Questions, you know I always have questions.
When does Northern Illinois University intercollegiate athletics retire quarterback Jordan Lynch’s celebrated No. 6?
Third in the Heisman Trophy balloting as a senior, seventh as a junior, 10,552 career total offense yards and 100 touchdowns, 24-4 record as a starter, All-America, etc. Why not? Maybe not now, but sometime in the future.
Next question: Is NIU still honoring its tradition and retiring football numbers? Or is it jerseys? Wasn’t NIU Athletics Hall of Fame wide receiver Dave Petzke’s No. 6 “retired” decades ago? Wait, didn’t Huskies linebacker Jamaal Bass also wear No. 6 last season? Does Northern Illinois have a criteria or policy for such retired numbers or jerseys?
As long as we’re fixated on digits, and since we read or hear about the words “alumni engagement” more and more recently, isn’t time for NIU to finally consider honoring Jim Bradley’s No. 24 or Allen Rayhorn’s No. 40 or Lisa Foss’ No. 10 or Carol Owens’ No. 31 in basketball at the Convocation Center? What about the program’s other sports all-stars?
Whew, if you’re dazed and confused, so am I.
It’s a perfect time for NIU athletics director Sean Frazier and his staff to address the issue. With the 50th anniversary Huskie Stadium football campaign (1965 to 2015) approaching next fall, why not re-establish a Legacy Numbers Honor Court for football (maybe in the new Chessick Indoor Practice Center), update 1995’s “All-Time Huskie Stadium Team,” and host a “House That George Bork Built” Golden Anniversary gridiron reunion to end all reunions?
Here’s a quick history on the four Northern Illinois retired football numbers / jerseys:
By the late 1970s, three NIU football numbers – Petzke’s (1977 to 78) No. 6, quarterback Bob Heimerdinger’s (1948 through 51) No. 12, and fullback Mark Kellar’s (1971 to 73) No. 31 – were believed to be “retired.”
Coaches Pat Culpepper, Bill Mallory, Lee Corso, and Jerry Pettibone all maintained the tradition of not suiting up a No. 6 or No. 31, but for some reason, there were some No. 12s in those years.
Heimerdinger became the first Huskie player with a retired number in 1951.
A first-team Little All-America pick at quarterback, ”Heimer” won the NCAA College Division total offense crown in 1950 and ‘51 and led NIU to the Interstate Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title and a 9-0 record as a senior.
In the Huskies’ fifth season as a major college, Kellar led the NCAA in rushing as a fullback, outgaining big names such as Archie Griffin, Tony Dorsett, and John Cappelletti for the title.
Petzke earned the highest individual accolade in school history at the time -- third-team Associated Press All-America -- and his route-running at wideout was compared to all-time NFL great Raymond Berry.
For me, the retired number vs. retired jersey issue came to a head in 1992, when Northern Illinois head coach Charlie Sadler allowed quarterback Scott Crabtree to wear No. 6 (but still honored the No. 31 commitment).
When I first saw the numerical roster that spring, I felt obligated -- as the unofficial program historian -- to ask about No. 6.
“Mike, when we recruited Crabtree, I personally promised him that No. 6,” Sadler explained to me. “That’s the only number Scott wanted.”
Okay, I understood. I took my case to my retired former boss Bud Nangle (a true NIU man, you can guess his reaction), retired AD Bob Brigham, and AD Gerald O’Dell. The latter two would not budge. My plea fell on deaf ears.
Retired numbers here were history.
Wouldn’t you know it, after the Huskies upset Southern Mississippi, 23-10, at homecoming and on a national SportsChannel America cablecast during the 1992 season, I got a phone call that busy Monday. It was Petzke, who had watched the NIU-USM game on TV with Crabtree wearing “his” (my quotes) No. 6.
When you work at your alma mater for a long time, you develop close friendships, and Dave was one of them. From the time Petzke was making 57 and 91 catches in back-to-back seasons here to his time as an assistant coach on the 1983 California Bowl team to today, believe it or not, I always called Petzke “Six.” So many times, it became a proper noun. There is no more loyal Huskie, no better, level-headed guy than No. 6.
We talked for five minutes. As always, Petzke was cool, calm, and collected. Finally, he mentioned the number issue.
It was over 20 years ago, but I remember this like it was last week.
“Mike,” No. 6 said, “I watched our game with my son in our home. He saw the quarterback and asked me during the game ‘dad, I thought your number was retired. How can that guy be wearing six?’ What do you tell your son?”
Right about then, I wished I was working at Alaska-Anchorage.
I did the only thing I knew. First, I apologized on behalf of the institution and then told Petzke what happened. Since that day in 1992, Petzke has never metioned the issue to me again, and I saw him twice last year (at the Brigham-Novak golf outing and the Hall of Fame induction at Homecoming). Not bad for an out-of-state alum.
This anecdote is not to embarrass anyone, only to remind the NIU administrative types to understand our unique athletics history, to celebrate our culture and our alums, and to move the Huskies forward. Loyalty must be mutual.
Yes, I also understood the roster math. It’s no longer 1963 with only 38 players on the NIU football roster. With only Nos. 0 through 99 available, Northern Illinois had 110 student-athletes in the 2013 game program (and 14 sets of duplicate numbers).
In the 1992 NIU football media guide, the “retired numbers” page became “retired jerseys.” Quarterback George Bork’s No. 11 jersey was retired in 1996, three years before his enshrinement into the College Football Hall of Fame.
WIth Frazier’s strong leadership, and people like Rick Cerrone revitalizing our Hall of Fame, the Legacy Numbers Honor Court would be a natural for 2015.
Start with Nos. 6, 11, 12, and 31, and eventually a duplicate No. 6. Right, Jordan?
• Mike Korcek is a former NIU sports information director. His historical perspective on NIU athletics appears periodically in the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.