One of my favorite parts of covering college football games is when the media is allowed fourth-quarter sideline access. I take advantage of the opportunity each time; getting a good look at each venue and its atmosphere. In the case of Northwestern’s Gator Bowl victory, it was a unique experience.
The win was sealed on Quentin Williams’ fourth-down sack of quarterback Tyler Russell. The nail was in Mississippi State’s coffin, and a wild celebration ensued. I was along the Northwestern sidelines and was able to experience the party.
I watched along the exterior of the sidelines, as the Wildcats had just started the celebration. Moments later, I was approached by athletic director Jim Phillips, who shook my hand and offered me congratulations. I’ll assume it was a compliment toward my great season of coverage—just kidding.
Phillips then walked toward former Northwestern kicker Sam Valensizi—now the sideline reporter for WGN Radio—who was overwhelmed with joy, letting up tears. In a touching moment, Phillips grabbed Valensizi and offered a long hug. At that moment, senior defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt doused Pat Fitzgerald with the Gatorade bucket.
After the third victory-formation knee, the players rushed toward the field; Pat Fitzgerald offering a handshake to MSU coach Dan Mullen. Some players gathered for a team prayer while others exchanged hugs and congratulations. The Gator Bowl officials handed out victory hats to the winning team. Shortly after, the players rushed toward the corner of the endzone, meeting the large cheering section gathered. The band cued up the fight song and the team sang it proudly. The players held their helmets in the air with pride while donning their new hats.
The podium was brought out on the 20-yard line and the team and media on hand quickly gathered around. I situated myself toward the back, standing next to defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who had a smile larger than I had ever seen before on his face. Pat Fitzgerald, beginning to choke up, grabbed the microphone and delivered a prideful speech, then starting up a rendition of the fight song for the fans in attendance.
Following the podium ceremony, David Nwabuisi walked off with the trophy, surrounded by teammates. It was passed around between the seniors, each enjoying their long-awaited moment. When a Gator Bowl official asked Nwabuisi to return the trophy, he declined—then later didn’t want to leave the field. Can you blame him?
The final moments on EverBank Field were spent with players high-fiving fans before walking through the tunnel. Inside the locker room, Pat Fitzgerald unveiled the symbolic stuffed monkey, which would be ripped to shreds. The head coach walked into the room with the monkey’s head—its only remains.
Bowl season is special because of moments like that. It was fun to be a part of.