I’ll be honest — as a grown man with over three decades of adult life experience, usually when I hear the words adversity and distractions as applied to sports teams, I tend to cringe.
I mean, I’ve lost my dad. I’ve also lost two of my siblings. I’ve had a few other bad things happen to me. When I hear a team talking about “adversity” because a couple guys are hurt, or something is a “distraction” because of some off-field incidents or issues, I don’t want to hear it. Those are just excuses for losing, or built-in excuses for losses that are going to come.
Then I covered the 2019 Huskies football team.
History will record this year as a disappointing one. After beating Western Michigan University 17-14 Tuesday in the season finale at Huskie Stadium, NIU finished with a record of 5-7.
It’s a disappointment because expectations are always high with this program. Over the last 20 years, the Huskies have become one of the standout non-power five programs in the country. That’s what happens when a program plays in 12 bowl games, wins 11 Mid-American West division championships and four MAC titles since the start of the century.
Even worse, in three of the losses this season — to the University of Nebraska, Central Michigan University and Eastern Michigan University — the Huskies suffered beatings of more than four touchdowns.
Let’s also not forget the fact that the Huskies were led by first-year coach Thomas Hammock, an NIU football legend, who was serving as a head coach for the first time after 16 years as a college and professional assistant.
To add insult to injury, it rained for all or part of all five home games, which means the Huskies played in front of small home crowds all year long and dealt with more than the usual lack of interest from the student body.
That in itself is a good bit of adversity, but that was just the start.
Before the season even started, standout senior linebacker Lance Deveaux, Jr., coming off the best season of his career, was lost for the season due to injury. Later on, redshirt senior linebacker Antonio Jones-Davis, who was leading the team in tackles at the time, saw his season come to an end, too.
Veterans like redshirt senior linebacker Kyle Pugh lost time, as did redshirt junior Jack Heflin, one of the best interior linemen in the MAC. On the offensive end, senior lineman C.J. Perez lost time, and transfer senior quarterback Ross Bowers suffered two concussions and was ultimately shelved for the season.
The Huskies soldiered on, plugging in new players and picking up MAC wins over Ohio University, University of Akron and University of Toledo.
Then came the distractions. Those arrived after a 45–17 home loss to Eastern Michigan Nov. 19 which ended any hopes of a MAC championship and a second-straight bowl game.
Whispers started that some players were looking to leave the program and enter the NCAA Transfer Portal. A few names were mentioned, most prominently Tre Harbison, redshirt junior running back, who had been one of the few bright spots in the lineup. Harbison carried the ball for 1,011 yards and eight touchdowns while notching five 100-yard games in MAC play.
It was later confirmed that Harbison had indeed entered the portal and had chosen not to participate in the Western Michigan game.
The rumors persisted. Other players were leaving, it was being said on social media, including some starters. There was talk that those players were also going to sit out Tuesday night.
Finally, 6 p.m. arrived and the game kicked off, leaving the Huskies to only play for pride and the 18 seniors who took the field before the game with their families.
This group that had struggled through so many things this season, a group that had, yes, faced adversity and distractions in spades, took the field one last time in 2019.
Passion, pride and brotherhood are strong things, and what they did will probably be the one takeaway from the season the players will always remember.
They held a Broncos offense, who scored 54 touchdowns and 396 points this season, scoreless in the first half. That hadn’t happened to WMU since a Nov. 1, 2018, loss to Ohio, 16 games ago.
Junior wide receiver Tyrice Ritchie scored on a 71-yard play and running backs redshirt senior Marcus Jones, redshirt sophomore Jordan Nettles and first-year walk-on Rondarius Gregory picked up Harbison’s slack, combining for 136 yards on 28 carries.
The razzle-dazzle even worked, as Michael Love, first-year wide receiver, completed the first pass of his college career on a trick play to Mitchell Brinkman, redshirt junior tight end, to put the final points on the board for the Huskies with 7:47 to go in the game.
The bounces went the Huskies’ way. NIU forced two turnovers, blocked a kick and saw WMU miss a field goal. It seems like each fortuitous action was a bit of a makeup for everything that had gone awry this season.
Adversity and distractions.
The reason I’m fine with associating these words with this team is because no matter what happened, they didn’t make excuses. They were accountable for their losses. They kept their heads down and continued grinding, living up to their “TheHardWay” hashtag.
This Huskies didn’t quit, no matter what happened to them. Every time they got knocked down on the mat, the players picked themselves up and got stronger. That’s the proper response when things don’t go your way in life. That’s the lesson the college experience is supposed to teach because life moves on. The seniors who played their final game — seven of whom already have their bachelor’s degrees — will go on with their lives. Some players will probably still leave because that’s the culture in college sports. Others will come to DeKalb next spring or summer for the first time.
When people look back at the 2019 season, some may call it a disappointment. However, for what this team went through — all the adversity and all of the distractions — to pull it all together one final time for the seniors and beat one of the best teams in the MAC? Those of us who experienced this season first-hand will know it was quite the success.