Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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All that’s gold doesn’t glitter

Every September since 1997, a large package has arrived at Ryan Field. Though the boxes have varied in size and shape, they have all contained the same return address — South Bend, Ind.

When Jovan Witherspoon plays his first game next fall, it will mark the fourth consecutive year a Notre Dame transfer has revived a football career at Northwestern.

A pipeline? Well, not exactly.

When John Cerasani, Zak Kustok, Jeff Roehl and Witherspoon decided to attend Notre Dame, all four had the same idealized goal — playing for the most storied college football program in history. Yet for different reasons, each left the hallowed grounds of Notre Dame in search of a new home.

They found it in Evanston.

• • •

Using every ounce of willpower in his body, John Cerasani tried to walk away from Notre Dame teammate John Beeler, who had called him nearly every name in the book.

It was February 1997, seven months before a season in which Cerasani figured to start at tight end for the Fighting Irish. Several players were having a quiet meal at a diner 10 miles from campus, when Beeler shot a barrage of insults Cerasani’s way.

Up until this point, Cerasani had adored Notre Dame — the lore of Notre Dame Stadium and Touchdown Jesus, the respect football players received on campus, the prestige of the program, and the history of Gipp, Hornung and Rockne.

But he also loves his mother.

When Beeler poked fun at Cerasani’s mother, who suffers from diabetes and multiple sclerosis, the fight was on.

“He threw a punch at me, I threw a punch at him and I won,” he said.

Yet in the end, Cerasani lost out. Beeler’s nose had been shattered, prompting several phone calls to the administration from his father, a wealthy businessman and Notre Dame alum. Several weeks later Cerasani was branded with a semester-long suspension, keeping him out of uniform for the upcoming season.

Heartbroken and confused, Cerasani twice tried to appeal the ruling, but the university held firm. He saw no choice but to leave Notre Dame.

“It was just a stupid situation,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. All the stuff that happened, no one could believe it.”

Cerasani’s teammates were equally appalled.

“Those guys were saying I got screwed, they were saying this in the newspaper,” Cerasani said. “They thought it was bullshit enough that when fall camp started the next year, the kid (Beeler) got picked on so bad that he quit the team anyway.”

Newly appointed head coach Bob Davie did not echo the support from his players. Taking over for the legendary Lou Holtz after the 1996 season, Davie didn’t involve himself in Cerasani’s case.

Said Cerasani: “Davie was like, ‘Oh God, I’m staying out of it. I’m not going to get involved with this stuff. I just got hired as a head coach and I don’t want to hurt my reputation any more.”

Despite passivity in the appeals and rulings, Davie was shocked when Cerasani informed him that he was transferring. At first Davie did not grant Cerasani his release, pleading with him to comply with the suspension and return the following year.

Cerasani contends that Holtz, the man for whom he had come to play, would have handled the situation internally, punishing him in football and telling the administration “that I’m not some thug who goes around punching people.”

A blue-chip recruit coming out of high school in Schaumburg, Ill., Cerasani chose Notre Dame over higher-ranked teams like Florida State, Miami and UCLA simply because Holtz recruited him. As a redshirt freshman, Cerasani reveled in the experience of playing for Holtz.

“Holtz was part of that mystique,” Cerasani said. “No one talked when he was in the room. You’re not doing touchdown dances. Everyone’s wearing their uniforms tucked in perfectly.

“He ran Notre Dame football the way Notre Dame football is supposed to be run.”

Cerasani’s transfer decision came down to Wisconsin, UCLA and NU, which was fresh off back-to-back Big Ten titles in 1995 and 1996.

NU’s recent success and proximity to Cerasani’s home simplified the decision. Ironically, the first game Cerasani watched as a freshman at Notre Dame was NU’s scintillating 17-15 upset of the ninth-ranked Fighting Irish.

“We were all on the bench and looking at each other like, ‘We did not just lose this game. The reason we all came here is because we’re supposed to be the best,'” Cerasani said.

Though NU went 6-17 in his two years as a player, Cerasani maintains he made the right decision.

“It’s cool to see both sides of the fence, to transfer midway and see different teams,” he says. “And you go from one football team to another and you hear everybody bitching and complaining about the same stuff.”

• • •

The first time Zak Kustok set foot on the Notre Dame campus, he was sporting the maroon and gold of Florida State.

It was Nov. 13, 1993, the day of No. 2 Notre Dame’s epic battle with the No. 1 Seminoles. The Fighting Irish prevailed 31-24, but Kustok, then a high school freshman, wanted nothing more than to see the home team falter.

“Growing up I couldn’t stand Notre Dame,” he said. “I never rooted for them, never really liked them.”

When Kustok returned to South Bend the following year, one man changed his mind — Holtz. He lured Kustok with an offensive scheme that would not emphasize the option and that allowed him to drop back and pass. The system “seemed like a good fit,” and when Notre Dame offered him a scholarship in February 1996, Kustok accepted.

Prior to his first game, a wide-eyed Kustok looked on as 40,000 fans showed up for a pep rally at Notre Dame Stadium. The excitement continued through his first season — Kustok logged time as Notre Dame’s third-string quarterback and traveled with the team.

But Holtz’s departure brought a new offensive vision that left Kustok out in the cold. Davie wanted a strictly option quarterback and Kustok quickly fell down the depth chart in favor of Jarious Jackson and Arnaz Battle.

Shocked and deflated, Kustok knew his time was up at Notre Dame.

“I felt that I could play at Notre Dame and I was as good as those other quarterbacks,” he said. “But I didn’t think I was given a chance.”

