The Big Time - NW Football

Senior linebacker Andy Hessler, pictured as a sophomore, celebrates with Northwest football coach Rich Wright in the Bearcats’ 63-0 win over Missouri Southern on Family Day in 2017, Wright’s first Family Weekend as head coach. The Bearcats wear red helmet decals during Family Weekend to honor late coach Scott Bostwick. 

The concourses of Bearcat Stadium tend to be a sea of green and white each time Northwest football plays in front of its home crowd. The Bearcats and coach Rich Wright hope it isn’t this weekend.

They still want fans to show up, of course, as the Bearcats (3-0) face off against Central Oklahoma (2-1) Sept. 28 in Maryville. But Wright and the program want spectators to wear black shirts, and more importantly, red hats.

The upcoming weekend is Family Weekend at Northwest, which has brought with it the black and red tradition since 2011. It’s well-documented by now how the tradition started, though Wright fears that the tradition’s origins have mostly been forgotten over the last eight years as thousands of undergrads and players have come and gone. Most students and players never met Scott Bostwick, the man behind the tradition.

“(Family Weekend) means the world,” Wright said. “It’s been long enough now that I don’t know how many people know the story.”

And so Wright told the story again Sept. 24 in a sectioned off room of Pizza Ranch at Northwest Athletics’ weekly media luncheon, a story he’s told variations of every year since he was named head coach — one that means as much to him as it does anyone else at Northwest.

Bostwick served as the defensive coordinator for Northwest throughout the entirety of the Mel Tjeerdsma era. Tjeerdsma retired somewhat abruptly at the end of the 2010 season. After 17 seasons leading Northwest’s defense, Bostwick was named head coach of the Bearcats Dec. 21, 2010.

The players on Northwest’s roster, Wright said, had always wanted black jerseys. Soon after being named head coach, Bostwick worked to get some. Some administrators within the Northwest community balked at the idea, Wright said. The lack of black in Northwest’s school colors was a turn-off for the administration. The higher-ups pushed against the black jerseys. Bostwick pushed back.

“If anybody knew Scott, (he) was as stubborn as the day is long,” Wright said. “He finally got them convinced to do a black jersey.”

The coaching staff opted to keep the jersey news a secret from the players for the duration of spring ball. The idea, Wright said, was to surprise the Bearcats at some point in the 2011 season.

Bostwick never got the chance to see the player’s reaction. He died of a heart attack in June 2011 before ever serving a game as Northwest’s head coach. He was 49 years old.

In the wake of tragedy, Northwest’s coaching staff kept the jerseys a secret and decided to use Family Day to honor the late head coach. The Bearcats were getting set to play Fort Hays Sept. 24, 2011, when the coaching staff sent the players to have their pregame meal. When the players left the locker room, the jerseys hanging at their lockers were green. When the Bearcats returned, the black jerseys hung in their place. The team’s white helmets featured a red paw print.

“It was just a really special deal,” Wright said as tears built in his eyes. “It was kind of like his last gift to our football team.”

Bostwick’s impact on the team now is both enduring and fleeting. Not a single player on Northwest’s roster ever played under Bostwick, but his name is always in the air at Northwest ahead of Family Weekend. And in some ways, Bostwick’s presence endures through Wright.

Wright wouldn’t be coaching if it wasn’t for Bostwick. After serving as a graduate assistant at Northwest for two years in the ‘90s, Wright moved on through a number of stops and found himself in a defensive coordinator position with St. Ambrose (Iowa) in 2003. He said he wouldn’t have returned to Maryville in 2004 if it wasn’t for his connection with Bostwick.

“He began the process of talking to me and brought me down on an interview, and I was back,” Wright said. “My wife was actually pregnant. She stayed in The Quad Cities (and) I lived with coach Bostwick from March until July when my wife had my daughter, Grace.”

Wright and Bostwick were close up until his death, Wright said. Bostwick’s son was the ring bearer at Wright’s wedding. For Wright, Family Weekend will always be about Bostwick. He brings in former players each year to talk with the Bearcats about what Bostwick meant to the program and about what kind of guy the late coach was.

“Just hearing the little things that he would say and the little things he would do,” junior linebacker Andy Hessler said. “It just shows the stamp he made on this program.”

But Wright recognizes that his players can’t fully connect with a coach they never met. Outside of Wright, the program’s focus this weekend isn’t necessarily on Bostwick. Wright told his players to think about Bostwick, of course, but to think more about whoever it is they’re playing for, whoever helped the players get to where they are now. He told the Bearcats to find their “why.”

For Hessler, his reason to play is his parents. Hessler’s dad and grandpa were both football coaches. He said he’s been around the sport since he was 3 years old. Hessler’s parents encouraged him to play football at Northwest, an eight-hour drive from the family’s home in Hartland, Wisconsin. They make the drive every week to support Hessler.

“My dad actually gave up coaching so he could come watch me play every single Saturday,” Hessler said. “It means the world to me having them there every single week. To me, they got me here and they’re still supporting me, so that’s what I’m playing for.”

Entering Family Weekend, Northwest isn’t caught up in its opponent in Central Oklahoma, a team that shocked the Bearcats last season, serving them a 31-21 loss in Edmond, Oklahoma, Sept. 22, 2018. The Bearcats are not overly focused on revenge. Wright denied the notion that the matchup is any bigger than the one last week or the week before.

Instead, the focus is on honoring family. It’s bigger than football, Wright said. As Wright and the coaching staff share throughout the week about Bostwick, the weekend’s upcoming matchup seems to define Bostwick’s coaching philosophy. Every game in the MIAA is big.

“Like a lot of us have, (Bostwick) had an opportunity to go other places,” Wright said. “The thing that I learned from him probably more than anything else was to treat where you are at as the big time. And that literally was his line: ‘The big time is where you’re at.’”

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