DeKALB – Pat Schiller watched the highlight tapes. The toughness. The talent. He poured over every detail that made Ronnie Lott the greatest defensive back ever.
For Northern Illinois' middle linebacker, those films were inspiration. He studied them this week, preparing for Saturday's game against Cal Poly. With those images still fresh, Schiller and his teammates got a jolt when Lott surprisingly walked into the Huskies' pregame meeting.
"I'm like, 'That's that ... that's Ronnie Lott,' " Schiller said, the gleam still in his eyes. "And I'm like, 'Hell yeah.' That got me pumped.
"I think that fired not only me up, but the whole team up. We were definitely ready after that."
That much was obvious in the first half.
NIU rid itself of the "sour taste" the past two weeks left, beating Cal Poly 47-30 to close its non-conference season with a 2-2 record. The offense did its thing, scoring on its first six possessions. The defense was more impressive during the opening 30 minutes, helping the Huskies to a 27-0 lead with 8:32 left in the second quarter.
It was family week on campus, and Lott was visiting his son, Isaiah, a freshman student at NIU. Lott said his son chose NIU in part because of business professor Dennis Barsema, whom he called a "mentor." He also said, "We're blessed that (Isaiah) is making that commitment to the university."
Coach Dave Doeren learned Lott would be in town earlier this season. He quickly asked Barsema if the former San Francisco 49ers legend and four-time Super Bowl champion was willing to address the team.
"The timing couldn't have been better for what we were preaching through the week," said Doeren, who was a graduate assistant at Lott's alma mater, Southern California, in 1998-99. "He's a guy I grew up watching week in and week out. To me he exemplifies the game – the passion he played with and the pride he had, how selfless he was as a player and, obviously, how physical he was as a player.
"The stories are endless. His stare, his intensity."
That stare and intensity led Lott to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His personality still commands respect.
Lott's pregame speech focused on the importance of developing a defensive "signature." After allowing 91 points the past two weeks, it was a message the defense needed to hear.
When he spoke to the media at halftime, Lott said he was impressed with how NIU's defense began the game.
"The thing that's tough for everybody – and I know this – (is) anytime you play the option," said Lott, who was wearing a black NIU hat. "If I had to go play the option tomorrow, I'll be the first one to tell you it would be like Chinese for me. The reason why it would be like that is you've just got to learn it, and it's hard to learn it in a week."
Lott told NIU's defensive players the most important thing is effort, and he has the credentials to demand it. This is a guy who once opted to have a portion of his left pinky finger amputated so he could play. Makes it hard to excuse giving anything less than maximum effort.
Above everything else, that's what Lott said he saw in the first half.
"What I love, and I said this to the team, I love the commitment of people flying around," Lott said. "I love the fact that I see 11 guys to the ball. I love it when I see guys hustle.
"To me, that's your signature. You don't want to be the last guy in the frame, you want to be the first guy. You want to be the guy that gets there before everyone else."
Schiller often was that guy.
The senior finished with a team-high 11 tackles and one sack. His constant presence in Cal Poly's backfield made it difficult for the Mustangs to execute its spread-option.
It was one the best games of Schiller's career. He was just channeling those highlight tapes.
"The word of the week was pride. Taking pride in this game and in what we do, both on and off the field," Schiller said. "We watched the YouTube videos on Ronnie Lott and just how he exemplifies that on the field, how he was just a ruthless player. Not only was he a big hitter, but he was a student of the game and he was a finesse player as well."
• Ryan Wood is a sports reporter for the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org