Football: Emotions abound with Northwestern victory in Ireland


Charlotte Varnes/The Daily Northwestern

Sophomore offensive lineman Jackson Carsello and junior defensive lineman Jaiden Cameron sit with their families as well as junior defensive back Cam Mitchell’s family at a restaurant in the village of Howth. After a busy week preparing for Saturday’s game, players and staff spent Sunday exploring Ireland.

Charlotte Varnes, Managing Editor

Content warning: this story contains mentions of suicide

DUBLIN One of the most important steps of Northwestern’s journey toward the Aer Lingus College Football Classic came on a whirlwind February day.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald and his wife Stacy traveled to Ireland in February, six months ahead of the Wildcats’ victory against Nebraska on the Emerald Isle. Fitzgerald’s grandmother immigrated from Ireland to the U.S., and he spent the first day of his trip speaking with relatives and visiting sites personal to his family history.

The trip had an instant impact on NU’s coach.

“We went to dinner that night and I looked at (Stacy) and she looked at me, and we were like, ‘That was unbelievable,’” Fitzgerald said. “We couldn’t even describe it in words.” 

Just a handful of American college football teams have competed in Ireland. The featured programs have tended to have strong ties to Ireland, from Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish mascot to Boston’s large number of Irish immigrants for Boston College. 

NU’s participation in the Aer Lingus College Football Classic had its own connection with Fitzgerald’s Irish heritage. For him, Saturday’s game against Nebraska wasn’t just a statement win, but also a homecoming. 

Fitzgerald’s father came to Ireland, making his first journey to his mother’s homeland, along with his youngest son Brendan and dozens of other relatives. The crew took a picture in Aviva Stadium following the matchup, which Fitzgerald said he expects will be “long lasting.”

The trip was similarly emotional for junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski, who was named the starting quarterback less than a half-hour before kickoff. 

His parents write him a note before every game, he said, and when he opened the card ahead of Saturday’s matchup, a green patch fell out. The Shamrock-style emblem said “Ireland 2012” on it, and had been worn by his brother Tyler during a youth tournament in the country in 2012. 

Tyler, who went on to play quarterback at Washington State, died by suicide in 2018. For Hilinski, wearing the patch in his pants during the game was a way to get his brother another win. 

“As soon as I saw my mom (post-game), I was like, ‘Hilinskis are now 2-0 in Ireland,’” Hilinski said. “Ireland’s got a special place in my heart – a special place in the Hilinskis’ heart for sure.” 

His family has other ties “here and there” in Ireland, he said. Hilinski noted that his freshman coach owns a restaurant around Dublin, where his parents dined during their trip and met with his coach.  

Ahead of Saturday’s matchup, NU’s trip to Ireland had the makings of a business trip. The Cats ventured out for dinner and entertainment at a local restaurant and a University-sponsored event at the Guinness Storehouse, but balanced the fun with practices and readying for the game. 

The victory against Nebraska gives NU permission to let loose in the coming days. Fitzgerald said he was ready for some “good, clean, Irish fun” following the win. Junior defensive back Cam Mitchell stated his priorities more clearly — he said at the postgame press conference that he was ready to party.

On Sunday, some players went exploring with family, like sophomore offensive lineman Jackson Carsello and junior defensive lineman Jaiden Cameron, who visited the seaside village of Howth and got out for seafood. 

Fitzgerald’s post-game plans included even more football. He said he kept up with his son Ryan’s high school game in Illinois following Saturday’s game, and planned to watch his oldest son Jack play high school football on national television on Sunday night. 

“In between, I might have a few Guinness,” Fitzgerald said. “Some Jameson or something.”

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