the panel was Mike Campbell — who was leading the basketball team in rebounding about the time most undergrads here were born — fondly recounting his win over eventual national champion Michigan State in 1979, a game that Magic Johnson later described as one of the low points of his life. NU finished the season 6-21.

Present also was former wrestler Wayne Watson, a 1968 grad who is now chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago, recounting that before he earned three degrees at NU, Kraft sat in his mother’s kitchen and offered the chance to attend college to a South Side kid whose only previous ambition had been “to survive.”

And there was All-America football center Alex Sarkisian, recounting his direct snap to halfback Ed Tunnicliff, who raced for a 43-yard touchdown that won NU its only Rose Bowl.

That was on Jan. 1, 1949, which, if you’re counting, was fully a third of NU’s history ago. The Cats waited 47 years before a return to Pasadena.

“The last (Rose Bowl) that we went to is something that we as players in 1948 never thought would happen,” Sarkisian said. “We hoped and prayed that we would be alive and be able to see another Northwestern team in the Rose Bowl.

“And we saw that. And let me tell you, of the 44-man traveling squad, 34 of my teammates were there. That’s the feeling we have for this university.”

Sarkisian’s love for NU ran deep among the panelists. Even Drohan said she felt “blessed” to have made her way to NU, even though she never attended school here. On a recruiting trip to California, she said, she brought a father to tears when she offered his daughter a scholarship. He thanked Drohan for changing his daughter’s life.

Watson’s life, too, changed when he came to NU. Wrestling, of all things, took him places he never expected to go. He remembers thinking, “What the hell does a chancellor do?” as a student.

“Now, lo and behold, I’m a chancellor,” he said. “Last thing in the world I thought I’d be doing.”

Such unpredictability is a hallmark of life and sport alike. Cynicism is easy. But the occasional happy endings are worth remembering, if even for a morning.