Northern Illinois redshirt sophomore linebacker Jamaal Bass brought his little brother Isiah to practice Thursday.
In the weeks since Northern got the Discover Orange Bowl invitation, fifth-year senior linebacker Victor Jacques got an elaborate tattoo depicting Biscayne Bay and downtown Miami with the Miami-Dade County logo.
For the Northern Illinois’ South Florida players, Tuesday’s Orange Bowl counts as a homecoming unexpected at the start of the season.
“That’s huge. My whole family’s going to be at the game or watching it on TV,” said Bass, a Miramar High graduate. “I’ve got to do my thing. I can’t be on TV, having bad games … not at home.”
Junior defensive tackle Ken Bishop, out of Sunrise Piper by way of Ellsworth Community College, said, “I never thought I’d have the opportunity to play a game down South, much less the Orange Bowl. Growing up watching the Orange Bowl, the only chance I thought I’d have of playing in it is if I went to the University of Miami.”
Bass, Bishop, Jacques (Columbus High), senior safety Demetrius Stone (American High) and sophomore wide receiver Tommylee Lewis (Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer) start for Northern. Lewis and redshirt freshman Angelo Sebastiano (North Broward Prep) return punts and kickoffs in addition to wide receiver duties. In the Mid-American Conference title game, Bishop started at fullback and nose guard.
Bass and Stone rank third and fourth, respectively, in tackles for the Huskies. Stone had two interceptions, tying him for second on the team this season, and forced a team-high two fumbles.
South Florida college sports recruits have gained a reputation for boomeranging back home. Whether young adults miss the weather, diversity, fewer Type A personalities or just their slice of Sunshine State life, the state’s coaches know to keep communication lines open.
Jacques said neither scholarship offers from FIU and Central Florida nor walk-on offers from other Florida schools held the attraction of seeing another part of the country.
“I didn’t have the biggest urge to stay local because I knew I could always come back,” Jacques said. “Growing up in paradise, you really don’t cherish it until you leave it. Being able to come back really makes me appreciate where I grew up.”
Bishop said the only thing he misses is mother Loilet Bishop’s home cooking. Bass said he wanted to live in snow, which he’d never seen, and found the more sedate life in DeKalb, Ill., to his liking.
“There wasn’t really too much stuff to do there but go to school and play football,” he said. “I like that. The type of person I am, I’m not into all of that [party scene]. I’d rather just relax, chill. This is the perfect fit for me to get away from home and see something new.”
Besides, he said, Ole Miss, FIU, West Virginia and Arkansas fell away from him in recruiting once he broke his ankle in high school. Northern stayed with him.
Stone said, “The atmosphere around the teammates is great. It’s such a ‘home’ feeling, a good brotherhood. Anybody that comes up from Florida, they feel accepted.”
Also, Northern had five winning seasons in the previous seven before Stone went there in 2010 out of Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College. In college football, nothing helps continue success like success.
“Any team you see winning and the opportunity to go to the Orange Bowl, it opens your eyes to more things,” Stone said. “Even though it’s all the way up in Illinois. It’s still an opportunity to win games.”
Said Bass, “There were a couple of kids from Pace [High] here [that my uncle knew]. I’m trying to get them up there with us. Keep building.”