They had lost an NCAA-record 34 straight games. They were 1,106 days removed from their last victory. Each loss, the players said, put another monkey on their backs.
Consequently, the Northwestern University football team was living on the Planet of the Apes.
But as the fog rolled off Lake Michigan today, all of that ended for these Wildcats. With freshman quarterback Sandy Schwab passing like Northwestern legend Otto Graham and with senior tailback Ricky Edwards scoring touchdowns like Graham, Northwestern defeated Northern Illinois, 31-6, before 22,078 at Dyche Stadium.
And so ended the Streak of the Meek. Northwestern's last victory came against Wyoming on Sept. 15, 1979; the score was 27-22. When the Wildcats lost, 61-14, to Michigan State last year, they broke the NCAA record of 28 straight losses held by Kansas State and Virginia.
"Twenty months ago we set our goal -- one victory. Now that we've got it going, we can make it roll," said second-year Northwestern Coach Dennis Green. "When I woke up this morning, I knew it was a special day."
Northern Illinois Coach Bill Mallory said, "We gave them life and we played lousy. The streak doesn't mean anything to me."
When Schwab threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Edwards early in the first quarter, Northwestern led, 7-0. It was its first lead since the last game of the 1980 season.
By halftime, Northwestern led, 21-0. Statisticians were still researching at dusk to find out the last time that happened. Someone said 1897.
The new stadium scoreboard flashed constantly "WE CAN . . . WE WILL." Ultimately, they did.
Schwab completed 16 of 28 for 212 yards. Edwards ran for 177 yards on 29 carries. This included the 80-yard touchdown run in the third quarter that made it 28-6. It gave Edwards four touchdowns today, tying Graham for the Northwestern record. These were the first four touchdowns of Edwards' career.
But the significance of this Saturday extends beyond end zones. It goes back many years and many tears.
Journalism professor Benjamin H. Baldwin thumped his pen on the table in Fisk Hall Friday morning. He is a veteran of 27 years of watching Northwestern football.
Talk about stamina.
Baldwin's words reached through the ages when he said: "It is an unhappy and doleful feeling knowing the only way you're going to win is if everyone on the other team dies of cholera."
Baldwin's first year of teaching at Northwestern was 1956, Ara Parseghian's first of eight years coaching the Wildcats. Baldwin remembers some of these good years. He also remembers 1962, when Northwestern was ranked No. 1 in the polls for two weeks, and 1970 and 1971, when the Wildcats finished second in the Big Ten.
"That's why I don't subscribe to the theory that says we've always been bad. We've just let our establishment slip," Baldwin says.
"This school is a happier place in which to teach when the football team wins. The average Northwestern fan is apathetic now. Drifts in and out. I'm not sure I blame them."
It is rush week. As the Kappa Sigma pledges mop the floor underneath a stolen road sign--a successful pledge-class swipe from years back--rush chairman Bill Waggener sits comfortably on the couch talking about an uncomfortable subject. Northwestern football.
"Yeah, it's a joke around here. But we laugh," said the senior journalism major, "only to hide the crying."
Waggener was also a member of the Tea Party-like crowd that tore down one of the goal posts last year after Northwestern lost to Michigan State for its record-setting 29th straight.
Waggener's memory: "All of a sudden with four minutes left we started shouting, 'Goal posts.' After the game, the band tried to play, but we ran over them. And the Evanston police closed the gate so we couldn't take the goal post out of the stadium.
"So we carried it to the top of the stadium, threw it down into the parking lot and ran down to get it. We carried it down Central Street and stuck it in the president's yard. President (Robert) Strotz came out with a red face and said, 'We'll get them next year.' We started chanting, 'We're the worst.'
"Then we took the goal post down to Lake Michigan and threw it in. As it sunk down into the water we all sang, "Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, hey, hey, goodbye.'
"They had to send out a scuba diving team the next day, because we still had one game left. They never found the goalpost and they had to use this old wooden one for the last game."
Waggener paused and smiled. As mops swished behind him, he said, "It was the best collegiate experience I've ever had."
There was, of course, another viewpoint to this escapade.
"We were heading back to the dorms and we saw them running down the street with the goal post," says Northwestern senior safety Bill Kornegay. "It was degrading, humiliating. I was worried about going back home and hearing the jokes."
Ah, the jokes. If the Wildcats could score one point per Northwestern football joke, Michigan and Ohio State would be in trouble. So would the jokes. The most heralded joke, of course, rests on the road sign reading "I-94" under which some prankster painted "Northwestern 0."
Merely another joke about another lost road game.
"It's a matter of surviving until we get it going," Green said Friday. The former assistant to Bill Walsh at Stanford is optimistic, but he knows when a team's six-year, three-coach record is 3-62-1 (1976-81), evolution guarantees that punchless will become punch line.
Schwab says he has been asked a million times why anyone would come to Northwestern to play football. A million times, the freshman from Northern California says he has responded with words about getting a good education and statements like "I won't play football forever. I want the education.
"This is a new year. Our day will come. I know it will," Schwab said Friday.
Kornegay has been around Northwestern a little longer than Schwab and is a little more wise to it all. To all of the jokes about all of the losses, the senior engineering major responds with tact. "I tell all of the people, 'You laugh now. But don't laugh too hard. Some day, you will be working for me.' "
Today, everything worked for Northwestern football. It was a day for real hope, not Bob Hope.
This one victory precedes seven games against Big Ten opponents, none of which Northwestern has beaten in the last six years.
Afterward, Green ran through the crowd, grasping the game ball, hugging old men, kissing little girls.
With 34 seconds in the game, and the ball at the south end of the field, the crowd stormed the field. Down went the north goal posts. Soon enough, down came the south goal posts, too, carrying them away. And Dennis Green, his first win done, charged into the press conference, held up the game ball and said, "Finally got one."