Editor’s Note: This is part II of a two-part story on Northern Illinois football players Tim Semisch and Donovan Gordon, who transferred to NIU from the University of Nebraska-Omaha after UNO’s football program was disbanded.Click here for Part I.
DeKALB – Doug Semisch opened the Sunday morning paper, and the tears were instant.
He never heard one financial complaint about University of Nebraska at Omaha football before that early March morning. All indications were a program in full stride. The previous season, a donor gave the university a $1 million video board.
The screen – 42 feet long by 21 feet high – still is at Nebraska-Omaha Stadium, unused.
“A lot of frustrations,” Doug said. “It was mostly concern for Tim because we knew he wanted to play football. The beginning of it was, ‘That’s it. His football career is over.’ That was the real low point.”
There had been rumors of UNO rising to Division I for months, but no indication the football program would be cut. The Mavericks had just signed a batch of recruits the previous month, and Doug already was excited for next season. Tim redshirted the previous fall, staying on campus like all freshmen. Now he was rising in the program.
The previous week, Doug helped his son move into an off-campus apartment. He even signed a $275 check for the security deposit.
“We ate that money,” Doug said. “I had given some consideration to go into UNO and ask them to reimburse me for it, but we’re really happy with where he’s at. He’s at a better place. So I just decided to let bygones be bygones.”
Tim, now at Northern Illinois, soon learned the NCAA would allow him to transfer to another football program without sitting out a year, which provided little comfort.
He was lightly recruited out of high school, playing for a wishbone offense that almost refused to pass. Semisch was a 6-foot-8 tight end – an ideal receiving threat – who hardly ever ran a route.
“I have a crappy high school tape,” he said, some of the first words out of his mouth while being interviewed for the first time in his life a couple weeks ago. “It’s 30 minutes long, and basically the same play over and over, just a different team on the other side the ball. All I did was block.”
As difficult as the situation was, humor persisted. Teammates took advantage of an opportunity to play a prank. Some called claiming to be Texas coach Mack Brown. Others were USC coach Lane Kiffin.
So when NIU defensive coordinator Jay Niemann contacted Semisch – and the conversation lasted only 30 minutes, about half the length of a normal recruiting call, Semisch said – the freshman’s expectations were low.
“At first I thought it was a joke,” he said. “I didn’t know whether or not to take it serious. Once I got off the phone with him, I went out to our little living room in our dorm, and I was like, ‘Somebody just called me from NIU. Anybody else get a call?’ And we had a good laugh about it.
“But coach Niemann called me the next day, and I was like, ‘There’s no way this is a joke now.’ “
3,000 MILES AND COUNTING
When Donovan Gordon signed with UNO, Alberts and president John Christensen promised they were fully committed to the football program. Its discontinuation made for plenty of anger the first time Gordon spoke with his father, Willis Authorlee, after the news.
“He was very emotional about it,” Authorlee said. “He really didn’t want to talk at the time. He wanted to be with his teammates. It was really messed up. He felt like the athletic director had lied to his face and was costing him his family.
“That’s where he wanted to be. Everything he looked for in a college, he found UNO.”
The conversation ended shortly with Authorlee promising his son, “I’ve got this.” They spent much of the next month on the road, driving a black 2011 Hyundai Sonata that Authorlee had just bought off the lot.
Together, along with Gordon’s mother, Monique Authorlee, they visited South Dakota State and South Dakota. They traveled out east to Hampton in Virginia. Down south, looking at smaller schools in Georgia. They even had a trip scheduled for Wyoming.
By the time Gordon committed to NIU, the car had more than 3,000 miles.
“For us it was like, ‘Whatever needs to be done is what we’ll do,’ " Authorlee said. “We did a lot of road work, up and down the highway, until he found out where he wanted to be.”
Gordon made a list of three criteria, starting with schools that had his major.
“Not a lot of schools offer computer engineering,” he said. “So that cut a lot of them off.”
From there, it was about football. Gordon wanted to play Division I, and he wanted a scholarship.
NIU was the only program that offered all three.
‘WE’VE GOT NEEDS’
Like any coach, Dave Doeren’s thoughts last March quickly transferred from shock to how the situation could benefit his program, “because we’ve got needs,” he said. Meanwhile, Niemann was in Texas, helping his family pack and move the rest of their things to DeKalb.
Niemann said he and Doeren found out almost simultaneously. After a quick conversation, they decided to join the recruiting race.
