The Consummate Northwestern Student-Athlete:
Erik Mueller’s Quest for Medical School
and a College Football Career

The senior linebacker is one of three Northwestern football players in his class to have ambitions of becoming
a medical doctor. His ability to balance both responsibilities has earned him respect throughout the program.

Credit: Northwestern Athletics

By Eric Rynston-Lobel

Erik Mueller never expected to be updating his teammates about a respiratory disease during football meetings. But as a pre-med student in the linebacker room, the role naturally fell to him.

“I like doing my own research and seeing what was going on,” Mueller said, referring to COVID-19. “Just trying to see the numbers, see the cases and tracking that, especially over the spring. I was really interested in seeing how our healthcare and healthcare systems and healthcare workers were handling that.”

Mueller’s dad, Kyle, is a general surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and his mom, Laura, is a nurse at Central DuPage Hospital, so Erik can provide firsthand information to his teammates. Linebackers Coach Tim McGarigle dubbed him the “doctor in the room,” while Mueller just thinks his teammates appreciate hearing the information straight from him, rather than from various outlets on Twitter.

Now in his senior year, Mueller has completed the brunt of his pre-med coursework while simultaneously devoting countless hours to the football program. And he hasn’t just managed both responsibilities. He’s excelled.

“To be a pre-med kid and be one play away from being a starting linebacker in the Big Ten, playing on special teams, you can’t say enough about the work ethic that he has on and off the field, in the classroom,” McGarigle said. “He gives this football family everything he’s got, and then when he’s out of here, he goes and studies all night.”

During Mueller’s junior year playing football at Wheaton North High School, he visited Dr. Michael Terry, an orthopedic surgeon at Northwestern Medicine. He was suffering from patellar tendinitis, inflammation in the lower part of his knee.

Mueller always had an interest in becoming a doctor, but Terry opened his eyes to a possible career path. Growing up with both of his parents in medicine, Mueller could appreciate how Terry presented the medical information and his knack for creating a positive experience for his patients. The anatomy particularly interested Mueller, and he realized the inherent connection between orthopedics and athletics. After all, he was in the middle of the college recruitment process and understood firsthand the mental and physical challenges of dealing with injury.

With orthopedics in mind, Mueller knew he wanted to play football at a school with a great pre-med program. He visited seven Big Ten universities, as well as Harvard, Princeton and Penn and some schools in the Mid-American Conference. 

“Northwestern just hit both of those perfectly for me,” he said. “I visited a lot of great academic schools, and I visited a lot of great football schools, but at the end of the day, Northwestern had the best combination of both of them.”

The alarm rings at 5:40 a.m. Mueller heads to Ryan Fieldhouse, gets taped up, stretches and eats breakfast before team meetings start at 7. Even this early in the morning, sometimes on less sleep than he’d like, Mueller has to be ready to go: “In meetings that early, you have to be locked in. You have to pay attention. There’s a lot of information that’s coming in and a lot of information that you gotta process quickly and memorize.”

From reviewing practice film to installing plays and coverages for the next week’s game, he can’t afford to zone out because he’s tired.

By 8 a.m., Mueller’s out on the practice field. For the next three hours or so, he’s running, blocking, tackling and helping implement whatever coverages and schemes his coaches discussed during the team meetings.

Linebackers Coach Tim McGarigle addresses his linebackers during practice. He refers to Mueller (#35) as the doctor in the room. Credit: Northwestern Athletics

When classes were still in person and Mueller had to fulfill the early pre-med requirements, he often had a biology or chemistry class right at 11. While many players finish practice and have some time to grab lunch because their classes are in the afternoon, Mueller didn’t have much flexibility in his class schedule. He’d come straight from practice, have classes until around 3 or 4 in the afternoon and head home. When the course load was heaviest during freshman and sophomore year, Mueller said he’d often study from the time class finished until 8:30 or 9 p.m. Then, almost 16 hours into his day, he’d spend about 45 minutes watching game film and reviewing notes from practice before getting ready for bed at 10.

“I can assure you there were definitely moments where I questioned my decision-making—why did I choose such a hard path (with) this major and also the commitments of being a Big Ten football player?” he said. “(However,) there’s a big difference between me questioning it and me doubting it because I always had faith in what I was able to do, and I always knew that I would get through it with a lot of friends and teammates and people supporting me through a lot of those times.”

Erik Mueller’s typical day during football season stretches over 16 hours and often includes stops at Ryan Fieldhouse, the library and a research lab.

The summer before Mueller’s sophomore year was one of those tougher times. He enrolled in the first quarter of organic chemistry, but there was a catch: instead of the normal 10-week course, everything was completed in three weeks.

