DeKALB – Playing in an NFL stadium is nothing new to Northern Illinois football.
Every player who was on the traveling roster last season played at three professional venues in 2012 – Solider Field for the season opener against Iowa, Ford Field in Detroit for the Mid-American Conference Championship and Sun Life Stadium in South Florida for the Orange Bowl.
On Saturday, the Huskies (8-0, 4-0 MAC West) head to another AFC East facility when they take on UMass (1-7, 1-3 MAC East) at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., home of the New England Patriots.
“Any time you can play in a pro stadium, professional environment, it’s always something you dream of, you want to look forward to,” NIU sophomore middle linebacker Boomer Mays said.
“I think it’ll be a great experience. I’ve never been out to Foxboro before,” guard Aidan Conlon said. “Preperation stays the same, little longer flight. ... I’ll be excited to play there.”
NIU also played at Ford Field in 2010 and 2011 for the MAC title games, and beat Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium in 2010. The Minnesota Vikings will use TCF as a temporary home in 2014 and 2015 with the team building a new facility on the site of the Metrodome.
With UMass and Gillette Stadium, it’s an unusual situation. When the Minutemen joined the MAC, the conference told the school its facility on campus, McGuirk Stadium, wasn’t up to standards.
UMass is upgrading its football performance center (their version of the Yordon Center) and press box, and the school is expected to move some games back to McGuirk next season.
Gillette Stadium is nearly two hours away from UMass’s campus in Amherst, and it’s obviously tougher for students to get there, although UMass has averaged about 18,000 fans a game this year.
UMass averaged nearly 11,000 fans a game in 2012, and if the Minutemen fail to average 15,000 a game this year, they would be put on a 10-year probationary period by the MAC.
The atmosphere Saturday afternoon won’t be anything like a Patriots game, or NIU’s Soldier Field games.
In Conlon’s mind, surroundings don’t even matter once the ball is kicked off.
“When I’m playing. I’m pretty focused on the 11 guys across form us,” he said. “Outside of that, I don’t really look too much into it. I just love playing football, the atmosphere changes every week. It’s always the same 11 vs. 11.”