Unlikely fans won over by the ‘Cardiac Cats’

Zachary Cook

Northwestern plays its conference nemesis Saturday night. During the past six years, the Wildcats have shown they can beat anyone in the Big Ten. Except perhaps the Buckeyes. Ohio State has won its past 21 games vs. NU. Twenty-one straight. But tomorrow night the Wildcats can at last put this enduring shame, this lingering vestige of their old, ineffectual past, to rest forever.

I can’t believe I care about this.

Graduate students, by and large, don’t develop a devotion to their second alma mater. My deepest loyalties will always belong to a small college in western Massachusetts. And even there I paid no attention to college sports, despite the football team being the terror of its conference, not losing a game all of my sophomore and junior years. I could not have cared less.

But five unbelievable years of Northwestern football have left me an irrevocable, die-hard fan of the Cardiac Cats.

My fascination began on Oct. 6, 1996. A home game at then-Dyche Stadium versus sixth-ranked Michigan. I listened on the radio, on a whim. I learned the Cats were down 16-0 after three quarters. Then in that fourth quarter, the Cardiac Cats were born. That season may be the most unbelievable, gut-churning, stomach-twisting season in the history of college football.

It began with two clutch defensive plays. NU induced a fumble at their 29-yard line. It marched 71 yards for a touchdown and a two-point conversion. On Michigan’s next possession, Keith Lozowski forced a fumble and the Cats kicked a 23-yarder to make it 16-11. Another great defensive stand. Another field goal. 16-14 with 5:25 left to play. Michigan again denied even a first down. 80 yards from the goal line, NU needed one more score, with 1:53 left to play. Quarterback Steve Schnur and running back Darnell Autry engineered an unforgettable drive. Brian Gowins delivered the coup-de-gras through the uprights. NU wins.

Only the referees ruled the ball had been snapped too soon. NU was penalized. Gowins had to kick the ball again, further back, with thirteen second remaining. He nailed it. NU wins, 17-16.

That was only the start. NU went on to beat Indiana 35-17 after trailing 17-7. It beat Wisconsin 34-30 in the final seconds after trailing 30-20. It edged Illinois 27-24 after being down 24-20 with a minute left to play. It blew a 23-point lead but held on to beat Minnesota 26-24. It beat Purdue 27-24 on Gowins’ 32-yard field goal with four seconds left to play. How many weak-hearted NU alumni died that season? The administration won’t release figures.

It’s been much the same story ever since. Is there any team in football that reliably finds so many last-minute ways to win? It’s unbelievable. Is it the Sodexho food? Was the Curse of Dyche Stadium not fully repealed?

I don’t know, and I don’t care. I’m hooked. I’m sure the current squad would just as soon like to establish a new tradition, one of safe leads and conventional wins. More power to them. Whatever happens, I will never believe that any game they trail in by 14 points cannot be won within the final 45 seconds.

Go Wildcats. Go NU football. Please, please beat Ohio State tomorrow. I never thought that I would write these words.