“I was studying eight to nine hours every day Monday through Friday in the first three weeks of summer,” he said. “I remember a couple nights where I was up ‘til 1 a.m. studying, and then I would get up at 5:15 and get ready to go back squat, hit some heavy weights and go condition and run.”

While Mueller acknowledges how horrible that sounds, he said it’s a good barometer for measuring his growth at Northwestern: “Those are some of my fondest memories too, looking back at how much of a struggle and how much of a grind it was. It’s fun to look back at that and see how far I’ve come since then.”

Now-senior center Sam Gerak shared in the struggle with Mueller that summer as one of the other pre-med students on the team. But he too sees the value of that experience in hindsight: since then, the two have become close friends.

“One thing that helps is just knowing that there’s somebody else going through it too,” Gerak said. “You don’t feel alone in it, and then you can also complain to that person. I don’t want to sound bleak or anything, but that was a tough couple weeks, and just having somebody to talk to about the different challenges we were facing at that time really helped with it.”

Particularly overwhelming was the fact that they had the first midterm the first Friday of the class, the second midterm the next Friday and the final exam a week later—at least, that was the plan. Mueller said there was a malfunction in class the second week, so the second midterm was pushed to the following Monday. That meant a midterm Monday and a final exam that Friday. All the while, he was running on roughly four hours of sleep each day.

Even still, Gerak credits Mueller for helping him get through these weed-out courses like organic chemistry, helping him study, reminding him of exams and providing a morale boost.

“He’s my brother,” Gerak said. “When we’re in a tough situation, I know he will always be honest with me about what he thinks or what’s going on if I don’t see what’s going on. I’m just really grateful to have him for that.”

No matter how many hours Mueller spends in the library or the lab, he’s always been dedicated to honing his craft on the football field.

Mueller is one of the ‘Cats core special teams players, seeing action during kickoffs, kick returns, punts and punt returns. He’s also the backup to senior captain Paddy Fisher. Although he might not jump out at someone watching a Northwestern football game, McGarigle said Mueller serves an invaluable role and always keeps him on his toes during practice.

“I gotta be on point as a coach. I got a smart guy right here,” he said. “All Northwestern football player students are extremely bright, but you got a doctor in your room, man, you better be on point, or he’s gonna call me out.”

Mueller walked on his first year and just wanted to fight for a role somewhere on the team. He played in five games during that 2017 season but has played in 30 of Northwestern’s 31 games since then. Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald said the amount of game action he’s earned is a testament to his character. As a former Northwestern linebacker himself, he knows firsthand the challenges Mueller has faced.

“Muells has just been a really consistent performer for us,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s never taken the easy road. He’s been a guy that takes the path less traveled. He works so hard in practice. He’s ready to go in at linebacker if asked and called upon, and he’s embraced his role as being one of our four special teams’ guys now throughout his entire career.”

Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald knows what it takes to be a successful Northwestern student-athlete after spending over 20 years as part of the program. Credit: Northwestern Athletics

Backing up Fisher on the depth chart means Mueller doesn’t often see the field as a linebacker. Fisher is seventh in Northwestern history in total tackles and was a 2020 Associated Press Preseason All-American. However, Mueller attributes his time with the Big Ten’s active leading tackler as paramount to his own development: “Paddy’s as good as it gets,” he said. “He’s one of the best linebackers in Northwestern history for a reason. Someone you want to model your game after, but also someone you want to be like off the field.”

While Fisher might take most of the snaps during games, Mueller’s contribution to the position group isn’t lost on his coaches. Over his four years playing, McGarigle and Fitzgerald both said he’s grown as a player on the field and a leader off the field. Given the two coaches have spent more than 30 years combined as part of the Northwestern football program, they know a consummate Wildcat student-athlete when they see one.

“Just an incredibly unselfish teammate and truly what I believe, embodies and represents what being a great Wildcat man is all about,” Fitzgerald said. “Just really honored and humbled to be his coach. … Having the Mueller family be a part of our program is something that we’re very thankful for.”

As he reaches the homestretch of the 2020 football season, Mueller’s grind in the classroom continues. He’s preparing to take the MCAT and apply to medical school this spring and then will need to wait about a year to figure out where he’s headed next.

In the meantime, he’s spending time studying at the Brainvolts Lab at Northwestern. He and pre-med wide receiver Braeden Heald are working on a concussion project, looking at how neurological processes differ before and after a sports season.

As he continues to split his time between the library, the lab and the field, he’s started to reflect on his journey in Evanston.

“As a human being, as a person, I love challenges. I love pushing myself, and I enjoy straining,” he said. “I feel like we all should get to that point at some point in our lives because that’s the only way that we can get better in whatever facet of life it may be. It’s definitely been a difficult time, but I really, really enjoyed it.”