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Hard Lessons

At no small cost, two Northwestern stars from the 1990s returned to the campus to earn degrees and increase their options

December 26, 2005|Alan Abrahamson | Times Staff Writer

It came to Darnell Autry, once a star running back and a Heisman Trophy finalist, that life could offer more than working hotel security or making sure hardy partyers weren't falling into the pool at a Las Vegas casino.

If only he had his college degree.

It occurred to Hudhaifa Ismaeli, once a star defensive back, that life could offer more than a place on the production line in a factory that made sewer pipes, or doing construction work.

If only he had his college degree.

Standouts in college, both among the key players on Northwestern's improbable run 10 years ago to an outright 1995 Big Ten title and the 1996 Rose Bowl, neither Autry nor Ismaeli made it big in the NFL. Each had left Northwestern with about two years' worth of college credits yet to be earned. And then their pro dreams were dashed.

Each, swallowing a heaping dose of pride, eventually went back to school, back to Northwestern, in Evanston, Ill., immediately north of Chicago, a demanding academic institution.

And now, each is poised to take part in graduation ceremonies in June. Autry will turn 30 three days after the ceremonies on June 16; Ismaeli will be pushing 31.

The football scholarships are long gone. Each has paid by himself or taken out loans to finish up -- no small matter at Northwestern, where tuition alone this year runs $31,644.

"When all is said and done, I'll owe a great deal of money," Autry said. "More money than I have now."

When all is said and done, however, their graduations will underscore something more than money, the life lesson that 1995 season made plain:

If Northwestern can go to the Rose Bowl, then truly nothing in life is impossible.

"It's not how life knocks you down," Ismaeli said. "It's how you rebound."

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Pat Fitzgerald, the starting middle linebacker on the 1995 Wildcat team, called Ismaeli "the best athlete I have ever been around."

Fitzgerald, a two-time All-American and winner of several awards as the nation's top defensive player in 1995, said of Ismaeli, "We pretty much built our defense around him.... I just got my name called because they blocked him a lot and that left me a chance to make a tackle."

For Northwestern, the 1996 Rose Bowl was followed by the 1997 Citrus Bowl. But Ismaeli didn't play in the Citrus Bowl, having been suspended from the football team for twice testing positive for marijuana.

Ismaeli disputed the second test, then declared for the NFL draft. The Miami Dolphins took him in the seventh round, the 203rd pick -- for all his talent, only a prospect.

Most 203rd picks don't make it. Ismaeli didn't.

"I had to redefine myself," Ismaeli said. "All my life, it was: 'Oh, that's Hudhaifa, the football player.' Even though I knew I was more than a football player, subconsciously that aspect stuck within my brain. And so that was one amazing hurdle."

With nowhere else to go, he bounced back and forth between Chicago and his native Pittsburgh. He reenrolled at Northwestern, then dropped out of those first classes. He did odd jobs.

Then he began, in earnest, his journey toward graduation.

He still had, he said, about 2 1/2 years' worth of classes to complete. It took him about seven.

Northwestern runs on a quarter system. Every quarter, Ismaeli figured, cost him about $15,000. Some quarters he would be working and taking no classes. Some quarters he would take one class. Others, two, maybe three.

Working on the sewer pipes, he said, gave him a sense of urgency.

"You're around all these chemicals. You don't know what these chemicals are doing to you," he said. "I said to myself, 'Hurry up and get your damn degree.' "

There were times, he said, when he would get to Evanston with no place to stay. He often hid at night in one of the university's lecture halls, trying to avoid janitors and police.

One time, he said, he was in the journalism school building when a janitor discovered him.

"He said, 'You can't be there.' I said, 'I'm going to leave in a minute.' I didn't, so they called the police," Ismaeli recalled.

"That was a humbling experience," because when the officers arrived, "They were like, 'I remember you. You played on the Rose Bowl team!' I was like, 'Yeah, that was me.' "

Still, he persevered.

"My parents instilled in me education as one of the means to succeed in life," Ismaeli said.

" ... And, no, I was not going to another school. I said, 'I refuse to.' I told my dean, I told my academic advisors, I said, 'If it takes me 20 years to graduate from Northwestern, I am going to graduate from Northwestern.' "

This month, Ismaeli took his last exam. His degree, he said, will be in education.

The day after the exam, he called Jerry Brown, the longtime secondary coach, himself a Northwestern grad. Brown said Ismaeli told him, "I'm finally a Northwestern graduate, Coach Brown. You said I could get it done, and eventually I did."

Ismaeli says he's not sure what's next -- a career in teaching or business, perhaps. "Whatever you set your mind to you can accomplish. Straight up. Flat out," he said softly.

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