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Homecoming: Trevor Siemian pauses NFL reality, returns to where unlikely career began

Posted Oct 14, 2017

When Trevor Siemian arrived at Northwestern, there were no promises of an NFL career. He still made the unrealistic into reality, and his journey back to Evanston this weekend served as a reminder of the people and places that helped turn a 175-pound freshman who lacked NFL dreams into the Broncos’ starting quarterback.

EVANSTON, Ill. — Outside of Bluestone, cars roll down Central Street.

Some head east toward Northwestern’s campus, while others trek west toward the suburbs.

Ryan Field sits just three blocks away, and soon, Trevor Siemian will walk toward his former home stadium and address his alma mater’s football team as the team’s honorary captain.

He hasn’t played for Northwestern in three years, but he still has responsibilities on the football field.

For now, though, he sits inside the nearly empty restaurant and sips on a cup of coffee.

From his vantage point, he can see helmets for each Big Ten school prior to realignment in 2014. He beat nine of those 11 opposing schools during his four years at Northwestern — and none of those wins was the biggest of his career.

Two mounted flat-screen TVs are also within Siemian’s view, and tomorrow they’ll likely show the Wildcats’ homecoming matchup against Penn State. They’re muted for now, and Siemian doesn’t pay them any mind.

Dozens of golf pin flags — from courses like Augusta and Bethpage Black and Evanston’s Canal Shores — adorn the walls and outnumber the patrons at least 10-to-1. Including the wait staff, there are just over a dozen people inside what one reviewer has called a modern-day “Cheers” bar.

It’s the perfect setting for an NFL quarterback looking for to escape into quiet and familiarity.

Siemian’s schedule is less crowded than during any NFL week, and it shows. He stops to chat with John Enright, Bluestone’s owner, and is in no hurry to leave the familiar setting. His girlfriend, Bo Podkopacz, sits across the table with an open law-school textbook.

The moment doesn’t feel much different than would any normal Friday afternoon study session, and it’s easy to imagine a similar afternoon toward the end of 2011, when the couple started dating.

Siemian had arrived in Evanston the previous year weighing “170 pounds, soaking wet,” Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald jokes. There were no promises of the NFL back then, just an opportunity to work toward a successful football career — or something else.

Fitzgerald’s pitch focuses on a recruit making a 40-year decision, not a four-year decision. There’s hardly a better example than Siemian, who was close to accepting a job in real estate prior to the 2015 NFL Draft.

But even as a freshman, Siemian began to show the necessary traits that would someday lead him to the NFL.

“He’s from a great family,” Fitzgerald says. “Obviously he has very hard-working parents. You couldn’t ask for anything better. And I think what they taught Trevor shows up today: the humility, how great of a teammate he is, how level-headed he is, the work ethic. He worked his fanny off here. And he was always willing to do anything for his teammates. I think that — again, from afar, is what it looks like I’m seeing in Denver.”

The former Northwestern quarterback and former Northwestern soccer defender aren’t eating this afternoon — they’ve just arrived from Trattoria Demi and will later head south to Chicago for dinner with two dozen former teammates — so for now, Siemian just nurses his coffee and enjoys the place he used to frequent.

He’s used to these wooden chairs and the worn tables. He rented a home just three houses down when he lived in Evanston and was a regular at Enright’s restaurant.

At times, the neon signs and string lights would glow along the top of the Bluestone bar, and at others, the sun would glimpse in through the window like on this October afternoon.

It’s a perfect day for golf, and Siemian snuck away to a Skokie course early Friday morning to grab a few holes during his break from the NFL grind.

This is the new normal, and it’s an adjustment for the couple.

“I kind of feel like in college, he flew under the radar completely,” Podkopacz said. “We’re Big Ten, but it’s a different animal [than other schools]. And now it’s kind of crazy, just the pomp and circumstance and all the interviews and everything. I feel like he handles it well, so it’s been cool to watch, but it’s kind of crazy.”

Here, though, there’s none of that. As he says goodbye to Enright, he could be mistaken for any upperclassman on this college campus. Siemian drops a $10 bill on the table, heads out into the fall air and rejoins reality.

• • •

Siemian wasn’t necessarily the big man on campus when he started at Northwestern.

When Podkopacz met him, she says she didn’t know what position he played or if he’d ever get into a game.

Fitzgerald calls him one of the most underappreciated players he’s coached during his 12-year coaching career.

For the early part of his career, Siemian wasn’t even the most popular quarterback on his own team.

