Kicker

Coley Harvey

Sam Valenzisi has led anything but a normal life.

From walking on to the Northwestern football team as a 5-foot-6, 135-pound freshman in 1992, to commuting from Minnesota to Chicago every weekend for business school 10 years later, Valenzisi has rarely encountered anything he couldn’t do.

“He’s the type of person that if you tell him he’s not made for something, he says, ‘I can do it,'” his father Al Valenzisi said. “It’s the idea that this is what I want and this is what I have to do.”

And what Sam Valenzisi wanted to do his freshman year was play football.

His size made him anything but the prototypical NU football player when he walked onto the team spring quarter of his freshman year. Little did Valenzisi know that he would begin a career at NU that would help lead to the Wildcats’ first Rose Bowl appearance in 47 years.

Valenzisi, a Westlake, Ohio, native, was the senior place-kicker during the memorable 1995 season. That year, he was an All-American, an Academic All-American, a finalist for the Lou Groza Collegiate Place-Kickers Award, and he received an invite to the Senior Hula Bowl.

Valenzisi, however, was unable to play in that game and in the Rose Bowl — his football career was cut short when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament.

The injury occurred in the fourth quarter of the Oct. 21 Homecoming game against Wisconsin. After having been blown out by the Badgers 53-14 and 46-14 the previous two seasons, Valenzisi said the 35-0 NU win in 1995 exemplified “four years of frustration finally unleashed.”

“At a Homecoming pep rally he promised they would win,” said Meggan Friedman, a 1996 Weinberg graduate who married Valenzisi in 2002. “As fans we were all like, ‘Oh really?’ People weren’t sure what to believe, but he was sure they would win.”

Valenzisi said he didn’t kick well the previous game, and with a shutout in progress, coach Gary Barnett did not play him much of the game.

But with a 26-0 lead, Barnett brought him back in the game for a kickoff.

“The ball came down to Wisconsin’s Cecil Martin, who was from Evanston, who (all the NU players) knew,” Valenzisi said. “Then he slipped and fell on the three-yard line. When I saw him fall down, I put my arms in the air just like somebody when they’re rounding first base after watching the ball go over the fence. I didn’t get but four inches off the ground and came down on my knee and heard it pop.

“I knew what I had done immediately.”

From the time Valenzisi walked off the field that day until the official end of his career, he donned a new leadership role for the Cats.

Not only did he help train his backup, Brian Gowins, but he also became an unofficial spokesman for the team in Pasadena.

“What was amazing at the Rose Bowl was the number of people that wanted to talk to us,” he said. “The coaches felt I wasn’t going to say anything stupid and that I would present the right impression of what Northwestern, Northwestern football and even what Northwestern athletics was about.”

It is not surprising that he was used as a public figure for NU football. Valenzisi once considered being part of the media.

He transferred to Medill from Weinberg in the spring of 1992 and eventually received undergraduate and graduate degrees from Medill.

“I think this is a good field for athletes,” said George HarMonday, an associate professor at Medill who worked with Valenzisi. “Three or four players on the Rose Bowl team were in the journalism school. Since they were in the news at the time, it was a very educational experience on the media for them.”

Valenzisi filled his Teaching Newspaper requirement in the winter quarter of his junior year, working on the copy desk at the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colo. While there he also did some sports reporting.

In his spare time, he used the facilities at Colorado to practice and train.

“I never worked on a school paper, but I was always enamored with writing,” Valenzisi said. “Medill worked well with me to serve both masters (football and Medill). (Assistant) dean Roger Boye, my advisor Mary Dedinsky and (associate) professor Jon Ziomek sat down with me and said, ‘How do we make this work? How do we not put you in these boxes, but rather how do we make these boxes fit within you?'”

Immediately after the season, Valenzisi received his master’s degree from Medill, but shortly after graduation he moved into the business world and worked for two investment firms.

While working in Minnesota, Valenzisi decided he wanted a graduate business degree. He began to take classes at the University of Chicago’s graduate school of business.

“How he got from journalism into the business world I don’t know,” Al Valenzisi said.

Friedman was also finishing a business degree at the time, but she graduated from Harvard Business School in 2002. The couple moved back to Chicago in September.

“We love Chicago, both of us loved our Northwestern experiences,” Friedman said. “Being away made us appreciate NU even better, and we’re now actively seeking ways to be part of the alumni community.”

For Sam Valenzisi, that means wanting to be on NU’s Board of Trustees.

“It’s a tremendous amount of my identity that I went to school here,” he said. “When we were playing, we were playing as much for those guys that came before and after us as we were for ourselves. The whole school should be that way. I don’t know if you can have that effect at the Board of Trustees level, but I sure as heck want to try.”

Reach Coley Harvey at [email protected]