Football: Self-proclaimed “team nerd” Sam Gerak casts long shadow after five successful years on Northwestern offensive line


Joshua Hoffman/Daily Senior Staffer

Sam Gerak calls out instructions against Michigan State. The fifth-year senior center plays his final home game Saturday against No. 22 Iowa.

Patrick Andres, Senior Staffer

Senior center Sam Gerak’s favorite on-field moment in a Northwestern uniform conjures adjectives that could accurately summarize his career: efficient, cerebral, successful.

With 4:02 remaining in the first quarter of the 2020 Big Ten Championship Game and the Wildcats trailing Ohio State 3-0, Buckeyes linebacker Justin Hilliard eyed the line of scrimmage on first and goal. Gerak snapped the ball to running back Cam Porter and immediately formed a 295-pound barrier between the ball carrier and Hilliard. Seconds later, NU led Ohio State 6-3.

“We just kind of had our way that first drive,” Gerak said. “When we were coming off the field, seeing my family in the stands was really cool.”

Gerak will play his final home game against No. 22 Iowa on Saturday, bringing his five years as a Wildcat to a close.

He’s never been a big name (such is life on the offensive line) but the Avon, Ohio native has provided NU with steady blocking and leadership that has drawn the praise of coaches and teammates.

“It’s like having an extra coach on the field that sees the game the way that I see it,” offensive line coach Kurt Anderson said. “We’re able to have football conversations, talking about what we see — different pressures, different fronts, how we want to block things.”

In 2017, Gerak redshirted, but was already making his mark on the program. He was named Offensive Practice Player of the Week by the coaching staff before the Cats’ loss to Duke and win over Maryland. He forged a close relationship with now-fellow fifth-year senior offensive lineman Ethan Wiederkehr, and started absorbing lessons from the team a year away from a division title.

“We’ve grown really close these last five years,” Wiederkehr said. “He’s like a brother to me. I’ll do anything for that guy, he’ll do anything for me. ”

Gradually, Gerak’s playing time increased. Four appearances in NU’s first Big Ten West Championship season became 12 starts in the Cats’ 2019 season. In his third season, Gerak started all nine games for NU’s second division title in three years.

Meanwhile, he continued to pile up academic honors. Gerak, who was class president, a National Honor Society member and academic All-Ohio in high school, was named Academic All-Big Ten in both 2018 and 2019. The aspiring doctor cultivated a reputation for studiousness among his teammates, who he readily admitted “look at me as a team nerd.”

“I’m always happy to talk some chem(istry) with some of the younger guys that are in that for their pre-med classes,” Gerak said. “I’m always there to convince people to try to get a classics minor. I think study habits and management with time are things I could pass on to the younger guys, because a lot of guys struggle with it early on in their career.”

Gerak sustained an upper-body injury on Sept. 18 against Duke, dealing NU’s offensive line a major blow. The setback, however, enabled him to see the end of his college career with clear eyes.

“I’ve still been playing, but that (injury) kind of made it sink in a little earlier than it could have,” Gerak said. “Because you never know when it’s your last rep. And I’ve been taking these past couple weeks and savoring every play.”

Sustained success has been tough for the Cats’ offensive line at times in 2021. NU has allowed 14 sacks for 116 yards in eight games, up from 13 sacks for a loss of 99 yards in nine games in 2020. Sophomore quarterback Ryan Hilinski, NU’s starter for the majority of this season, has been sacked frequently enough that his rushing total on the year is -50 yards.

Despite its occasional struggles, the Cats’ line — led by sophomore offensive lineman Peter Skoronski, who called Gerak “an unbelievable leader, not just on the field but off the field” — appears to be in position for progress going forward.

“(I hope) to leave a legacy of investment in yourself, preparing on the field, and investing in your teammates, spending time with them off the field,” Gerak said. “Investing in those relationships, that’s what’s gonna matter 20 years down the road.”


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