Sweating out NU football: A heart-pounding experience

Adam Rittenberg Column

David Wasielewski owes me a box of Tums. And some Rogaine.

I have never done hard drugs, but after sweating through four reason-defying wins in barely one year, I have spawned an addiction – to Northwestern football.

It’s an odd concoction of uppers and downers that drains every shred of emotion in your body. The trip is never the same, with new superfluities thrown in each and every time.

On Saturday it was watching a kickoff carom off two Michigan State players and into Brandon Evans’ hands. It was seeing the Spartans’ secondary forget about Jon Schweighardt, opening up a sideline seam for him to blaze through and camp under Zak Kustok’s Herculean heave. It was hearing Randy Walker admit that players persuaded him to kick the ball away with 29 seconds left, an ill-fated decision that nearly doomed his team.

But the one sedative the Wildcats provide is quarterback Zak Kustok.

He forces us not to doubt, not to question, sulk or worry. Simply put, Kustok’s desire to win is what has kept this team going.

We all see it in the way he commands the offense, running the football with “reckless abandon” and making all the right throws in the clutch. Everyone at Ryan Field – including Michigan State’s defense – knew what the Cats were going to do on 4th-and-1 with 1:34 remaining, but somehow we all believed Zak would squeeze past the first-down marker. And he did.

But one thing we don’t see is how Kustok’s attitude rubs off on his teammates.

With 18 ticks left and a few city blocks between the ball and the end zone, he walked over to David Wasielewski and said two words to the kicker, “Be ready.”

Moments later, exhibiting Kustok-like confidence and calmness, Wasielewski took care of business, launching a slight draw through the posts to claim the game.

“That’s just me, I don’t really think about doing things like that,” Kustok said of his consultation with Wasielewski. “That’s just a part of my personality, that’s who I am.”

Following his four-touchdown, 224-yard performance on Sept. 7 in Las Vegas, Randy Walker tried to pinpoint what makes Kustok click in crunch time.

Walker could have used cliche coach labels like winning edge, will to win and pure confidence. But for once, he was at a loss for words.

“Whatever ‘it’ is, he’s got it,” Walker said after the game. “I don’t know what ‘it’ is. If I did, I’d write a book and I’d make a lot of money. But he just has it and he finds a way.”

Walker will likely never know what “it” is, and for that matter, neither will Kustok. He’s a magician unaware of his own limits, a player with an uncanny natural ability to lead and win.

It’s strange to think that only two years ago Kustok was a shaky sophomore battling a severe case of happy feet and dead-arm every time he took a snap.

He still can’t throw downfield, put much touch on the ball or consistently find the open man.

But in terms of heart, guts and mental toughness, Kustok is the best quarterback in America.

His strength comes from how he views the team’s success. If NU loses, it’s his fault. Period. While that type of self-applied pressure seems unhealthy, Kustok uses it to drive him. See, while all of us are thinking ahead to the next play or sequence, he remains in the moment, ridding his mind of all negativity and anxiety.

We all scoff at the one-play-at-a-time mantra most athletes croon after dramatic performances. It seems so alien, such an unattainable goal. Human nature instructs us to reason, to analyze, to let our emotions dictate our actions.

When Herb Haygood shoves the ball down your throat with 18 seconds remaining, you’re supposed to be shocked and shaken. You’re supposed to battle those emotions for a little while.

But Kustok is at another level. He has the inherent ability to instantly adjust and move on. He won’t get bogged down with odds and percentages. He doesn’t think – he acts. And he wins.

While most players preach it, he actually plays one play at a time.

That’s the attitude coaches can only dream their quarterbacks have. It’s the stuff of greatness. Pure God-given talent and athleticism can get players far in football. But mastering the mental maze of this game puts them on another plane.

If Saturday’s game did not make things clear, no win will come easy this year.

The road will get bumpy for the Cats, but with Kustok in the driver’s seat, somehow or some way, they’ll find level ground before time runs out.

And for the rest, don’t drop that addiction for a few months. Make it a New Year’s resolution or something.

Get used to kicking and screaming all season long.

But enjoy the ride.