by Thomas U. Tuttle
I went down to Chicago to watch my alma mater Northwestern Wildcats play a football game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers and ran into my old buddy “Robby” at the N-Club event following the Wildcats 39-0 victory.
He was feeling no pain after a long day that began with tailgating and was culminating over a final beverage or two following the contest. Robby might have been particularly enjoying himself given the fact his old squad had a new six-game winning streak, which stood in stark contrast to the long, losing run that he was a part of some 35+ years ago.
The streak that Robby and his teammates were involved with included 34 straight defeats over the course of several years. Coach Rick Venturi was at the helm when things started in 1979, to be followed in futility by Dennis Green.
Yes, the future Vikings coach was a part of the streak, but he was also part of the solution in 1982 – by first winning a football game (Northern Illinois) and then a Big Ten game (Minnesota). We beat Michigan State later that season, as well, for a total of three wins. Party down!
Denny did fairly well at NU, all things considered, and was not only the first black coach in the Big Ten, but also the youngest ever at the age of 31. He was an assistant with the San Francisco 49ers for a couple of seasons following his stint at Northwestern, before coaching Stanford from 1989-1991. Green took over the Purple in 1992.
For Robby, one of the best players on a fairly decent (but extremely thin) Wildcat defense, the memories are still a bit painful, although easing with the passage of time. He had been an all-state high school star who rarely lost a game, so the transition to constant losing was tough.
Robby was big, strong and fast – one of the better football players in the conference and a young man who could have contributed, if not started, on any team, including Ohio State and Michigan.
NU might have had a dozen players, total, that were of that caliber – but that was it.
There are a number of factors that contribute to a losing streak of that length, but lack of depth was a big one. OSU and Michigan reload every year, while the Wildcats were always an injury or two away from being unable to compete. In 1979, they nearly upset Purdue. The following season, after losing close at #2 Michigan, the defeats continued…for a long time…
On a personal note, yours truly was running the sprints for NU track back in the day (also a baseball shortstop). To make a long story short, the fast white guy showed up for spring football practice ready to contribute – and, in truth, didn’t look that good.
I decided to travel to France for a couple of months to study and pass out of a foreign language requirement needed to graduate.
Those Northwestern teams had little offense, and to this day I wish that my effort had been more determined and sustained. Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda…
Robby remembers some of these moments, but not all. He got his “bell rung” a lot, part of the price for being the best athlete on the defensive line and making a lot of plays. Concussions we’re a serious fact of his time in college football.
Recent memory challenges, which he believes are a result of concussions he suffered and actually played through, have him thinking of some of the health ramifications that resulted from playing high level football.
“TUT, your lucky you didn’t play, man. You would have been hurting every day from practice and never winning,” he said. “It wasn’t like the baseball team, trust me.”
No, it wasn’t. Hey, we beat Ohio State in baseball and won a bunch of games! But college baseball is not college football, not by a long shot. The revenue sports rule, and the Big Ten is Big Business.
And I never was concussed. Robby’s memory issues got me thinking, and I’ll have more on the subject of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and the new concussion data that has emerged.
It’s very interesting, important – and sad – information that is threatening the health of the NFL and college football. More to come…