Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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No regrets for Wildcats’ elder statesman

Last season’s meeting between Northwestern and Minnesota would have been remembered by both teams, regardless of how the game went. In a pivotal ninth game in the season for both teams, the Wildcats came in with a 6-2 record, one game behind the 7-1 Gophers.

Brendan Smith made the game unforgettable.

One game removed from losing starting quarterback C.J. Bachér and starting running back Tyrell Sutton, the Cats had played well enough to keep the game tied at 17-17 throughout the second half. In the final minutes of the game, the Gophers’ deadly duo of quarterback Adam Weber and wide receiver Eric Decker attempted a game-winning drive.

With 26 seconds remaining, in a moment that seemed to move in slow-motion, a pass attempt from Weber bounced off Decker’s hands, deflected off then-senior cornerback David Oredugba and finally ended up in Smith’s hands. With a herd of teammates blocking for him, Smith ran back the pick for a touchdown, avoiding several diving tackles and putting the Cats in the lead with 12 seconds remaining.

“I’m just grateful that I had the opportunity to make the play, and I always want those opportunities,” Smith said. “It’s the thrill of playing. You want the two strikes, two outs, bases loaded situation. You need to get the hit to win the game, or in basketball you want the final shot. Those opportunities – that’s what you play for.”


Smith’s last-second heroics propelled NU to No. 24 in the national rankings the following week and gave the Cats hope for the future. But things were not always looking so bright for NU’s free safety.

Smith played four varsity sports during high school and never missed a game. So when he sprained his knee during his freshman year in a game against Michigan State, he found it challenging to sit on the bench, and even more difficult to sit in the stands with fans who he felt gave up on the team.

Smith’s struggles during his freshman year weren’t restricted to the gridiron. While most of his teammates resided in Elder and Sargent Residential Halls, he was one of two football players in Hinman-Lincoln. The fact that he struggled early academically did not help the college transition.

Despite the hard times, Smith persevered on the football field.

“I had my ups and downs,” he said. When you put in a lot of hard work in and don’t get the grades you’d like to see from the hard work, it’s depressing, it hurt at times.But whenever I came on the field it was my escape because I could just play.”

Coach Pat Fitzgerald said the best way to describe the fifth-year senior on the field is experienced, but also praised the use of his off-the-field knowledge to help his teammates.

“He’s a smart guy from a standpoint of understanding situations in life,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s been through a lot, and he’s just a tremendous teammate.”


Smith and senior strong safety Brad Phillips have been partners in the secondary for so long, Phillips joked that the two have ESP together. While they are serious on the field, discussing what an offense might do or adjusting their key reads, they interact in a different matter off the field.

“He’s a relaxed guy, calm, just a normal dude,” Phillips said of Smith. “He’s fun to be around, he laughs, jokes. (He’s) just calm, cool and collected.”

Though Smith has been a backfield mate with Phillips, his best friend on the team is an offensive player. Smith is good friends with senior quarterback Mike Kafka, who he met the summer before their freshman year. That experience has given Kafka a unique perspective on Smith both on and off the field.

“He’s very poised, very confident, very controlled on the field,” Kafka said. “You can tell just by watching him play he’s a great leader and he’s controlling from the back. He’s the center fielder, he’s controlling the defense.”

Smith said he is generally laid back – except when it comes to sports. He is a die-hard Boston Red Sox fan, but can’t be a fan of any NFL team or player because it would conflict with his competitive nature.

Smith has met NFL players such as Peyton Manning, and while he respects what such professionals have accomplished, he has no intention of feeling awe-struck if he gets the opportunity to take the field with them.

“I aspire to be better than them, I look up to them and say that’s how it should be done,” Smith said. “I want to work like them, I want to play like them, and I would hope to be better. You have to have the confidence when you step on the field that you’re going to be the better guy out there.”


Smith’s three-year relationship with his girlfriend Hilary Bowen, a former NU lacrosse star, has been discussed among the team, including the potential athletic children of a two-time football captain and a two-time NCAA Championship MVP.

“I think (their kids) would be pretty athletic,” Kafka said. “They’d be a little short, but they’d be pretty athletic. Hilary’s a great athlete, and Brendan is too, so I think they’d definitely have a lacrosse player or a football player.”

And it’s not as if the team is starting these hypothetical thoughts behind Smith’s back.

“I do think about that kind of stuff,” he said, regarding having children with Bowen. “I only date athletes, but I don’t think of them as ‘super.’ I think they would be pretty athletic because she’s an athletic girl. But they would get her brains too – that would be pretty good.”

Bowen graduated from NU last year and has returned to her home state of New York. Fortunately, she is not a Yankees fan – otherwise Smith said there would be problems when the two teams faced each other.

Although he has had a distinguished football career of his own, Smith said Bowen’s accomplishments during her time at NU are hard to match.

“I’m living in her shadows,” he said. “She’s an All-American. I mean, I just try to play and win. She has four National Championships; it’s hard to live up to that.”


In the Chicago Tribune’s Sunday sports section following the Cats’ win over the Gophers, the photo accompanying the story showed Smith pointing up to his family. It was a fitting snapshot of a player whose family has been there to support him throughout his life.

Smith remembered how his parents would work three jobs each so they could provide him with the best sports equipment. The reason why football was so fun for him growing up was that he was able to play it with his older brother Sean, who played at Division II Bentley College.

But what meant the most to him was his family’s unwavering attendance at his sporting events, both growing up and to this day.

“I’ve never played a game without someone being there,” Smith said. “My grandfather has never missed a college game of mine. My dad would drive four hours to Connecticut to go to work, and I would be up in Maine playing a game and he’d drive up there to try to be there for the first half. It would be a blowout and I’d be done and he would show up. I can’t ask for anything more out of my parents.”

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
No regrets for Wildcats’ elder statesman