When "family" means so much more

How "family" has become a defining component of Northwestern football...

Nathan Hall needed only one day to make his decision. He left Northwestern camp after receiving that long-awaited offer, but refused to commit immediately. It took deliberation with his "loved ones," and of course, they respected and supported his commitment.

He said his brother, Jimmy, never directly confronted the subject prior to his offer. But Nathan got it. He followed Northwestern by himself. He met Pat Fitzgerald when he was in eighth grade, and after all these years, he's about to see a lot of him. This team does value family. No conversations that associate "family" with "Northwestern football" seem off base or clichéd.

This does not develop out of luck, or simply because brothers inherently want to play with each other at the next level. It results from top-to-bottom character and positive culture, making "family" one of the group's loudest realities.

This situation, as we know, isn't any sort of anomaly. Hall, Cameron Queiro and Fred Wyatt were familiarized with the "Wildcat Way" several years ago. Garrett Dickerson–who has NU in his top three schools–faces a similar situation. Not everyone connected to this family ends up joining, with Tito Odenigbo an exception, but you can't understate the importance of early positive impressions and how they reflect this budding program.

It's not as though Fitzgerald stormed into Jimmy Hall's recruitment anticipating that he would recruit the guy's younger brother. It's not as though Fitzgerald envisioned then two-year-old Fred Wyatt developing into the perfect fit at defensive tackle. His approach is not contrived. He's honest and makes the team an easy sell.

We can't remove agency from players; they make their own choices. In the case of Hall, it was still an unquestionably informed decision. Many say that the most successful couples enter romantic relationships with the best understanding of each other. Ah, I'm no expert, but think the analogy holds: There's something to be said for kids believing in NU when they know its merits.

Nathan Hall can't look at his brother and assume he's destined for football stardom. Jimmy has just eight career tackles, has struggled to find his natural position and still needs to make the impact we expect. It's not really about that. NU is fulfilling for that rare combination of on-the-field success, off-the-field harmony and academic prestige.

Ben Oxley put it best moments after committing in early April. After spending his overnight stay with Deonte Gibson, he kept coming back to the topic of Fitzgerald and how he's built a contender. The players, in those most candid moments, authentically sold the NU experience.

"Everyone's been telling me the whole time: it starts from the top," Oxley said. "Every single part of the staff is great, and they all respect Coach Fitzgerald."

It's not all about Fitzgerald. Every member of the team believes in his role, and tries to maximize his contribution, and that's what makes people love it. It is, without question, a testament to this program that players who know it best sign on.

Even in the 90s, people figured that Fitzgerald could accomplish something like this. I tell the story a lot because I like it: Buddy Wyatt coached at NU and knew Fitzgerald from when the two were on the Colorado staff. When Wyatt moved to different jobs, he kept in touch.

Now at Kansas, Wyatt and the Jayhawks staff offered Fred. But he provided no opposition, his son said, when Fred chose NU after his visit in late May. It was something that everyone was proud of, and despite 15 years away from the staff, Buddy knows where this team is headed.

Northwestern includes "family" in its Twitter handle. The players are especially close. This same coaching staff has been around forever.

But really, the literal sense of "family" here means so much more. It is the truest endorsement of the entire program, from the Halls, the Queiros, the others and the many more to come.


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