New era begins at NU as massive athletic complex opens
If Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson is ready to play on opening night, Aug. 30 at Purdue, maybe the school's massive new lakeside practice facility deserves some credit for the recovery.
"First of all, doing treatment, sitting there getting my knee worked on or doing an exercise and looking out over the water is awesome," Thorson said Thursday at Northwestern's media day. "There's the physical side and then the mental side it helps, too."
Thorson suffered a torn ACL in his right knee during last season's Music City Bowl victory against Kentucky. At this point, it appears the Wheaton North grad is on pace to be ready for Purdue, but that decision won't be made for a few weeks.
The star attraction Thursday was the new Walter Athletics Center. Northwestern opened their indoor practice field in the spring, but the full building is now essentially complete, with expanded locker rooms, two different weight rooms, cafeteria, training facilities, meeting rooms and academic support offices all under one roof.
Many of Northwestern's Olympic sports are housed in the new building, while basketball, volleyball and wrestling will stay in the Central Street complex. NU's old indoor practice building, a quaint little garage compared to the new one, is being converted to basketball practice courts.
A tour of the Walker Center supported Thorson's assessment. The training room looks out toward a beach along Lake Michigan.
"There's so much more room," Thorson said. "It's not going to get too crowded to a sense where, 'Maybe I can't watch film today, because there's other guys there. Or I can't do the training room because there's no tables.' There's space. So I think that's a big thing, everyone can do stuff at the same time. So it's real efficient."
Certainly Northwestern can now compete with most any program when it comes to football facilities. The day-to-day routine of their players has been altered significantly, compared to when most of the athletic buildings were located a couple miles from campus at Ryan Field.
"If you went to get treatment and go to your locker, that was in one building," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "If you went to meetings to see your coach, that was in another building. If you went to training table, that was in another building. If you went to see an academic adviser, that was in another building. Then it was another 300-yard walk to go to practice.
"I just gave you about five buildings that are now under one roof for us. Just the efficiency and upgrades in technology and our weight training facility, the guys just don't want to leave, he said."
Fitzgerald talked about the Wildcats having a "party house" of a locker room and a "man cave" for a player's lounge. There were no mirror balls or smoke machines visible in the locker room, and it's tough to consider the player's lounge a cave when it has floor-to-ceiling windows looking onto the lake. But it was all very nice.
The football auditorium has room for the whole team, or a wall can slide out and divide it into two separate meeting areas for offense and defense. There's a virtual reality room where players, mostly the quarterbacks, can relive practice.
"It's amazing. I love being here every day," said running back Jeremy Larkin. "I think I spend more time here than at home."
The Wildcats are holding another Camp Kenosha, moving practice to Wisconsin-Parkside this week, as they've done for many years. But that tradition may end soon.
Thorson thinks the new building already helped the team put together a strong summer, because working out and hanging out has become so much easier.
"I think this whole facility has really brought our team together and I feel like we're a closer team than we've ever had since I've been here," Thorson said. "It's going to attract a lot of great recruits. Long-term for our program and for Northwestern sports, it's going to be unbelievable. I'm so happy I get six months in it."