You can call it patriotic overzealousness. You can call it delusional false equivalency. You can even call it a naive writer just shy of his 20th birthday going overboard on his favorite holiday, and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But when I look at two of my favorite things, American history and college football, I can’t help but find a connection starting at me dead in the eyes and smacking me with a claw tightly clutching a small United States flag.
You see, when I think of the current Northwestern Wildcats football team, I think of the United States of America—for all of the good, bad and ugly. As a beat writer for the former and student of the history of the latter, I’m supplied with enough material to spin this twisted logic into a column, and with my First Amendment rights (plus the permission of my boss), I’ll do just that.
This connection, however, has very little to do with record. I’m not quite sure how you do it, but if you compared the United States’ success rate with Northwestern’s, the United States would win. Easily.
However, both the United States and Northwestern football share one very special bond: While there are heroes of every generation and incredible moments peppered throughout both of their stories, both the nation and football program are defined more by an idea than anything else—an idea that flies in the face of convention and occasionally logic.
For all intents and purposes, Northwestern shouldn’t be able to succeed in football. An elite, private university with notoriously strict academic requirements for athletes and a less-than-stellar history should have no place in a conference as cutthroat as the Big Ten. For a while, it didn’t look like it did.
But that doesn’t matter to Pat Fitzgerald and his fellow coaches, who firmly believe that a team can compete on the field without budging an inch in academics or character. They don’t sell four years of the Wildcats, but rather 40 years of the Wildcat Way. With a 10-3 record and a bowl win backing up their beliefs, it’s hard not buy into it, too. Just ask the 12 men of the Class of 2014 recruiting class who already did.
If you can wade through the worst aspects of the United States, all the way back to 1776, you’ll find a similarly solid ideological foundation for this country. A brief examination of American colonial history shows that much of the reason for revolution was premised in principle, not practice. It wasn’t the cost of the Imperial taxes that upset America’s earliest patriots; it was the idea of them. And so in the name of freedom, liberty and everything else you can find on the back of a coin, the United States of America was born.
The connection even extends from the ideological into the practical, as both the United States and Northwestern football have a tendency of doing things in an unconventional—and not always entirely successful—way. For Northwestern, it’s the dual quarterback system that didn’t quite seem to function at full capacity for a great deal of the season. For the United States, it’s passing laws through a complicated system of check and balances, which is only complicated by a dual party system. In the long run, though, these things get done—no matter how ugly it can be at any given time.
Finally, both the United States and the Northwestern Wildcats share a special ability to unite those most devoted to them, regardless of who they are or what they believe. With unprecedented political partisanship and a slew of scandals of debatable merit casting a cloud over the government, and issues of diversity, inclusion and mental health plaguing the university, there have been better times in both the country at large and the campus of Northwestern. But on today, the birthday of this nation, the American people stand together in celebration just as the Wildcat faithful did ten times last season: One nation. Indivisible.
And after all the games are over and elections are completed, one simple fact remains: You can choose whether to remain an American citizen or a Wildcat fan, but you can never forget what made you stay for so long. It’s on days like these that we remember that for the United States, and are reminded of what it’s like for Northwestern until summer’s heat gives way to autumn’s chill.