With the arrival of Homecoming weekend, North by Northwestern is honoring its alumnae, five of whom are listed below. These legends of the past all shared success playing for the purple and white, but their careers after college took vastly different forms.
As an all-Big Ten linebacker, Fitzgerald anchored the Wildcats’ defense, leading the team to two consecutive Big Ten championships in 1995 and 1996 and to the 1996 Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Fitzgerald was the one centerpiece in a program that wavered during the 80s and 90s; that trip to the Rose Bowl is one only one in Wildcat history.
After a brief stint in the NFL, Fitzgerald left to pursue a career in coaching, a career that frequently had him packing. He first began at the University of Maryland and moved to the University of Colorado and the University of Idaho before returning to his alma mater. He was the Wildcats’ linebacker coach until then head coach Randy Walker died suddenly of a heart attack on Jan. 29, 2006, therefore opening a position after which Fitzgerald had sought, but not under such tragic conditions.
What’s even more impressive than the success he has brought to the program is the involvement he has with the community and with the university. He and his wife, Stacy, hold an annual, charitable 5k race in their hometown of Orland Park, Ill. On campus, he teaches freshman the Northwestern fight song, and encourages them to befriend him on Facebook.
Most current Northwestern students probably know little about Otto Graham because of his passing away in 2003. But Graham may be the most decorated athlete in school history because of his success in football, basketball and baseball.
He was originally recruited to play basketball for the Wildcats, but when then head football coach Lynn Waldorf saw him throwing a football on campus one day, he offered him a spot on the football squad. A member of the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity, “Otto the Omnipotent” was a standout on the gridiron, finishing 3rd in the 1943 Heisman Trophy voting. He broke every standing Big Ten football record.
After a brief service in the Navy as part of the National Coast Guard, Graham signed with the Cleveland Browns, and brought them unparalleled success: ten consecutive league championship games and seven titles. This degree of dynasty is unheard of in the modern era: No professional team has ever won seven titles in 10 years.
Graham was also a colorectal cancer survivor and a spokesman for cancer awareness. For his effort, he was awarded the 1980 American Cancer Society’s award for courage.
The turn of the century brought fortune to the Northwestern football program: a record setting season by all-American tailback Damien Anderson. In 2000, he finished 2nd in the nation in total rushing yards behind LaDainian Tomlinson and 5th in the Heisman Trophy voting. Anderson holds school records for rushing yards (4,485), rushing touchdowns (38), and all-purpose yards (5,261). His 4,485 rushing yards are also 8th best in Big Ten history.
But life after Northwestern hasn’t panned out for Anderson in similar fashion to his collegiate success. He only lasted three futile years in the NFL before moving to the Canadian Football League for a year, a downgrade to say the least. He is now out of professional football altogether.
There is likely nobody who better represented the term “student-athlete” than Luis Castillo did in his four years here. His success on the field paralleled his success in the classroom. He was not only named a weekly all-American and Second-team All-Big Ten player, but also an ESPN Academic All-American and First-team All-Academic Big Ten in 2004 and 2003, respectively.
Castillo was selected with the 28th pick in the 2005 NFL draft by the San Diego Chargers. He is currently an active member of their defensive line. He is one of only two players of Dominican descent to be drafted and to start in the National Football League. His success as a rookie earned him an All-Rookie Team selection by NFL.com. Castillo was toted as “one of the best defensive lineman seen in a long time” by ESPN in 2006.
Cofield has always been a solid player, yet never Hall of Fame caliber. As a Wildcat, he started at right defensive tackle, playing in all sixteen games as a true freshman in 2002. He participated in 49 games during his time at Northwestern, starting in 36 of the final 37. His success earned him 2nd team all-Big Ten honors as a senior in 2005 and a draft selection the ensuing spring when the NFL came calling.
The New York Giants drafted Cofield in the 4th round of the 2006 NFL draft, and he’s played for them to this day. He earned a championship ring in 2007 when the Giants defeated the New England Patriots to win Super Bowl XLII. However, the success of his fellow lineman on the Giants has created anonymity for Cofield. He hasn’t had accrued the same statistics and recognition as have other teammates. But his presence is undoubtedly felt. The Giants contemplated trading him, but his teammates vetoed the idea, calling his would have been departure “tragic.”