GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — When the Northwestern football team takes the field for the Big Ten championship game Saturday, one of their leaders will be a West Michigan native.
Up against No. 6 Ohio State, No. 21 Northwestern is considered a 14-point underdog.
“I don’t think anybody outside these doors would pick us to win this game,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald recently told reporters. “My mom and dad, I guess, would, but I don’t even know if my sisters will, so we’ll see. But I don’t need them. I just need the 74 guys that are going to put on purple and white on Saturday.”
Wearing No. 71 will be senior offensive lineman Tommy Doles. A former standout at Grand Rapids Christian (and the son of 24 Hour News 8 Sports Director Jack Doles), he’s now a three-year starter at Northwestern and one of the Wildcats’ team captains.
“He’s just such a terrific human being. He’s one of the best young people I’ve had the privilege to coach,” Fitzgerald said of Tommy Doles. “The way he’s gone about every day that he’s been here in this program, he’s maximized everything that we’re about.”
Even when his team was 1-3, his belief in his team never wavered.
“We didn’t doubt that we were good enough to do what we wanted to do this year,” Doles said. “So after a loss it wasn’t, ‘Oh man, we’re not really that good.’ It was, ‘Why are we playing like this? What’s it going to take for us to get out of this?'”
As a team caption, it was his job to help right the ship.
“Guys are going to see how are they responding, what’s their attitude, are they complaining about the coaching,” Doles said. “So that was the first thing we had to do: a relentlessly positive attitude. A belief in ourselves, but also in each other. Letting guys know, ‘Hey, I believe in your ability to do this.'”
That belief was put to the test in the first week of October, when the Wildcats took that 1-3 record to East Lansing. Despite rushing for only eight yards, they still beat Michigan State and then went on to run the table in the Big Ten.
Doles takes great joy in every victory, but is quick to point out that winning doesn’t define him: faith does.
“There are times the pressure’s really on that thoughts start popping up: what if you lose, what if this doesn’t go your way? I think that’s what’s cool about being a Christian athlete is the outcome of the game doesn’t determine my value and worth as a person. That really frees you up to just cut it loose and play your best, knowing that whatever the outcome is, you’re still secure,” he said.
And as he and the Wildcats prepare for the big game, Doles is ignoring the skeptics.
“I’ve got work to do. I’ve got film to watch. We’ve got practice to get ready for. People can talk, but I’ve learned it’s not very productive to listen to the noise,” Doles said. “Something I’ve learned playing Big Ten football for five years is that there is no one who can’t beat you, but there’s also no one you can’t beat — at least in our program.”
The Big Ten championship game begins at 8 p.m. Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. It will air on Fox.
**Correction: A previous version of this article stated the game would be in Columbus. It will actually be in Indianapolis. We regret the error, which has been fixed.