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January 1, 2013

Seniors savor Gator Bowl win

JACKSONVILLE, Fla.-Northwestern's on-field celebration after its 34-20 Gator Bowl win over Mississippi State was worthy of the exorcism of a 64-year-old demon.

Players sang the fight song three times with fans, slapped countless high-fives, conducted dozens of interviews, and hoisted the program's first bowl championship trophy since the 1949 Rose Bowl.

Senior David Nwabuisi said that head coach Pat Fitzgerald had to yell at them to get into the locker room because, as he put it, "I wanted to be on the field forever with those guys. (I) love my teammates. It was just a great feeling."

Maybe the most poignant moment, however, was a silent one. With the background noise of fans cheering and the band playing "Go U Northwestern," Fitzgerald asked his seniors to come together, one last time, at midfield.

There, on top of the painted Gator Bowl logo, he and the 24 members of the Wildcats' senior class formed a ring, with arms around each other.

Fitzgerald told them to just enjoy and remember the moment, and all 25 of them stood there in silence, soaking it all in, quiet calm amid the chaos around them.

Many of the players looked down, around the stadium, at the fans still cheering, or at the underclassmen passing around the Gator Bowl trophy. Eventually, one-by-one, they began to look at each other, finding each other's eyes and remembering what they had been through in their careers.

Every one of them -- from stars such as Brian Mulroe, Patrick Ward, Quentin Williams and David Nwabuisi to seldom used backups like Anthony Battle, Will Studlien, Drew Moulton and Evan Watkins -- drank in the moment.

They stood for what seemed like an impossibly long time, creating a ring of honor, a moment of quiet reflection in a noisy maelstrom of joy.

Going into this New Year's Day, this group of seniors was already the winningest senior class in school history. Tuesday's win was the 40th for the fifth-year players.

In one way, however, those same seniors were also the losingest class when it mattered most, having lost a school-record four bowl games as well. They had endured losses in the 2008 Alamo Bowl, the 2010 Outback Bowl, the 2011 Ticket City Bowl and the 2011 Meineke Car Care of Texas Bowl, each a painful setback that that ensured that they heard about the streak from the media during the holidays each year.

Fitzgerald eventually thanked the seniors for everything they had done for the program and talked about what a privilege it had been coaching them. And then, they dispersed, shuffling off to the locker room, the media hallway under the stadium, or to share the moment with family and friends.

"So we're very thankful to our seniors and everything they've done for the program," Fitzgerald said in the post-game press conference. "And it is with a heavy heart that I say that, because this is the last time I get to embrace them in the locker room."

It's true that this senior class will never play together again. But in a way, they will never be apart, either. Those 24 players will forever be the class that broke the streak, that killed the bowl monkey, and that won this game for all those players that ever wore the purple, according to Fitzgerald.

To put it simply, this class of seniors will be remembered as something that only one other class in Northwestern's 130-year football history can be called: bowl champions.



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