Northwestern pays respect to Navy

GREAT LAKES, Ill. -- If command master chief Leon Walker was going to recruit a few of Northwestern's football players for the Navy, he'd likely stay away from the linemen.

"They'd need a little work," Walker said. "They like to eat. We can't eat that much in the Navy."

Walker was among a few hundred Navy personnel who observed Northwestern's morning practice at Naval Station Great Lakes on Monday, getting an opportunity to watch college football up close.

"This is an experience not only for myself, but for the sailors as well," Walker said. "Some sailors never really get a chance to go to a college football game, let alone a college practice. A lot of sailors dream of playing at the college level and never get this close to college players."

For the Wildcats, it was an unique opportunity to play on the base -- which fielded a competitive Division I team during World War I and II -- and entertain the troops.

"We just got the upmost respect for what our military does for our country not only here, but obviously abroad," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "It's special to come into their house, into their backyard and have a chance to improve and get better. We're very appreciative."

The day was especially meaningful for junior linebacker Bryce McNaul, whose older brother Austin is an Army Ranger.

"Me playing college football is definitely a dream come true for him as well," McNaul said. "We're kind of a very tightly knit bunch. If you"d ask him, he"d say he was living vicariously through me. I like to think I do the same with him.

"I just have a tremendous amount of pride for what he's doing. I don't think there's a higher stature of a man than one who fights for his country. It's just a very special, special practice here today, and we really enjoyed it."

From listening about his brother's training regime, McNaul also realizes what he and his teammates have had to go through during Northwestern's training camp isn't all that difficult.

"What we're doing out here pales in comparison to what he endured," McNaul said. 'We lose water weight in practice. He loses pure muscle mass. I think my brother ended up losing 50 pounds in the course of 60 days.

"My family came up after the scrimmage on Saturday, and we were talking at dinner. They really wanted me to indulge them on how bad it is, how hard it is, tell them about the injuries. I really couldn't elaborate. I knew that it would not do what my brother is doing justice. That's a sacrifice. That's a real sacrifice."

Kicker Stefan Demos talked with one officer on the sideline for an extended period of time during the practice. They discussed in detail what each of their schedules is like.

"I really just took the experience of getting to fully understand what they do on a day-to-day basis," Demos said. "People think Navy or Army, and they see them going overseas and doing things overseas. They don't see what they do day to day.

"He's a training officer for communications, radar stuff, that nature. He's in school from 3 until 12 every night. He's in school more than we are. Not only is he busy in school more so than we are, but the importance of what he's doing can't really compare to what I'm doing. I"m a communications graduate, and he's working on fixing radars on ships."

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