On Senior Day, A Thank You

By Kevin Sweeney

Saturday is Senior Day at Ryan Field.

It may not be a normal one with parents walking their sons onto the field or loud cheers from the crowd. In fact, every senior could theoretically stay for one more year thanks to the NCAA’s decision to not count this year towards a player’s eligibility limits. 

But it’s still a Senior Day of sorts. Senior Day for all the players moving on, all the managers and support staffers whose names we never know but should, senior day for the cheerleaders and spirit squad members who couldn’t be at the games this year. It’s also Senior Day for me, a student journalist. And as much as it might be fun, there’s no extra year of eligibility waiting for me from WNUR Sports. 

While there are still two football games to cover, plus an entire winter and spring sports season, Saturday is a reminder that my time as the “student” part of “student journalist” is short. And while I certainly plan on being back in some form or fashion throughout the rest of my life, there’s still a finality to your final home game as a student that’s pretty strange to digest. 

My first Ryan Field experience was the experience the vast majority of Northwestern freshmen have: running across the field before watching the Wildcats blow out a MAC team. My second Ryan Field game was where my experience started to veer from the norm. As a result of winning the hot dog eating contest at the freshman tailgate, I was awarded the chance to meet Pat Fitzgerald two hours or so before the game against Penn State and received a signed football.

My next game was my first in the press box, as I sat on press row for an 11 a.m. kick between Northwestern and Iowa that went to overtime. I have three memories from that game: waking up an hour and a half before I was getting picked up so I could learn how to tie a tie, loading up on media room food and Noah Fant dropping a pass in overtime to give Northwestern the win. At that point, I was hooked. 

Since then, I’ve been able to cover Big Ten football in a way I never expected to while in college. I stood on the sidelines in Iowa City when Northwestern clinched the Big Ten West, relaying the scores of the Wisconsin and Purdue games to the lone Northwestern fan in the front row of a packed Kinnick Stadium while losing feeling in my extremities due to the cold weather. I traveled with the team to the Big Ten Championship Game in 2018 and saw Northwestern become a football school for one cold day in early December.

I watched a 2019 team with high expectations struggle to complete a pass and rarely find the end zone, but still claim the “Hat” in Champaign in what would be Mick McCall’s final game as offensive coordinator. And in this unforgettable pandemic season, I called Northwestern’s first sporting event since the world shut down. Soon after, though, I was starkly reminded of the times when I called road games off a computer monitor in our on-campus radio studio rather than in West Lafayette or East Lansing. 

One of the things that makes Northwestern so unique in the Big Ten is how national its student body is. Over 70% of Ohio State’s incoming students in 2020 are from Ohio. About 50% of 2019 freshmen at Wisconsin are from Wisconsin. That in-state number is under 30% at Northwestern, and even that seems high anecdotally. I know two people at Northwestern who grew up caring about Northwestern sports — I imagine that number is much higher at most Big Ten schools. Despite having no ties to NU before coming here, I now can’t miss a game. Neither can my parents, who will send me an “ugh” or “tough loss” when the ‘Cats lose despite not caring about football. I don’t expect that to change once I graduate. Covering Northwestern football has been a vehicle to making some of my greatest friends at Northwestern, people who I hope I’ll still text and call about the ‘Cats in 30 years. 

So as I reflect ahead of my Senior Day, I guess the only thing I can say is thank you. Thanks to the folks in WNUR who convinced me to join the station and set me on a path to do what I’m doing now. Thanks to Pat Fitzgerald, who is probably the only coach in America who gives a shoutout to the student journalists who are graduating during a press conference. Thanks to Northwestern’s athletic communications staff, who worked with us to make sure we could still be in Ryan Field this year during a once-in-a-century pandemic. 

When the Big Ten originally postponed the season back in August, it felt like a small part of me died. Is that an irrational reaction to not being able to watch or cover football for a few months? Yeah, it is. But unlike the players, I couldn’t redshirt this year. This year was it for me, one way or another. And losing the chance to cover football meant more than losing the chance to go to an in-person class. Maybe that’s because Ryan Field had become my classroom. So did Welsh-Ryan Arena and Martin Stadium and Rocky & Berenice Miller Park. Going from the freshman wowed by the media food who barely knew how to tie a tie to a senior who still loves those media meals but now fully knows how to tie a tie has been quite the ride. And don’t worry, I learned a whole lot more along the way…but the tie thing was pretty important! 

I guess my final thank you is to the players. The sacrifices they made this season to stay COVID-free and put on a football season have been enormous and shouldn’t be taken lightly. I hope they know how many people’s days got a little bit brighter getting to watch the ‘Fighting Rece Davises’ on Saturdays this fall. I know you made my senior year a lot more fun than it would have been otherwise. 

Going back to Lucas Oil Stadium next week will be quite the thrill. And a bowl game will be a great way to cap my time covering Northwestern football. But there will be something special about walking into Ryan Field one last time tomorrow, even if it will be an empty stadium without the pageantry of a normal Senior Day. I know I won’t forget it anytime soon. 

Kevin Sweeney
Sports Director, WNUR Sports