Carlos Zambrano eyes Wrigley football

CHICAGO -- Chicago Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano couldn't believe his eyes Thursday morning when he popped his head out from the Cubs' dugout to catch a glimpse of Northwestern's football team practicing at Wrigley Field.

Footballs were flying onto Sheffield Avenue. Three-hundred-pound men were smashing into each other in areas where normally infielders roam. A goal post hung above the right-field wall.

Zambrano couldn't even see remnants of his pitching mound.

"I was kind of mad about that," Zambrano said, laughing. "No, I'm kidding. It's amazing. The grounds crew did a pretty good job. It's amazing to see this ballpark converted to a football field.

"No mound, no infield, paint in the grass. It's cool."

Some of Northwestern's players had the same reaction when they stepped off the team bus, walked through Wrigley Field's right-field gate on Sheffield Avenue and witnessed for the first time in person the field they will be playing Illinois on Saturday.

Wildcats senior Corbin Bryant grew up on Chicago's South Side, but he had never been to Wrigley Field to watch a Cubs game. His first time in the stadium was when Northwestern did a walkthrough of it during the summer.

"This is going to be great," Bryant said. "This is going to be an once-in-a-lifetime experience for me, one of my final games in purple and white. It should be fun."

The week leading up to Saturday's game has been unusual for the Wildcats. With ESPN's College GameDay coming, the countless media requests, the different practice settings and the never-ending buzz about Saturday's game, Northwestern senior Al Netter compared it all to a bowl game.

"This week feels like a bowl game, all the stuff going on, all the media, all the things going on, but we've been stressing to stay focused," he said. "It's 100 yards out there. Just keeping the mindset on doing things the way we do them."

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald described it as Chicago's bowl game.

"It's going to be the first bowl game ever in the history of the city of Chicago," Fitzgerald said. "It's going to be really spectacular.

"This is a special day. It's going to be a special day. As a Chicagoan, I'm looking forward to being on the same sideline as [George] Halas and [Vince] Lombardi, and our guys being where [Dick] Butkus and Otto Graham and the other greats have played and stepped on this field."

Zambrano wasn't as knowledgeable about the history of football at Wrigley Field.

"In fact, I know nothing about football," Zambrano said. "In Venezuela, we don't play that sport. But since I've been in Chicago, I've been watching the Bears. I'm kind of like a Bears' fan."

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at spowers@espnchicago.com.