On Aug. 28 last year, Rick Cerrone, the New York Yankees' director of public relations, entered a Boston hotel bar and found what he needed: a big-screen television. There, among a dozen Maryland supporters, the Northern Illinois alum began the night as the lone viewer rooting for the underdog Huskies.
By game's end, after the bar became packed with locals cheering an upset, a late-arriving older couple asked Cerrone to identify the unfamiliar team on the screen. Cerrone, who soon would be in tears, rose and barked in an emphatic, prideful growl, "That is Northern Illinois!"
The score -- Northern Illinois 20, Maryland 13, in overtime -- still reverberates through both teams' campuses and with alumni scattered around the country. It represents the Huskies' rise from anonymity and the start to an improbable 10-win season that has affected everything from T-shirt sales to enrollment applications in DeKalb, Ill.
The two teams will meet again Saturday to open the 2004 season in what has become, although not a rivalry, a much anticipated rematch. Many within or close to the Northern Illinois program believe the Huskies can win again this year, even though the game will be played at Byrd Stadium, where Maryland is 19-1 under Coach Ralph Friedgen.
"In a way, no, last year wasn't an upset," Northern Illinois senior linebacker Brian Atkinson said. "Every Saturday we expect to win. Yes, we do believe we can win there. All the talk about it being a fluke will make it better to give them a run for their money."
Northern Illinois' confidence doesn't appear lost on Friedgen, who on Aug. 11 said: "I think we're pointing to Northern Illinois, and I'm sure they are pointing to us. I heard Coach [Joe] Novak on ESPN say he was really looking forward to coming to play at Byrd Stadium, and we're looking forward to playing him, too."
Novak, in a telephone interview last week, said that while his players believe they can win the game, "We have to play about as well as we can possibly play."
After Northern Illinois' victory, the rationalizations began. Tight end Vernon Davis said had they played the Huskies in the season's fourth week, when the Terps started playing better, they would have won. Others believe complacency set in among some players, and as a result, they approached the game too lightly and were thinking ahead to Florida State, the following week's opponent.
In response, Atkinson said: "Of course they can say that now. I know they are not telling the truth about that. We wouldn't want to go in and lose to a Division II team and see the headlines after that."
Atkinson added that it was clear even in warmups last year that Northern Illinois "wanted it more" than Maryland. Asked how long it took him to realize the Huskies could play with Maryland, Atkinson said, "The first snap." Although Maryland was nationally ranked in 2003, Atkinson viewed it as "a regular game for us."
If so, it was a "regular game" the program has celebrated as one of three victories in 2003 -- Alabama and Iowa State the others -- over teams from Bowl Championship Series conferences. Mike Korcek, Northern Illinois' sports information director, said the team's media guide displays the picture of a newspaper headline that read, "Ohhhhh and 1" after the Maryland game.
"In my mind, it was not a fluke," Korcek said. "It wasn't like the Terrapins had food poisoning or we asphyxiated them in the locker room. It was 60 minutes for both teams."
Korcek remembers walking around Huskie Stadium before the game, observing the strength of Maryland players and thinking maybe it wasn't the best idea to schedule the Terps. "It's a lesson to everyone that football is not about who has the biggest muscles," said Korcek, adding that he has heard stories "that Friedgen has drilled it in [players'] heads that they are going to pay us back."
In retrospect, several factors were in Northern Illinois' favor in last year's game. Maryland was without oft-injured running back Bruce Perry and wide receiver-return man Steve Suter, and starting quarterback Scott McBrien had limited mobility because of a pulled groin.
In addition, Northern Illinois was inspired to play in memory of Shea Fitzgerald, an offensive lineman who had died in a Chicago porch collapse that summer. A large walk-up crowd crammed a school-record 28,018 fans in Huskie Stadium. And locals awoke the morning of the game to read a 1,300-word story on the team's star running back, Michael Turner, in USA Today. In many ways, the stage was set for an upset.
"Personally, I thought Northern Illinois had a real chance at winning," Northern Illinois radio broadcaster Bill Baker said, "and that's no slight to Maryland, whose coach, Ralph Friedgen, has done wonders. I've seen the word 'trap' used and I don't buy into that. There are some games you are just meant to win."
Last season's success, starting with the Maryland victory, had considerable impact on the school and program aside from instilling confidence. Said senior quarterback Josh Haldi, "Things kind of started rolling for us after Maryland."
Season ticket sales are up 46 percent; donations to the Huskie Club are up 28 percent and licensing revenue is up 40 percent, according to school officials. In addition, the number of applications to the school last November, the season's stretch run, was up 40 percent, which school officials believe is at least partially attributable to football's success.
It didn't take long for fans to board the bandwagon after the Maryland win. Within days of the upset, the school received the first major financial gift ($500,000) for a new end zone facility.
In March, Cary Groth, the school's athletic director, accepted the same position at Nevada, where she became the first non-alum to serve as athletic director, an opportunity she largely credits to the football program's emergence. "For a woman," she said, "you have to have had success in football."
Hanging in Groth's Reno office are two pictures of former wide receiver P.J. Fleck lifting Groth and twirling her around after victories. The team, now confident and an established mid-major, has endured struggles that made the Maryland win all the more enjoyable for Huskies supporters.
There was the 23-game losing streak that tested the school's commitment to Novak, and a reputation so anonymous that publications that ranked the nation's Division I teams neglected to include Northern Illinois at all.
As recently as last summer, Northern Illinois was not much more than an afterthought. Cerrone remembers one magazine writing that Maryland opened the season with a "scrimmage" at Northern Illinois. But last year's season of anticipation has now given way to a season of expectation and, as Haldi noted, "reserved excitement."
"We're not going there to lose," Cerrone said. "We're past just getting a paycheck to play a team."