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Thursday, February 29

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Football Fri Nov 19 2010

Tailgate Talks: The Damien Anderson Interview

It's been a hot minute since Tailgate Talks was busted out, but for the inaugural Allstate Wrigleyville Classic*, Tailgate had the honor of chatting with esteemed former NFL running back and Northwestern legend, Damien Anderson. Anderson, who grew up 50 miles southwest of Chicago in tiny, Wilmington, Illinois and whose name to Northwestern alums of a certain age has the same folk hero-ish resonance as "Manning" to Tennessee fans or "Griffin" to Ohio State fans, spoke candidly about his thoughts on the Illinois-Northwestern rivalry, the evolution of Northwestern football (from conference doormat to conference contender), Pat Fitzgerald's impact and other footballic subjects.

As a former player in the game, can you talk about what the Illinois-Northwestern rivalry means to the players and fans?

It's everything. In this state, it's "Ohio State-Michigan;" it's "Oklahoma-Texas." The majority of the players are from Illinois and it really means so much from a player and alumni perspective. With it being in Chicago this season it adds so much more of a "bowl game" atmosphere, it's really something special.

[Current Northwestern head coach] Pat Fitzgerald and Darnell Autry's 1995 team "shocked" the Big Ten and the country by winning the conference title and going to the Rose Bowl. Your 2000 team won the Big Ten conference (tied with Michigan and Purdue) and led the Wildcat program into the 21st century with a tremendous amount of success and since then a string of very exceptional players has come thru the program (Tyrell Sutton, Noah Herron, Adrian Autry, Napoleon Harris). What's been the impact on recruiting just from the recent success?

Players at Northwestern are a special type. I remember growing up as a kid and watching Notre Dame or Michigan or Illinois and wanting to go there. But seeing that Fitzgerald and Autry led team, showed me something. I was recruited by Northwestern very aggressively and after that Rose Bowl season I saw that the team was for real. Players when they come to Northwestern are held to a much higher academic standard and when you combine that high level of academics with exceptional athleticism the proof comes thru on the field of play. Recruits see the points that NW puts up; they see how exciting the offense is; they see the media market that Chicago presents. These players put so much into their academic and athletic careers.

Touching on a point you mentioned, you referred to this as a Chicago bowl game, what does this mean for the potential for Chicago hosting the Big Ten Championship Game?

People absolutely pay attention to Chicago sports regardless of anything else that's going on. This game is getting so much attention compared to even the Notre Dame-Army game at Yankee Stadium. And if you put the divisional champions of the new Big Ten alignment in Soldier Field you'll be looking at a great environment for fans at the game and at home to enjoy. It has to come to Chicago. It's a great media market, it is an exceptional host city and it is centrally located to all of the Big Ten schools.

Northwestern was really rocked in 2005 when Coach Randy Walker passed away, what's it been like watching Pat Fitzgerald pick up the team and not miss a beat in leading the program in the right direction?

I don't even know where to start with this guy. He's a great man, a great father, a brother on the field. He's amazing. He respects his players so much and he allows his players to buy all in. He asks for feedback and interaction while also holding everyone accountable for their actions on and off the field.

With Cam Newton's name in the news so much recently, what's your opinion on the NCAA paying players?

As a student-athlete you're putting so much time and dedication into the team and the program. You're basically an athlete 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and on top of that you're also a student. That being said, policies need to be set in place that emphasize the education of the athletes and much more stringent penalties need to be placed on the sports agents that are poaching and soliciting these potential clients. Major League Baseball's model, I think, would work much more effectively for college football. Something that's very important to remember too, is the fact that this goes so much deeper into a socio-economic problem as well. Potential student-athletes and their parents who are having tens and, in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars around when they've never seen that money. It's a shame. When you're a 17 or 18-year-old kid, you've got a moral compass, but if your parents are saying "That money can really help," it makes it very tough to say no.

-- Damien Anderson, who played for Northwestern from 1998 to 2001 and is the
school's all-time leading rusher, will be signing autographs and
fielding fan questions from 1 - 2 p.m. at the Allstate Tailgate Tour,
located at Wildcat Way at the intersection of Addison and Sheffield

*Note: I know, I know, it's always automatically legitimizing to attach "Classic" to anything, but people, please, stop calling inaugural events "Classic."

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