Wilkinson: Seeing college athletes in a different light

Joseph Wilkinson, Reporter

I walked into Bobb Hall unsure of what to expect. It was move-in day my freshman year, and I was just another kid in a sea of freshmen.

As I made my way through my freshman hall, I saw a name I recognized two doors down from mine: “Clayton Thorson.” I admittedly didn’t know anything about Northwestern football, but I had at least seen the Stanford game. I lived down the hall from the starting quarterback who had just beat the No. 21 team in the country.

I knew the starting quarterback stereotype: pretty boy, aloof, no time for anything but partying and football. So it surprised me a few days later when there was Clayton Thorson, standing outside my door. We struck up a short conversation, and I knew that this school was different partially because I could just have a casual conversation with the starting quarterback in a hallway. But also that he was different, a down-to-earth guy who just wanted to chill with his friends. Next to Clayton were Tommy Doles, Blake Hance, Ben Oxley, James Prather and Heath Reineke, all teammates and also my hallmates.

Clayton and I are not best friends, but we’re chill enough that when I saw him on Dillo Day last year, I could ask how he was doing after his injury in the Music City Bowl. When I asked him a question in a news conference referring to his freshman year, he, to the confusion of almost everyone else in the room, referenced our shared hall in Bobb that year.

Three years later, the group has taken divergent paths. Clayton’s leading the Wildcats to the Big Ten Championship game, possibly the Rose Bowl and will likely be selected in the NFL Draft in April. Tommy and Blake might not get drafted, but they’ve been crucial cogs in a much-improved Northwestern offensive line this season.

Prather’s not an every-down player, but I’ve taken immense joy in all four of his career catches. Ben Oxley’s changed positions and now contributes to the Cats’ stellar defensive line play. Heath actually had a year of eligibility left, but graduated with a degree in computer science in June. Me? I’m still just another kid.

But I tell this story not to brag about knowing Clayton Thorson, but to humanize him. People make a mockery of the term “student-athlete,” and I am certainly not here to defend it. But living down the hall from six football players helped me see them as more than just people to root for on Saturdays, people to yell at for missed blocks or bad throws.

It’s a constant reminder that the guys on the field are no older than me; they just happen to be incredibly gifted athletes. And it makes a lot harder to criticize the kids down the hall for a tough game when my main concern that same morning had been not drinking too many Bud Lights in a muddy backyard while theirs had been picking apart a Big Ten defense.

Maybe this made me a worse journalist. My friends would say I am the biggest Clayton fan outside of his immediate family. Whenever Prather catches a pass, I get unreasonably hype. And it’s impossible not to root for Tommy when he’s the nicest guy in the world (the contrast between Tommy’s teddy bear personality and imposing 6-foot-4, 296-pound frame could not be larger).

Maybe this is unique to Northwestern. I don’t know how many non-athletes Tua Tagovailoa, or even Nate Stanley, give the universal “sup” head nod to on a regular basis. But they’re still college students. College football is big business, but sometimes the people in the center of it all are just some guys from down the hall.

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Twitter: @joe_f_wilkinson