Rallying around each other has become second nature for the NIU football team.
The Huskies have had to persevere through heaps of difficulty over the past five months, from letting the MAC Championship fall through their fingers to Miami (OH), to former head coach Jerry Kill leaving the team to take the same position with Minnesota.
But NIU's most recent hardship is beyond the football field in dealing with the absence of linebacker Devon Butler, who was shot Tuesday night.
"Devon is fighting for his life right now," said Huskie quarterback Chandler Harnish. "As far as we know, he is getting better and everything."
Harnish said initially, some of the players had heard rumors that Butler had been involved in a car accident. When his teammates heard what really happened, "It was a big surprise to a lot of people," Harnish said. "I don't know if we knew the extent of how serious the injury really was."
With Butler weighing heavily on their minds, the Huskies held their first practice since head coach Dave Doeren canceled Thursday's practice.
The vibes from Saturday's practice were positive and loose, to say the least. The Huskies ran through position and team drills like it was a typical spring rehearsal.
"What happened puts a lot of things in perspective for everybody," Doeren said. "I think guys came out today and really played the game they love with passion. It was fun. We're critical and we're hard on ourselves, but you can't lose sight of perspective and I think that was a big lesson for all of us."
For many of the Huskies, including linebacker Pat Schiller, it was nice to be back on the field.
"The last couple of days have obviously been rough, for not just the linebacking crew but for all the team," Schiller said. "It's definitely nice to get out here and practice, and get our mind off of things. It's a good way to escape from everything that has happened."
NIU linebacker Jordan Delegal decided to pay tribute to Butler in his own way. Delegal donned Butler's number-nine practice jersey, a mark of respect he told Butler he intended on doing while visiting him at OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center in Rockford.
"[Butler] is like my little brother," Delegal said. "We both came in the same recruiting class. I just had to pay homage; he's like my little brother at heart."
For how close-knit the Huskies are, it didn't come as a surprise to Doeren to see Delegal wearing Butler's threads.
"I kind of expected it," Doeren said. "I was wondering who would do it, because all of those guys are so close in that position group. I was proud of him for taking the reins on that; it was fun to see."
Harnish, Schiller and Delegal echoed that Butler was in "good spirits" while they visited him at Saint Anthony.
"He's doing really well for his circumstances," Schiller said.
Once practice concluded, Doeren and his players collectively came together and held a team prayer near the center of Brigham Field.
"It's a blessing for him to be alive," Delegal said. "That's a big part of what we had to pray for at the end of practice."
According to a member of the OSF Saint Anthony Medical in Rockford, Butler was still listed in serious condition as of Sunday morning.