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NIU fans have MAC championship fever

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(Rob Winner – rwinner@shawmedia.com)
Northern Illinois fans Caitlin Nottingham, 17, of Sycamore, and her great-uncle Jerry Zakosek of Maple Park will be traveling with five other family members to Detroit for the MAC Championship game between Northern Illinois University and Kent State University at 6 p.m. tonight at Ford Field.

DeKALB – Jerry Zakosek was starting to lose faith.

Down 20-0 at halftime, his beloved Northern Illinois University Huskies seemed headed toward another heartbreaking loss in the 2011 Mid-American Conference championship game. It was déjà vu for Zakosek, who one year earlier sat in Ford Field in Detroit and watched his favorite football team fall just short of a championship.

But this was not 2010, and the 50-plus year Huskies fan watched his team hoist a MAC Championship trophy after rallying to win the game, 23-20, in the second half.

And when NIU, No. 19 in The Associated Press poll, defends its title at 6 p.m. today in Detroit against No. 18 Kent State, Zakosek will once again be sitting in Ford Field anticipating a championship celebration. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2 and AM-1360.

“Last year at halftime it looked pretty dismal, but you realize these kids never quit,” he said. “These kids know how to win, and they have great leadership. They are going to be successful at whatever they do in this world.”

Zakosek is one of many NIU fans who will make the trek to Detroit today, something he said would never have happened a few decades ago. As a former board member for NIU athletics, Zakosek said the football program has come a long way from the 1980s when it was mired in the nation’s longest losing streak and struggled to attract fans.

Now, the alumni base is inspired and reaches across the nation as evidenced by the eight watch parties for today’s game happening in cities including San Diego, New York and Atlanta.

“It’s just the fun right now of being successful,” he said. “To see what the program has grown into is incredible. Having done it the right way makes it even better.”

Linda Watson, who is making the trip to Detroit for the first time, is one of the fans who knows about NIU’s national reach.

Her sisters, who live in Arizona and Florida, always get excited when the Huskies are on ESPN, as they were a couple of weeks ago in their 31-24 win against Toledo that clinched the MAC West Division title.

Watson’s sister in Arizona is so excited about the team she is flying to Detroit to meet Watson today for the game.

“I think the program has come a really long way in terms of respect,” Watson said. “It’s a nice bright spot to brag about the university.”

For other longtime fans such as Dave Waltrip, watching the game from his seats in Ford Field will be a special experience, even though he has seen the Huskies play dozens of times. He goes to almost all home, road and bowl games.

NIU finds itself in a rare situation as it plays in the first MAC Championship game since 2003 where both teams are ranked in the top 25 by The Associated Press, Bowl Championship Series and coaches. The winner could also earn a trip to a BCS bowl game, such as the Orange Bowl to play one of the country’s premier teams on New Year’s Day.

“To see them even have a chance to go to an Orange Bowl is unbelievable,” Waltrip said. “It’s something you only dream about.”

Win or lose, dedicated fans such as Zakosek and Waltrip said NIU football games are about more than their final scores.

Games are a chance to spend time with family and meet and make new friends through what Waltrip calls a family-like bond at tailgates.

They also provide an opportunity to watch young men grow and mature over four years into what Zakosek said are some of the finest representatives of the university.

But winning is still better.

“I wear the same shirt every Saturday, and we’re on a winning streak,” Waltrip said. “I have to make sure.”

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