Created:Saturday, April 9, 2011 10:55 p.m.CDT
Updated:Saturday, April 9, 2011 11:08 p.m.CDT
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Views: Return to practice is return to normal

By JOHN SAHLY - jsahly@daily-chronicle.com

DeKALB – Chandler Harnish hit wide receiver Martel Moore in stride for a beautiful touchdown to the corner of the end zone.

Defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen did his signature arm-heavy sprint to the end zone after Daniel Green returned an interception for a touchdown.

The entire Northern Illinois defense danced to Soulja Boy's "Turn my swag on" before some 7-on-7 drills.

This was normal. This was football practice at Huskie Stadium.

Since linebacker Devon Butler was shot late Tuesday night, and has been at OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center in Rockford since Wednesday, it's been a long week for the Huskies. Saturday, a day after Butler was upgraded from critical to serious condition, they got a chance to focus on something else, if even just for an afternoon.

"It was the best two hours I've had in a while, man," NIU coach Dave Doeren said after the light-contact practice. "That was fun."

The routine was back for the Huskies, an important step while Butler shows signs of progress.

Saturday didn't have the same intensity as even a light-contact practice normally has, but it still had the same tempo, level of preparation and energy. With every excuse to lose focus, they went about their business with a teammate in the backs of the minds.

"We just have our priorities straight," safety Tommy Davis said. "We understand the situation. We have sympathy for it, but our jobs are to come out here and play football as hard as we can and as fast as we can."

That's exactly what NIU did. Players and coaches talked about the timing routes correctly, proper blocking technique, all the stuff you see at a normal practice. They went full speed and celebrated wildly when something went right.

"It comes from a good place too," said linebacker Jordan Delegal, wearing Butler's No. 9 practice jersey in tribute to his friend. "Like, it's genuine smiling and genuine laughter, knowing that on the other side we have our brother and he's doing well. So that's a big-time gift for us."

Davis said the team suspending Thursday's practice made everyone realize what it would be like to not have football. Each visit to Butler in the hospital or report from a teammate on how the linebacker would ask on his iPad how the team was doing gave them a sense of perspective.

"You're sitting around in the house all day, and I don't have a lot of classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so you're just there," Davis said. "You just realize how boring things can be without the game and it really makes you not take it for granted."

It was a step forward and a chance to smile. That's all NIU can ask for.

• John Sahly is the sports editor of the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at jsahly@daily-chronicle.com

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