- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Prepared to play host to 15th-ranked Maryland tonight, Northern Illinois is a football program on the rise.

The Huskies finished 8-4 last season and have been picked to win the Mid-American Conference above perennial powers Marshall and Toledo. The team has the nation’s leading returning rusher in Michael “the Burner” Turner, and the outlook was bright as players worked out in anticipation of starting fall practice.

But none of that mattered two months ago, in the early morning of June29.

That’s when several players were attending a party in Chicago’s upscale Lincoln Park neighborhood. A group was standing on the third-floor porch of an apartment building when it collapsed, plummeting 13 people to their deaths. Among those lost in the rubble was Shea Fitzgerald, a 6-foot-7, 300-pound offensive tackle and projected starter for the Huskies.

“Somebody called and told me the news,” said Turner, who was at his home in the Chicago area. “I thought it was a nasty rumor. I turned on the news and saw it. I couldn’t believe it.”

Fitzgerald’s locker in Huskie Stadium serves a constant reminder of the team’s lost comrade. The locker is enclosed in plexiglass and contains his No.76 jersey, the rest of his uniform and his cleats. The shrine will stay that way for three seasons because that will be when Fitzgerald would have finished his career. Players will wear a patch bearing his number on their uniforms.

“It makes them realize they are not immortal,” coach Joe Novak said. “It’s not a win one for the Gipper-type thing. We’re just trying to take from him the qualities we admired as a hard worker and good friend.”

Fitzgerald’s death was the latest dose of real life that has plagued football at Northern Illinois. In February 2002, 19-year-old Jawan Jackson was working out preparing to be a walk-on when he passed out and died because of complications associated with an enlarged heart.

Last season tailback Thomas Hammock was coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons and a 172-yard effort in a season-opening upset of Wake Forest when he felt a shortness of breath in practice. Hammock was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with a heart condition. Doctors advised him to give up football, and suddenly the Huskies had lost their focus.

“It’s been a tough emotional thing over the last 18 months,” Novak said. “I hate to say it, but I think it’s almost hardened them a little bit. I do know this: It’s really drawn them closer.”

Despite all the emotional and physical trauma, Northern Illinois is optimistic it can upset Maryland in the Terrapins’ first game in Illinois since 1926. The Huskies are banking on an experienced squad, led by junior quarterback Josh Haldi (15 touchdowns, six interceptions last season) and Turner, who rushed for 1,915 yards last season and took over as the team’s featured back following Hammock’s departure.

Turner was the nation’s second-leading rusher last season behind Penn State’s Larry Johnson (2,087 yards). Turner’s total was 13th highest in Division I history. The shifty 6-foot, 228-pound senior had five 200-yard games, plus a 160-yard effort against Wisconsin. All this from a lightly recruited Chicago kid whose only scholarship offer came from Northern Illinois.

“He’s a big-time back,” Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said. “He’ll be playing on Sundays.”

Turner and his team won seven straight games last season before losing the finale to Toledo 33-30. With that loss they were denied a trip to the MAC title game. But that matters little compared to the loss of Fitzgerald this summer.

“I am used to seeing Shea every day,” Turner said. “We worked out together [in DeKalb] this summer. It’s strange. He was a great guy. Tomorrow is never promised. We just have to appreciate every day a little more.”

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