But that’s changed over the last couple years.

When Fitzgerald informed his team Siemian would be speaking to them before Northwestern played Penn State, some of the younger players acted as star-struck as when Peyton Manning stopped by Northwestern a few months earlier.

“It means the world to the guys,” Fitzgerald says. “It’s so funny. I’m sitting here talking to a handful of guys earlier in the week, like, Trevor’s coming back.’ And they’re like, ‘I’m going to get his autograph.’ The younger players, [at least]. The older guys played with him, at least a couple of them. They’re like, ‘Shut up, man.’”

One kid, the adolescent son of running backs coach Matt MacPherson, followed through.

As Siemian walked up to Ryan Field, MacPherson’s son was waiting in a Siemian Broncos jersey. Denver’s quarterback stopped to sign and take a picture. He would later take more photos with MacPherson’s son.

Siemian’s short interaction with him, Fitzgerald later told the former NU quarterback, made the boy’s entire year.

“It’s just so funny how perspective changes, but one thing that hasn’t changed is Trevor,” Fitzgerald says. “That’s who he is, and we’re incredibly proud of him.”

Inside Trienens Hall, Northwestern’s current indoor practice facility, Siemian stood alongside Fitzgerald and chatted during breaks in Friday afternoon’s walkthrough.

Those who played with Siemian greeted him as he walked among them as they stretched. Those who know him solely by reputation likely saw the NFL starter they each hope to one day become.

For Siemian to even be in Evanston was a bit of a perfect storm, Fitzgerald says. The Broncos’ bye aligned with Northwestern’s homecoming, and the Wildcats often look to their NFL alumni to serve as honorary captains.

Fitzgerald reached out to Siemian during Broncos training camp about returning to Evanston, and Siemian readily accepted.

“That’s obviously incredibly humbling,” Siemian says, “but it’s just great seeing everybody. The coaches, the equipment guys — everybody that you used to see on a day-to-day basis that you don’t get to see. It’s cool.”

And while the Wildcats weren’t likely to rescind the invitation had Siemian not earned Denver’s starting job this fall, the weekend’s recognition reminded Siemian of the preciousness of the opportunity he’s been given.

“I think you kind of go into the NFL and it’s a very fluid business and things can change so quickly,” Siemian says. “I think it helps remind you. And for me at least, I don’t take a day for granted for what we’re doing.”

As practice ended and the team formed a semicircle in front of him, Fitzgerald introduced his former quarterback with a stat line that demonstrated the type of effort he wanted to see Saturday from his current team.

At Penn State in 2014, Siemian carried the ball five times for negative 8 yards. He also scored three rushing touchdowns on those carries and helped deliver Northwestern a 29-6 win.

Siemian carried that message forward as he began to speak. It’s paramount to give everything possible to make the most of one of the sacred few chances each team gets, he said. Siemian leaned on lessons from his current head coach, Vance Joseph, and echoed Joseph’s message that each opportunity is invaluable.

And so, for just a couple of minutes, Siemian captured the attention of this Northwestern team. And the seniors, who made up most of the front row, seemed to pay most attention to Siemian’s message as they prepared for the fifth game of their final collegiate season. Their chances were running out, and here was a player who made the most of his final plays as a collegiate player.

That Siemian became an NFL starter was merely a bonus.

This would not be a long, impassioned speech though, because Siemian knew what was on his own mind when honorary captains came back to speak when he was a player:

Food.

So he wrapped up his speech, broke the team down and let Northwestern’s players head off to a catered meal that he and his former teammates remember in the same way he might recall a fishing story.

“The more you get away from it, the better it was,” Siemian says.

• • •

In his office on the second floor of the Nicolet Football Center, Pat Fitzgerald waits to attend a pep rally ahead of Saturday’s game.

Over the last few seasons, Fitzgerald has hustled off to a team dinner and then back to campus for the homecoming pep rally.

He’s decided to stay put this year, and he has a few minutes to burn on Friday night.

Among the football memorabilia — from his playing career and ensuing coaching career — and family photos, the former Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and All-American linebacker seems content to fill the time talking about his former quarterback.

Know this about Fitzgerald: There’s no one more synonymous with the Northwestern program and no one who moves quicker to speak with great pride about its current and former players.

Also know he’s aware the narrative suggests Siemian’s wasn’t a traditional path.

Northwestern just doesn’t have the same quarterback pedigree as programs like Cal or USC.

