Simon: Cat seniors can hold their heads high

Andrew Simon

SAN ANTONIO – Three of Northwestern’s senior leaders trudged into the post-game interview room in the bowels of the Alamodome on Monday night. They had been defeated in their final collegiate game and they looked defeated.

Still half in their uniforms, drenched with sweat, C.J. Bachér, Prince Kwateng and Tyrell Sutton made their way to the table and sat around coach Pat Fitzgerald, facing the gathered press. Sutton’s eyes were bloodshot, and the faces of all three players were stained with disappointment.

The realization had set in. Their collegiate careers were finished, and so was the goal they had established – to capture NU’s first bowl victory in 60 years.

It hurt.

“I remember in 2005 when (former NU quarterback) Brett Basanez was done with his career, and I saw him crying in the locker room,” Bachér said. “I didn’t think the tears were going to come out for me tonight, but it just hit me pretty hard, and I know it did for the 22 other seniors.”

Despite the anguish they must have been feeling, the three seniors sucked it up, sat in front of the bright lights of the cameras and answered each question with grace. In many ways, it was an appropriate – if also a disappointing – end to their tumultuous time with the Wildcats.

The three players sitting at that table and the other 19 seniors, from Malcolm Arrington to Jeff Yarborough, have been through a tremendous amount since their arrival in Evanston. They have handled the trials and tribulations with the same fortitude they demonstrated after NU’s heart-wrenching overtime loss to Missouri.

“They have battled through as much adversity as any young men that are 18 to 23 years old will ever have to go through in the country,” Fitzgerald said. “And to see how they’ve persevered, they’ve grown, they’ve developed as men, I couldn’t be more proud of a group of 23 people as they move forward in their life.”

Forgive the coach’s hyperbole under the circumstances. In any case, this group of players has gone through an awful lot. These guys lost the 2005 Sun Bowl after taking a 22-0 lead. They lost their head coach, Randy Walker, when he died unexpectedly of a heart attack at age 52 in June of 2006. They were on the wrong side of the biggest comeback in college football history against Michigan State two years ago. Then there has been the rash of injuries that many teams experience.

Yet a victory in the Alamo Bowl could have eased a lot of that pain. It was tantalizingly close. But Bachér could not lead his team on a winning drive in the final few minutes, nor could he lead the Cats to a tying score in overtime. As Bachér and his teammates said repeatedly afterward, they were one play away from winning but could not quite grasp it.

The result should not tarnish the legacy of the departing seniors.

Bachér’s career never blossomed quite as much as many people expected. But he saved one of his best games for last and then stood in a hallway after the press conference, patiently and thoughtfully answering extra questions.

Kwateng was all over the field against Missouri, delivering a team-high 10 tackles. When Arrington went down with a season-ending injury in the middle of the season, Kwateng emerged as a leader in the middle of the defense.

Sutton has fought injuries the past two seasons, missing the final four regular-season games of 2008. But he worked hard and returned for the bowl game, racking up 143 all-purpose yards and grinding away for the extra foot on every touch.

It was an admirable final act for them and their classmates.

NU’s 2008 seniors will not go down as the first class in 60 years to bring the program a bowl victory. They will go down as a class that had their hearts broken but still played their hearts out every game, winding up with 32 victories, the most by any five-year class in more than 100 years at NU.

This fact did not dry the tears or ease the heartache Monday night. But later, when the players reflect on their careers, it should bring them a heavy dose of pride.

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