“We thought it would be worth a call to find out if there were some guys there who fit our needs, so I got on the phone with coach Behrns that day and asked him about some of the guys,” Niemann said. “These were the two guys that fit our needs the best.”
Doeren knew two UNO assistants, including tight ends coach Sean Lewis. Now in his first season at Akron, Lewis played quarterback at Wisconsin while Doeren was with the Badgers. Lewis mailed film of UNO’s spring game and filled Doeren in on Semisch’s history, how he played basketball, hockey and lacrosse in high school, how he was raw but had a lot of potential.
Every coach lives by the film. Sometimes, a trusted conversation means more.
“I was able to call and get real honest opinions on their guys,” Doeren said. “It wasn’t like you were wondering what they were like.”
Doeren also knew UNO defensive backs coach Jason Petrino, and the two talked about Gordon. But Doeren didn’t need a sales pitch to be interested.
NIU only had one defensive tackle that weighed more than 300 pounds. Last spring, Gordon was tipping the scales at 330.
“He was a guy who was raw, but we thought he could help us,” Doeren said.
Niemann soon scheduled visits with Semisch and Gordon. Before then, both recruits wanted to know the same thing.
“One of the first questions they both had when I talked to them: ‘Are you looking at any other guys from UNO?’ " Niemann said. “Partly because they wanted their buddies to land somewhere, but I think also because they’d probably feel a little bit more comfortable if someone was coming with them.”
TWO PATHS CONVERGE
Gordon’s UNO dorm was on the opposite end of campus, but he spent many nights on Semisch’s couch. He’d stay up late with Semisch and his three roommates, playing video games and discussing whatever came to mind. One night in April, the conversation turned to recruiting.
“Timmy tells me, ‘NIU has talked to me.’ " Gordon said. “I was like, ‘What? NIU has talked to you, too? We’re roommates, boy.’ "
Everything happened so fast last spring, Gordon and Semisch didn’t know they were being recruited by the same team before that night. They already scheduled their visits separately. They chose NIU for their own reasons.
Since arriving, they’ve relied on the other each day. Authorlee called it fate.
“I think it was tremendous because (Donovan) knew Tim and his parents,” he said. “They were already real good friends when they were at UNO. They’ve really helped each other adjust to NIU.”
“It’s kind of like having a safety net,” Semisch said. “It was like, ‘OK, if I don’t make friends, I’ve still got Donovan.’ In a weird way, it almost allows you to be yourself more. Some nights, we’ll compare NIU to UNO. ‘Oh, they have this here. They didn’t have that at UNO.’ “
Gordon, who traveled for the first time Saturday when NIU played at Central Michigan, admits he had never heard of NIU before Niemann called. Although, he said, he immediately recognized its Huskie logo when he researched the school on the Internet.
As a college football fan, Semisch knew plenty.
When the Huskies beat Fresno State in the Humanitarian Bowl last December, Semisch watched the game. He and his teammates had a NCAA football Xbox tournament afterward. Semisch chose NIU.
“I scored the winning touchdown with [tight end] Jason Schepler on a Hail Mary,” Semisch said. “I haven’t told him that, but I texted all of my friends, ‘I’m at NIU. Does anyone realize I was playing with them in that tournament?’ “
Two weeks ago against Cal Poly, the tight end that used to never run passing routes scored his first collegiate touchdown. Every offensive player sprinted to the end zone to celebrate with their new teammate. When Semisch jogged back to the sideline, position coach Kevin Kane met him midway and offered an airborne chest bump.
Doug stood in the stands, tears rolling down his cheeks like they did in March. This time, he was smiling.
“I told him afterward I thought when they signaled touchdown that he jumped higher in the air to do that chest bump than he ever did to get a rebound in basketball,” Doug said, laughing. “Even at dinner at 8 p.m., he was still bubbly from that. That was just a very special moment for us.”
Wounds heal the further time gets from March. Semisch and Gordon seem content now, even happy. They know a lot of good happened these past seven months. They are also aware things could have ended much worse. Many of their UNO teammates didn’t get this opportunity.
“Every time I talk to people, they want to know, ‘Are you still mad about the UNO thing?’ A little bit,” Semisch said, “but I’m more blessed because of it. I got one thing that a lot of athletes don’t get. I got a second chance to live my dreams and be a Division I athlete.”
Semisch looked up, ready to make his point.
“How many people do you know who got a second chance?”