The next few months brought Kustok to Morainne Valley Junior College, where he served part of the NCAA’s one-year requirement for players transferring between Division I schools. In addition, Kustok sued the NCAA to attain an earlier date of eligibility while he shopped around for a new school. After a few weeks, the turmoil began to take its toll on Kustok.

“There was a point where I was looking at other schools and I said to my dad, ‘I don’t know if I want to play football anymore, I might just go to school,'” he said.

Kustok began talking with NU coach Gary Barnett. When highly touted recruit John Navarre chose Michigan over NU, Barnett immediately offered Kustok a scholarship.

Yet the transition could escape another coaching change. The morning Kustok and his father were planning to meet Barnett in Evanston, they heard on the radio that Barnett was leaving NU to coach Colorado. The Kustoks made the trip anyway, this time to meet with new coach Randy Walker.

“Almost in any case, when a new coach comes in, it isn’t what you expected,” Walker said. “And it wasn’t what they bargained for. Some kids adapt and are very flexible. Some kids don’t. It doesn’t mean anybody is wrong or right.”

Kustok started almost immediately after gaining eligibility and gained valuable experience in 1999. This year Kustok has led the Cats to a 6-2 record, virtually assuring them a bowl berth.

“There’s not one time that I said, ‘Man, I wish I would have stayed at Notre Dame, maybe I’d be playing there,'” Kustok said. “I don’t feel like I’m a part of Notre Dame anymore, I’m a part of Northwestern.'”

• • •

His final list read NU, Stanford, Iowa and Notre Dame — but there was only one school Jeff Roehl could play for.

Unlike Kustok and Cerasani, Roehl needed no introduction to Notre Dame. Roehl’s father wa
s an alum and the Irish were the only team he watched on Saturdays.

Yet the college decision was tougher than he thought. Roehl was bombarded with recruiting letters, phone calls and visits from coaches.

“I just wanted to go to Notre Dame my whole life,” Roehl said. “I just looked at that and I’m like, ‘Well, I don’t know where I really want to go, so I’ll go somewhere I’ve always wanted to go.'”

Roehl headed to South Bend with lofty expectations of the university and team he had admired since childhood. In spring practice before his freshman season, Roehl started to question his choice when he stopped having fun on the football field.

“I was talking to friends around the country who went to school and were playing football,” Roehl said. “They were telling me how much they loved it and how happy they were and I realized that I wasn’t.

“I was waking up every day and I wasn’t really happy in my life, it wasn’t what I wanted it to be and I wasn’t where I wanted to be.”

His most poetic assessment of Notre Dame came in a news conference earlier this year. “All that’s gold doesn’t glitter,” he said.

Like Cerasani, Roehl had several strong transfer options in Stanford, Michigan and NU. He had played with Kustok at Notre Dame and Carl Sandburg High School in Orland Park, Ill., and liked NU’s academics.

After meeting with Walker, Roehl became the third player to make the Notre Dame-NU switch in as many years. Though Roehl and Kustok were happy to be reunited, there was little discussion about their turbulent pasts.

“We’ve been through a lot of the same things, we went to high school together and Notre Dame,” Roehl said. “It was nice to have a familiar face here, someone to look to who’s been through a little bit before.”

As NU’s starting right guard in 2000, Roehl has earned honorable mention on CNNSI.com’s college football mid-season All-America team. Though he was bred to bleed Blue and Gold, Roehl now lives in purple paradise.

“I couldn’t be happier,” Roehl said. “I’m really happy with the way things worked out. I couldn’t ask for more, I’m playing, we’re winning, I get along with a lot of people here, and I’m having fun at school.”

• • •

Though Roehl was a lifelong fan and Notre Dame legacy, Jovan Witherspoon had his entire school chasing him up Highway 30 towards South Bend.

“I went to a Catholic school and Notre Dame was everything,” said Witherspoon, who attended Bishop Luers High School in Fort Wayne, Ind., about 90 miles southeast of South Bend.

As one of the more highly touted receivers in the country, Witherspoon was courted by schools from the Big Ten, ACC and SEC. Though he felt pressure from his friends and family, Witherspoon contends he picked Notre Dame for its unique atmosphere and the prospect of a receiver-friendly offense.

But Witherspoon, like Kustok, was turned off by Davie’s option attack, which rarely features wide receivers. In addition, Witherspoon had envisioned more diversity — “different types of people” — in a university and felt uncomfortable at Notre Dame.

“I didn’t feel like I fit into the social thing,” Witherspoon said. “I wanted something different. I said all along that I wanted to go to a big city and I ended up going to South Bend.”

With its spread offense and an urban location, NU was an obvious choice for Witherspoon. On a visit to Evanston, Witherspoon spoke to Kustok and Roehl about transferring and the adjustment to NU football.

“They really knew what was going on,” Witherspoon said. “They told me all the things that happened when they transferred and it made the decision a lot easier.”

Witherspoon has also found solace in fellow redshirt freshman Tony Stauss, a top high school prospect who chose NU despite extreme pressure to attend Wisconsin. Through his first two months at school, NU has met Witherspoon’s expectations and he is anxious to play his first collegiate game.

“I love it here,” Witherspoon said. “The only bad thing is that I’m not playing. I want to get out there and play, but I’ll support the team in the stands for now.”

• • •

After arriving at NU, though, the four didn’t feel the need to unpack their troubles. For Kustok and Cerasani, theirs was a silent understanding of experiences in South Bend.

“As far as bitching and stuff like that, we never would together,” Cerasani said. “We’re both so used to everybody and their mom freakin’ asking is what it was like to play at Notre Dame.”

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
All that’s gold doesn’t glitter