Nadkarni: Giving Fitz his proper due

Rohan Nadkarni

Does anyone remember the movie “Last Action Hero”? The only other person I’ve met who actually liked it was Jonathan Gordon, my high school journalism teacher. In the movie, a young boy, Danny, idolizes a fictional character of a movie series played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Although this box-office bomb may seem unimportant to most, the movie kind of explains my relationship to sports. With the exception of my parents (HI MOM!), athletes have always served as my strongest role models, for better or worse (mostly worse.) Now, living in Evanston, it has become clear to me that Northwestern is lucky to have a hero of its own in Pat Fitzgerald.

I may be the only person who prefers “Real World” marathons to healthy social interaction, but I’m not the only person who loves athletes. For whatever reason, our society has always looked at athletes as heroes, people with mystical qualities that separate them from the masses. Sports often elicits strong emotions when our heroes fail to deliver. How else do you explain riots in Vancouver after a Stanley Cup loss or the ceremonial burning of a LeBron jersey?

I used to attend Florida Panthers’ practices in awe of how close I could get to the players. My knees shook while receiving Pavel Bure’s autograph. For way too long, my email address was a tribute to Roberto Luongo. Unfortunately, I’ve also become conditioned to disappointment, as time after time, my greatest heroes on the playing field have let me down. People point to obvious fallen idols like Tiger Woods and Michael Vick, but I can think of even worse instances where people I’ve looked up to subsequently let me down.

I loved running back Ricky Williams when he played for the Miami Dolphins. I remember begging my aunt to spend 75 dollars just so I could have his jersey. I also remember waking up one morning and thinking I was still dreaming when I saw Williams had retired after failing a drug test. In Nick Saban’s first year as head coach of the Dolphins, he led the team to a respectable 9-7 record. I remember thinking that Saban would finally turn around my favorite sports team. A year later on the local news, I watched Alabama Crimson Tide trucks move Saban’s belongings out of South Florida.

I’m not the same sports fan I used to be. I’ve learned that it’s easier to root for teams, and not individual stars. I still follow my favorite teams with the same love and appreciation, but the chances of me buying a Hanley Ramirez jersey now are slim to none. But just when I thought I was done with sports heroes forever, I attended a football event at NU featuring Pat Fitzgerald.

Coach Fitz is a Northwestern lifer. He was a two-time All-American when he played for the Wildcats, and is now a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. He was the first player in the history of college football to be recognized as the top defender in the country with back-to-back Nagurski and Bednarik awards. After a very brief stint in the National Football League, Fitzgerald returned to NU – this time taking his place on the sideline. Then, five years ago, after the tragic passing of former head coach Randy Walker, Fitzgerald took over at the helm of his alma mater. Under his watch, the Cats have continued to improve, and will compete in their school-record fourth consecutive bowl game on Dec. 31.

Although I’ve been critical of Fitzgerald the coach from time to time, I have only positive things to say about Fitzgerald, the sports hero. He’s a devoted family man, with three children. He is the definition of loyalty. No one loves Northwestern more than Pat Fitzgerald. From his passion about the school’s academics, to the reverence Fitzgerald has in his voice every time he speaks about Walker, Coach Fitz wears his purple pride on his sleeve. It’s hard not to get caught up in his emotion about NU. The other day, at the basketball game against Baylor, I spent four dollars on a Coke just so I could stand next to Fitzgerald at the concession stand.

Am I a creepy stalker? Yeah, kind of. But that’s not my point. Football fans at NU should be happy about the man they have leading this program. Just look at the other coaches in the Big Ten. Joe Paterno used to be a hero, until inexplicable inaction ruined his reputation. Jim Tressel used to be the face of Ohio State, until scandals sent him to his hideaway: the Indianapolis Colts’ replay booth. Bo Pelini has a great fake Twitter account. And how about newcomer Urban Meyer? This guy resigned from Florida twice, but zero times while Tim Tebow was at quarterback. Loyalty and true passion are qualities that are difficult to find in today’s athletic world.

All of this does not mean that Fitzgerald is safe from criticism. I’ve called him out more than once this year for his game day decisions on the football field. But if Coach Fitz continues to have success at NU and keeps the Cats on the winning track, he deserves to be recognized not only for his triumphs on the field, but for the type of man he is. This isn’t my love letter to Coach Fitz. (I already sent him that weeks ago – still no response.) Instead, as someone who clearly loves sports way too much, this is my way of recognizing the man who has led the winningest class of seniors in NU history, and is on the verge of an elusive bowl win.

Is it a good idea to think of sports figures as heroes? To be honest, not at all. Just look at what happened to Paterno. There are people in society who do much more important things than coach football. But I am who I am, and I love sports. I know all my friends from back home already stopped reading this column after the second paragraph, thinking I need to stop with the sappy stuff. But damn it if I’ll be stopped from saying that for Northwestern football and myself, Pat Fitzgerald is a hero. And he may be the last one left.

This article is the second in our 15-part Road to Meineke series. We will be posting an article every night, except for Christmas Eve and Christmas, to help prepare you for Northwestern’s matchup with Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. Join us again tomorrow night as sports editor Jonah Rosenblum takes you through eight blown chances to end the Wildcats’ bowl drought.