White coats and purple helmets: Wildcats prepare for football season and medical careers

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Illustration by Carly Schulman

A number of Northwestern players on this year’s roster are navigating two career paths: preparing for a football season and preparing to be a doctor.

Ella Brockway, Gameday Editor

Tyler Gillikin never imagined he’d be starting his first year of medical school in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic.

As a first-year at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, he’s spent the last two months learning about the COVID-19 virus that has transformed the world at the same time that professional doctors and scientists are studying it.

He’s also preparing to play his final season of Big Ten football.

The Atlanta native and redshirt senior long snapper initially wasn’t planning on doing both at the same time — it was coach Pat Fitzgerald who was the driving force in trying to line up his academic and athletic schedules, Gillikin said. Now, he’s perhaps the only player in college football who owns both a white coat and a starting spot on a Power Five team.

“It definitely is a lot going on, but I think the coaches have been very helpful in allowing me to do what I do not only to continue to get better on the field, but do well in the classroom as well,” he told The Daily. “Time management’s obviously something that we as student athletes have always been great at, for the most part, and being in med school just brings that to a whole other level.”

Gillikin is one of a number of players on this year’s Northwestern roster navigating two laborious paths: preparing to be a college football player and preparing to be a doctor. Offensive lineman Sam Gerak and linebacker Erik Mueller are the team’s two pre-med seniors, both studying biological sciences with neurobiology concentrations with plans of medical school in the future.

“I’d probably be lying to you if I said it was easy,” Mueller said. “It’s challenging emotionally, mentally and physically, obviously with the football aspect, but also with the demands of pre-med here at Northwestern, which is as difficult as they paint it out to be.”

It’s an academic course load marked by 5:30 a.m. wakeups, studying — “all day, every day, for weeks on end,” Mueller puts it — tutoring sessions, study groups and the dreaded sophomore year Organic Chemistry. Add the schedule full of film, workouts and practice that being a Big Ten football player demands, and it’s not surprising that there’s only one word Gillikin uses to describe his days this fall: “packed.”

“It’s made me balance my time a lot better, because you can’t give half of yourself to each thing. You have to give all of yourself to each thing,” said Gerak. “In the classroom, you have to live up to the standard of what a Northwestern student is, and on the field you have to live up to what a Wildcat is.”

Playing college football and preparing academically to become a doctor is no easy feat in “normal” times, and it’s made no easier by the fact that this year, they’re doing both amid a pandemic. Gillikin, Gerak and Mueller never could have pictured the turn this year would’ve taken, but they say the events of this year have inspired their desire to follow this career path.

This quarter, Gerak is taking a biology course on genetic evolution that has touched on the patterns in which viruses like the coronavirus evolve. Mueller’s parents both work in the medical field — his father is a general surgeon and his mother is a nurse — and their firsthand stories of working with COVID-19 patients gave him an up-close view of the national response to the virus.

“It’s been encouraging to see our health care professionals and everyone who sacrificed so much to take care of these patients,” Mueller said. “Seeing their dedication has really helped reinforce (my idea) of ‘Yeah, I would love to do this, and take care of people and provide them whatever they need.”

As they watched COVID-19’s impact on the medical field, these players were also busy trying to determine what it would do to the football field. The Big Ten’s ever-changing decisions on how and when to play football were a rollercoaster — announcing a modified schedule in August, postponing all fall sports three days later and then resurrecting the season in September.

For Gillikin, Gerak and Mueller, it made for a busy summer of following the latest medical developments, and even fielding questions from teammates curious for their pre-med perspectives.

They’re now seeing directly what it’s taking to stage a season — daily rapid testing, stringent safety protocols and the proto-bubble the program has entered as it prepares to open its 2020 campaign on Saturday against Maryland. It’s yet to be determined exactly how these efforts will pan out, but so far, they’ve brought even deeper appreciation for the medical professionals working inside the program.

“I think we’ve done a really good job, and I’m hopeful that other schools and other conferences around the country can implement those, because (the virus) is still an issue going forward,” Mueller said. “Having both perspectives of being on this football team and seeing the medical aspect, I’m just excited that we can move forward and hopefully play a safe season for all of us.”

These players still have some time before they officially jump from the line of scrimmage to the front lines of the medical field, and as time passes, it’s certain that their journeys there will be shaped by their experiences of living through this pandemic moment.

“There’s a reason why medicine has always been my dream, and it’s to help people, and feel that I can provide a service that can change somebody’s life,” Gillikin said. “And that’s personally what I think being a doctor is all about.”

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Twitter: @ellabrockway

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