DeKALB – The looks began in the locker room a couple minutes before Northern Illinois players began Saturday's practice.
They started as simple glances, nothing more than subtle recognition. They soon grew to shouts of approval, words of appreciation.
And when Jordan Delegal walked onto the Huskie Stadium field, wearing the No. 9 jersey of injured teammate Devon Butler, the tribute united coaches and players in NIU's first practice without its starting middle linebacker.
"It's just the spirit of the Huskies. We are a family, a close-knit family," Delegal said. "If any of our brothers, if any other person here, were to get hurt or injured or anything like that, I would pay tribute to them too. It's just the kind of guy I am, that's the type of people we are."
"This is our family. And the Huskies, we will prevail, despite adversity we go through."
Adversity has been a frequent visitor to this program.
After former coach Jerry Kill left for Minnesota in December, just two days after NIU lost in heartbreaking fashion to Miami in the Mid-American Conference Championship Game, the players were just starting to get used to coach Dave Doeren. They were finally understanding the new schemes and terminology and system.
During a team meeting Wednesday morning, quarterback Chandler Harnish said Saturday some players initially heard rumors Butler was in a car accident. They soon learned he was the victim of an off-campus shooting late Tuesday night, and his future in football was secondary to life itself.
After initially being listed in critical condition Wednesday, Butler was still at OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center and listed in serious condition Saturday night.
"Those guys are tough," NIU linebackers coach Tom Matukewicz said of the players' resiliency these past few days. "People don't realize, you can't fake it out here. You know what I mean? You go through so much that you can't help but be close.
"These guys love Devon. They're like brothers. That's what Devon would want, for us to come out here and have a good day, and that's kind of what happened."
Delegal asked Butler if he could wear his jersey when he visited a couple days ago at OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center. Butler immediately responded "yes," a message he typed into the iPad he uses for communication.
"Once he typed in 'yes,' all systems were go," Delegal said.
Doeren said he expected somebody to pay tribute to Butler. When he walked onto the field, he anticipated finding out who it would be.
"All those guys are so close in that position group," Doeren said of NIU’s linebackers. "I was proud of him for taking the reigns on that. It was fun to see."
When Delegal walked onto the field, literally carrying Butler's presence on his back, he said it wasn't a desperate decision made to inspire his teammates. Given the opportunity to return to football after Thursday morning's practice was postponed, Delegal said he was confident everyone would have plenty of "juice."
Delegal just wanted to remind everyone of the lesson learned last week, that every player was fortunate to be on the field because the game can quickly be taken away. And he wanted show everyone NIU may be without Butler during the foreseeable future, but the program will never really be without Butler.
The message was received.
"You just want something out there to remind you, because you can't take this game for granted," safety Tommy Davis said. "I mean, honestly, it could have been any one of us. Sometimes you just get in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you can't really help the situation.
"It's just a blessing to be out here. And having him wear that No. 9 is just a reminder of how lucky we are to play this game."
Delegal, who normally wears No. 29, said he may wear Butler's No. 9 jersey the rest of spring, but he hasn't decided yet.
"I'm thinking about it, but you know, that 29 just looks so good on me," Delegal said, laughing what he called a "genuine laugh". "Coach Tuke was making fun of me earlier. He was like, 'Yeah, you're not that good looking, but you know that 9 gives you a little swag.' He was like, 'Oh, yeah.'
"So I might have it for the rest of spring. You guys have to look out every practice."