What a day

Former publisher Chris Emma reflects on the rise of Northwestern.

My first game at Ryan Field was a snooze fest. The Wildcats walked all over Eastern Illinois in early September of 2011, a game played before 28,042. Looking back, that feels like a long time ago.

Now, we wait for the biggest home game in Northwestern history. The perennial powerhouse Ohio State Buckeyes are coming to town. So is the national media circus. All eyes are on the Wildcats, and a program that has come so far.

The stories are told over and over. Northwestern once considered leaving for the Ivy League. It was the Big Ten's doormat for years. There was a long losing streak and a bowl drought. All Cat fans know this well.

But when you consider the incredible excitement surrounding this weekend, you can't help but smile at what Pat Fitzgerald has done for his alma mater. Northwestern buried its dreadful history and is poised to battle for the Big Ten crown.

So take this Saturday as a milestone. For one fall day, Ryan Field is the center of the college football universe.

This is a program that was barely relevant in Evanston before 1995. It's one fighting for its place in Chicago. On Saturday, the nation gets to see how far the Cats have come.

Forget the days where Ryan Field was filled with Michigan's maize, Iowa's yellow or Ohio State's red. This is a sellout, and it'll be filled with Northwestern purple. There will be fans and alumni alike, many traveling a long way to see this game. The Cats carry promise and hype they haven't seen since Pat Fitzgerald was a linebacker.

I'm lucky to have secured my tickets months ago. See, in each of my past four seasons of covering college football, I've spent my bye week taking in college football as a fan. This means tailgating, braving the cold and cheering my head off.

When I joined the Purdue beat, one of the first things I did was look at the Boilermakers' bye week. Bam, it's October 5th. Where else would I be but Evanston?

The grill at my tailgater will be going just off Sheridan Road (I'll have a cold one for anyone wanting to stop by). Campus will be buzzing throughout the day—from sunrise over Lake Michigan to sunset behind the press box.

Put aside the nerves for this game—whether Venric will be ready to play, how to contain Braxton Miller and all those scary thoughts about Urban Meyer. It's easy to forget how far you've come.

For one special Saturday, Evanston is the mecca of college football. While you tailgate outside the stadium, take it all in and appreciate the present. What a day it will be.

Chris Emma has covered recruiting, college athletics and professional baseball for FOX Sports Next since 2009. Emma covered the Nebraska Cornhuskers and Northwestern Wildcats, and currently covers the Purdue Boilermakers. A Chicago native, he resides in West Lafayette.
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