While in Berkeley, Jared Goff could look to Aaron Rodgers as a model. Mark Sanchez could look to Carson Palmer.

For Siemian to find the last Northwestern quarterback to start a season opener, he’d have to search all the way back to Otto Graham a half century ago.

That didn’t really occur to Siemian, though, when he looked at Northwestern’s previous quarterbacks. He just saw a way forward.

“It’s weird for me thinking that, because when I was in school, Mike Kafka was right before me, Dan Persa was before me, and those are both really good players,” Siemian says. “A few years before that you had C.J. Bachér, Brett Basanez, so I kind of saw at the time … these guys are in the NFL. This is a quarterback university! I didn’t think of it any other way.”

There wasn’t much success, but it did exist. Kafka, in particular, hung around NFL practice squads for five years and saw limited action with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2014.

That was enough direction, though, for Siemian to feel comfortable as he continued his career, and he would soon become the first Northwestern quarterback to win a Super Bowl ring, albeit as a practice-squad player.

When he earned the Broncos’ starting job the following offseason, he was repeatedly compared to Graham and deemed as an impressive player in relation to Northwestern’s history.

Here’s what was missed, though: Siemian grabbing the starter’s role was impressive in comparison to the rest of the Big Ten, as well.

During the four years at Northwestern in which he saw game action, 51 quarterbacks attempted a pass. Both Kirk Cousins and Russell Wilson departed for the NFL after the 2011 season, but since that point, Siemian remains the only other Big Ten quarterback to nab a starting job.

So how’d he pull it off?

In part, Fitzgerald said, Northwestern’s offense prepares quarterbacks for the rigors of the professional game, and much of that credit belongs to offensive coordinator Mick McCall.

But Siemian’s own work ethic has plenty to do with it, too. He arrived at Northwestern as a three-star recruit who faced some semblance of a quarterback competition nearly every season he was on campus. Injuries plagued his redshirt junior and redshirt senior seasons, and he never seriously challenged Northwestern’s all-time marks.

That’s still no reason to look back on his career and wonder “what-if.” As Fitzgerald says, there’s a reason the rearview mirror is a whole lot smaller than the windshield.

It is worth it, however, to look at Siemian’s fledgling NFL career and wonder if the hardships he faced in college prepared him for back-to-back quarterback competitions in Denver.

“I think it’s why he’s such a good pro,” Fitzgerald says, “He wasn’t the guy that had the recruiting-inflated ego. He wasn’t the guy that came here and left as the all-time winningest everything. … He was this humble guy that’s worked and earned everything that he’s received.

“He’s always been a great teammate, he’s always been a great person. I think great things happen to great people, and there’s nobody greater than Trevor Siemian.”

• • •

Siemian doesn’t need this kind of attention.

As the doors to the Wildcafé — a team dining area outfitted with a buffet, tables and place settings — swing open, a group of nearly 150 alumni and guests cheer as Siemian walks in.

He’s the surprise guest on this Saturday morning, and Northwestern Vice President for Athletics and Recreation Jim Phillips has just told the story of Siemian’s senior year ACL tear.

Siemian said in that Purdue locker room he’d be back, Phillips tells the crowd, and now he’s back as a Super Bowl champion.

The guests stand for “Touchdown Trevor,” as Phillips calls him, and Siemian speaks briefly before ceding the microphone to Northwestern’s president, Morton Schapiro.

“It almost seems like the more I get away, the more I remember how special this place was to me and really probably for all of us in this room,” Siemian says. “I’m lucky, I have a great job. I pinch myself every day that I got a chance to come here.”

But knowing Siemian, he can’t wait to get back out to the parking lot to tailgate and enjoy his first game back at Ryan Field since he left three seasons ago.

He tells the crowd as much, saying this is the first time he’s ever gotten to just relax before a game.

There are parts he enjoys, like when he cracks up during Schapiro’s video, which shows Siemian running over Schapiro’s daughter on the sideline during a game against Nebraska.

But he would still much rather be out in the parking lot, where Siemian can act like he isn’t the new face of Northwestern football.

He can say that honor belongs to New Orleans’ Zach Strief or Chicago’s Sherrick McManis or former NFL player Corey Wootton.

That’s truly what he wants. Even as he makes a huge impact for the football program and the university, Siemian doesn’t need the accolades, the attention or the publicity.

