Signing Day. With the season over, fans flock to the next chapter. For some schools, it involves considerable drama, as they wonder which last-minute decisions will turn in their favor.
For Northwestern, it takes on different significance. Local stars including four-star quarterback Matt Alviti and heralded offensive lineman Tyler Lancaster make a pledge to keep an in-state program headed in the right direction. Others, from across the country, will do the same on Feb. 6.
When I arrived at Northwestern eighteen months ago, I knew that my priorities were in line. School first. I just had no idea that for NU athletes, the same was true.
Media often paints an ugly picture of student athletes. Writers laugh at the term. With high-profile schools churning out talent en route to championships and professional careers, we often lose sight of the value of education. Though NU prides itself on academic rigor, I expected football players to pout through classes – if they attended at all. It's just what we're brought up to believe.
But I was wrong. For NU athletes, the opposite is the case.
When you sit in class, for better or for worse, you know where the athletes are. They wear their backpacks and their purple with pride.
They know all eyes are on them. And they always impress. The day before Thanksgiving, football players barged into an optional sociology class, to my complete surprise. Then I realized: To hell with what other schools are doing, because Northwestern is doing it right. It's a special environment.
All year long, when potential recruits are asked about Northwestern, they mention academics. Like John Shurna giving credit to his teammates, it is a constant in interviews. Even before mentioning the team's recent accomplishments, many cite academics as the primary reason for their interest, or for their commitment. It is what distinguishes this program.
Pat Fitzgerald could finally cross the "bowl win" off of his list of goals. The importance of getting a degree will always remain. To Fitzgerald, academics are of foremost importance. He considers the annual bye week as an opportunity for his players to catch up on their schoolwork.
The results are astonishing. On Jan. 17, Fitzgerald posted on his Facebook page: "I'm proud to say that 63 Northwestern football players earned over a 3.0 GPA and the team earned a 3.06 GPA!" More than 400 people liked the status.
When offensive lineman Patrick Ward was announced as a finalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy – known as the "Academic Heisman" – his teammates were thrilled. In Evanston, you cannot separate academics and football. With double-digit win totals and high grades, it is impossible not to be proud of this team.
Nineteen new Wildcats will make it official next Wednesday. They not only become the players I watch on the field, but also become my colleagues in the classroom.
Welcome to Northwestern, where the term "student athlete" is more than just lip service. It defines the program.
Follow on Twitter: @NicholasMedline