24:00:00

Tania Ganguli

On this business trip, suits are not required. There aren’t any offices and the laptops are left at home.

This is the business of football.

While college students everywhere feel the liberation of not having classes for the weekend, football players don’t get that luxury.

“We look at football games as war,” linebacker Pat Durr said. “You’re preparing all week on your plan of attack.”

The week of preparation builds up to just one moment — kickoff. In the 24 hours before the clock starts, the Wildcats have to get their minds focused.

Like Durr said, everybody knows that this is business.

On the road again

Breakfast at the stadium is optional on the Friday morning before an away game, but class is not — at least not if it’s early.

Later Friday morning, the Cats put on their travel uniform — Northwestern sweat pants and golf shirts — and start their journey. The NCAA only allows the team to fly if the destination is more than 225 miles away, otherwise the team takes busses. For the trip to Indiana, NU chartered a plane from American Airlines.

From the stadium, the players take three busses to the airport. The first one is reserved for the starters, who each get their own seat, while the rest of the team doubles up on subsequent busses. The Cats don’t have a seating chart, but over the years a tradition has developed — the veterans sit in the back of the bus.

“It’s a thing Napoleon Harris (current middle linebacker for the Raiders) started — the VIP section,” Durr said.

The players say the bus ride is relaxed. They listen to music, or talk amongst themselves. The gametime intensity isn’t there yet.

For the plane ride, assigned seating is necessary. When some of the passengers weigh more than 300 pounds, weight distribution is an important consideration.

But the biggest guys on the team do get to sit up front in first class — they don’t fit back in coach.

“Guys like me have it lucky,” said Essex, who is 305 pounds. “We get to stretch our legs a little bit.”

Gas, food, lodging

Visiting teams that come to Evanston usually stay at the Doubletree Hotel. Typically, each university has a hotel where visiting teams stay, according to director of football operations Justin Chabot.

At Indiana, that hotel will be the Fourwinds Resort and Marina, located next to Lake Monroe.

In addition to the 70 players who are allowed to travel, the troupe also includes coaches, video staff, athletic trainers, equipment managers, cheerleaders, radio announcers and athletic directors. In all, about 120 rooms are reserved.

Once at the hotel, players get some free time to relax until dinner — as long as they don’t have contact with the outside world.

Dinner is never a surprise.

“I think we’ve been eating the same thing before games for the past 20 years,” sophomore cornerback Jeff Backes said.

Chicken breasts, roast beef, potatoes, green beans, corn, and clam chowder always make up the menu.

The calm before the storm

Friday night chapel is an optional activity, but over the years its purpose has varied.

Chapel isn’t a pep rally and it’s not a sermon. “It’s inspirational,” Larscheid said.

It was chapel that the team clung to for answers in the fall of 2001, after the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the death of former NU player Rashidi Wheeler.

Now the issues usually aren’t as painful and the speakers strive to prepare players emotionally.

“Most of the guys go,” sophomore linebacker Loren Howard said. “It’s led by our teammates or members of the football family.”

Before the game against Air Force this year, director of strength and conditioning Larry Lilja showed part of Dead Poet’s Society. It wasn’t the medium that was important, it was the message: carpe diem, seize the day.

Tradition, tradition

After chapel and dinner, it’s back to business. At Indiana, the post-meal meetings will start at 6 p.m. First are special teams meetings, then offensive and defensive meetings, and finally a full-team meeting at 7:30 p.m.

Friday night is also film night because on Saturday there’s little or no time.

When the offense and defense meet separately, the players go over signals and other questions.

The last official activity is the team’s 9 p.m. snacktime.

Howard can’t think of a time during trips when the team isn’t focused on football. But he’s not a defensive back.

After snack, the defensive backs meet for a question-and-answer session, but before long the meeting becomes a time for bonding.

“Last year when Raheem Covington was here, it was a lot more serious,” Price said. “The TV was off. Now we try to keep the TV off for the first five or 10 minutes.”

The defensive backs watch a college football game, chat, and get storytime from Marvin Ward.

“There’s really no moral to the story,” Price said. “And he swears they’re true, but we all know he makes them up.”

Not all of the positions meet after snack, but the players all have their own routine before bed.

Howard meditates and does visualization exercises. Wright, Herron and Ward meet to read scripture. At Kansas, Duke and Ohio State, the three players listened in on gospel concerts that happened to be in their hotels.

Mark Philmore and fellow wide receiver Kunle Patrick watch the Discovery Channel, but it’s not because they’re tired of football.

“You never get sick of football,” Philmore said. “That’s why you play it.”

Essex and his roommate, Ikechuku Ndukwe, favor the History Channel.

“I’m getting into it a little because he won’t let me change it,” Essex said.

Walker does informal bed checks to make sure the players are behaving before bed.

gametime

Saturday morning’s breakfast doesn’t have a set time anymore, but the players have about 45 minutes to eat.

The team checks out of the hotel and the offense and defense each have a short meeting that was once called a clap session.

“It’s a quick, short burst of information,” Walker said. “Question asked, question answered.”

On the way to the stadium, the bus is always silent. It’s too close to gametime for small talk.

Players listen to everything from Youngblood to Garth Brooks on headphones, but Durr listens to a CD Ayeni made him.

“The theme song from Rudy, the Al Pacino speech from Any Given Sunday — it’s all really corny stuff,” Durr said.

The players say they have no superstitions, but tendencies do arise. Durr always gets dressed from right to left. Right sock before the left sock, right shoe before the left shoe. Backes wears the same undershirt he wore in high school games.

After a 40-minute warmup, the team goes back into the locker room and the coaches leave the players alone for 20 minutes.

“Some kids listen to music, some talk, some guys pound their heads on the locker, whatever,” Walker said.

Wright sings hymns and the Lord’s Prayer. Quarterback Brett Basanez listens to loud music through big headphones which he turns inside out. The anticipation has come to a boiling point.

Walker returns to the locker room and everyone kneels around him. If the players are religious, they pray. If they’re not, they do what it takes to center themselves.

“You get right with (the) one you get right with,” Walker says.

Four minutes before kickoff the Cats take the field. It’s about time.