That’s not to say he doesn’t recognize the importance or the honor of coming back to his alma mater. He realizes he’s lucky to be in this position, and he says he knows it’s a great opportunity to represent the university and stay connected with a close-knit community.

If you want to know the real Trevor, though, just listen to Fitzgerald, who has known Siemian since the time he was a teenager in Windermere, Florida.

“I get text messages from him all the time before games,” Fitzgerald says. “He hasn’t changed a lick. From my perspective, he’s normal — whatever that means. He’s just a normal guy who just enjoys his job, is a great person before anything else. And it’s been so much fun to watch.”

• • •

Kickoff approaches.

On the Northwestern sideline, Siemian chats with alums and a handful of others who make their way up to him during pregame.

Ahead of the national anthem, he walks to the sideline and files in line with the rest of the staff to face the flag. He then makes his way to the boundary, and he links arms with Northwestern’s captains ahead of the coin toss.

They take their first step out onto the field.

It’s been three years since Trevor Siemian was last standing on the grass here at Ryan Field.

And his final play wasn’t glamorous.

Against Michigan on Nov. 8, 2014, Siemian threw a touchdown pass with three seconds left to cut the Wolverines’ lead to one. Rather than kick the extra point to send the game to overtime, Northwestern went for the two-point conversion.

Siemian slipped as he rolled out of the pocket, though, and the Wildcats fell to 3-6.

Siemian and the four Northwestern captains, arms still linked, get closer to midfield.

It wasn’t until the beginning of the 2014 season that he even began to hear feedback that he could potentially wind up in the NFL.

“That’s when I said, ‘If I have a good year, I’ll have a chance to play,’” Siemian says.

And leading into the Notre Dame game, Siemian’s chances seemed slim.

“My stats were horrible,” Siemian says. “I didn’t have good stats at all.”

A week later, Siemian threw for 284 yards and a touchdown and rushed for a touchdown as he led Northwestern to a 43-40 overtime road win over No. 15 Notre Dame.

That’s the game — the one you’ve heard about.

The one where former quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp and former head coach Gary Kubiak saw the trees blowing sideways and Siemian throwing darts. They decided then they needed to do their research on Siemian.

And for good reason, Fitzgerald says. Players only get so many opportunities in their careers where they can “make people open their eyes to your skill set,” Fitzgerald says, and that’s exactly what Siemian did nearly 36 months ago.

“Even the balls that were incomplete were on the money,” Fitzgerald says.

Siemian unlinks arms and puts his hands on the backs of Godwin Igwebuike and Tyler Lancaster. The four captains then continue to midfield for the coin toss as Siemian looks on.

His final senior year stats weren’t close to spectacular.

The fifth-year quarterback finished with 2,214 yards, seven touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

For comparison’s sake, Siemian threw for 3,401 yards, 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last season with the Broncos.

But if you watched the film, there was reason to believe Siemian could project as an NFL quarterback.

Looking back, he believes his anticipation, accuracy and mental understanding of the game stood out all season.

“[The Broncos] probably had to watch some more tape [after Notre Dame], but through all the bad film I put out there in college, there were a few good plays sprinkled in there,” Siemian says. “You just had to look for them.”

Penn State wins the toss — they’ll later win the game — and the Northwestern captains move to the appropriate side of the field. Siemian begins to walk off the Ryan Field grass.

No one will ever mistake Siemian’s college career for Matt Leinart’s or Vince Young’s or even Braxton Miller’s. Some players — quarterbacks, in particular — are destined for college success, and others find their way in a professional setting.

When Siemian was preparing for the 2015 NFL Draft, Fitzgerald consistently told evaluators that his best football was still ahead of him. If he’d had two more redshirt years, Fitzgerald says, who knows how his collegiate career may have ended.

What he did have, however, was plenty to prepare him for an NFL future.

“I think he’s a great example of what you can do when you buy in and you work just relentlessly to become the best player you can be,” Fitzgerald says. “You can’t control everything. He couldn’t control getting injured a couple times, but he could control how he improved.”

Siemian steps off the field, and the game begins.

Midway through the first quarter, Siemian stands on the near sideline as Northwestern’s offense threatens to score its first touchdown. The drive stalls, though, and Northwestern is forced to punt.

Siemian heads up to his seat, where he’ll meet up again with his former teammates and cheer on Northwestern.

Siemian, perhaps better than anyone, knows one drive, half or game doesn’t define a player or a team. And so he watches a football game from a Ryan Field seat for the very first time.

Three years later, Trevor Siemian is home.