College football’s most historic rivalries are based on hate, like the Iron Bowl between Alabama and Auburn and The Game between Michigan and Ohio State.
Not so much with the Northwest and Illinois.
“For me personally, it’s fun,” said second-year tackle Peter Skoronski, from Park Ridge, Ill.. “A bunch of my friends go to school there, so it’s always like a personal rivalry in that sense just for gossip and stuff like that.”
The Wildcats’ rivalry with the Fighting Illini is built on the bonds between the players of both teams. Both schools have large contingents of players from Illinois, particularly from the Chicago area.
NU calls itself the Chicago Big Ten Team. Throughout his tenure, coach Pat Fitzgerald recruited many Chicago-area players to join the program. Twenty-three players on NU’s 2021 roster hail from Illinois, and Fitzgerald himself grew up in Orland Park, a suburb south of Chicago, before becoming an All-American linebacker at NU.
The Cats’ 16th-year head coach said he was trying to model the program on that of the city.
“When we had that tenacity from Chicago, we played really good football,” said Fitzgerald. “It’s something we’re very proud of here. It is an attitude. It is a state of mind. These are the beautiful summer days, these are the harsh winters. It’s the foliage in the fall, and the hope for something new in the spring. Chicago is part of the fabric of our program.
Meanwhile, the Fighting Illini have 44 players in the state. Coach Bret Bielema was born in Prophetstown, Ill., 179 miles northwest of Champaign and 140 miles west of Evanston.
The mother of junior receiver Raymond Niro III is a former NU. A native of Barrington, Ill., He grew up participating in Cats youth camps and recruiting events.
“I grew up around cats,” said Niro III. “I know (graduated defensive lineman Joe Spivak) did it too. Growing up, we both went to probably every youth camp in Northwestern, every high school camp in Northwestern. We are cats, but we have great respect for Illinois.
These friendly and family relationships make the game and the rivalry special for the players.
Spivak’s cousin and sister are both Illinois elders. His cousin Michael Hoomanawanui played for the Illini football team from 2006 to 2009, and his sister Courtney Spivak swam in Illinois from 2006 to 2010.
” They have difficulty. (My sister) a few years later, ”Spivak said. “She got a few masters and doctorates from other schools, so she slowly diminished her loyalty to Northwestern, but I know there’s a part of her deep down that still has it. Ditto with my cousin. They are really proud of their school, which is great.
One of Niro III’s best friends is a student in Illinois. Although his friend is not a football player, Niro II said the two friends still had fun with the rivalry and that they planned to meet again after the game.
The number of players at the two schools also makes the rivalry more fun, Spivak said.
“Both schools do a really good job recruiting guys into the state,” Spivak said. “It’s cool, obviously, playing against guys you know and have been competing against for a while, it’s a lot of fun.”
This year, the stakes for the rivalry are already high, as the Cats seek their seventh straight victory to claim the Land of Lincoln Trophy. With another win, NU will even be rivals for the state at 55 wins apiece.
According to Niro III, the friends the cats have in Champaign will make the rivalry more intense and exciting.
“Lincoln’s country is our rivalry,” Skoronski said. “It’s a big deal every year, no matter our record, no matter what their record is. The intensity does not change at all.
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