As the tops of the four coach buses appeared on the western edge of the NIU Convocation Center about 2:40 p.m. Wednesday, the joyous clanging of the victory bell grew louder.
Many in the crowd of well-wishers who came with flags, banners and handmade signs began to wave, most of their hands tucked inside red and black mittens and gloves. As the buses drove nearer, led by Acting University Police Chief Darren Mitchell, the group erupted in cheers and whistles.
Camera crews and photographers from Chicago, Rockford and suburban media outlets filmed the fans, who in turn trained their own cameras and smart phones on the caravan of buses. The flashing red and blue lights and wailing sirens of a fire truck, an ambulance and squad cars from the DeKalb Police Department and DeKalb County Sheriff’s Department brought up the rear.
Inside the front bus, perched by the driver with a look of humble amazement on his face, knelt NIU football coach Rod Carey. The first close-up glimpse of Carey drew applause and whoops.
Yes, the NIU Huskies were home.
“Our boys deserve to be welcomed back in style,” said Sue Hansfield, assistant athletic director for Facilities and Event Operations.
Back from their historic trip to the Discover Orange Bowl, many of the players from NIU’s 12-2 team hugged family and friends, posed for pictures, autographed footballs and granted media interviews.
Still enjoying their winter break, several young boys and girls scampered around Convo’s front lawn amid their gridiron heroes and piles of luggage.
Cole Heinisch, an 11-year-old fifth-grader at St. Mary’s School, snagged a signature for his football from Huskie quarterback Jordan Lynch.“They’re just fun to watch,” Heinisch said of his favorite team.
His mother, Kim, and sister, Addie, an 8-year-old third-grader, accompanied him to the gathering.
“The kids are out of school, and we thought we’d come out and welcome the team back,” Kim said. “My son is a big fan.”
Ryan McGee, a student at Kishwaukee College who plans to transfer to NIU in the fall to major in education, also couldn’t resist a chance to greet the Huskies. “I’ve grown up cheering them on – all of my life – and this was something special,” he said. “I actually got to a game this year, and I really enjoyed it.”
“They did an awesome job,” his father, Lee, added. “I’m really proud that they went to the Orange Bowl.”
Recent alumna Karli Oosterbaan, who graduated in May with a degree in finance, and Angela Larson, a senior in that major, hosted a watch party with friends Tuesday night at their apartment near campus.
The menu included orange-colored food, orange-colored beverages, orange plates and, of course, an orange bowl. The TV: high-definition.
“I’m just really excited about the team and really proud of them,” said Oosterbaan, a frequent tailgater outside Huskie Stadium, the daughter of season ticket holders and the older sister of two brothers who are studying at her alma mater. “It’s fun to be a part of everything.”
“They did so good to get to the Orange Bowl, and it was so fun to watch them,” Larson added. “There were so many NIU fans there – so much red.”
It begins anew this fall. Who’s ready?