The tailgaters descended on the parking lot around Ryan Field long ago, some tipping back mimosas in wine glasses and flipping eggs on the grill, their breakfast fare keeping with the early hour. By 11 a.m., the mass has relocated to the sun-soaked stadium, anxious for the kickoff that will mark Northwestern University’s season opener against Syracuse. Wildcats fans hyped up on beer and Chicago hot dogs and too much face paint shout and wave at ESPN cameras, delighted to have returned to their home turf in Evanston, Ill.
Up in section 127, row 38, a family sits. The sister proudly sports a purple jersey emblazoned with her last name. She’s been saving Saturdays for football for as long as she can remember, and while she’s long-hair-big-smile-cheerleader pretty, she knows more about the roles of a Willie, Mike or Sam linebacker than how to form a human pyramid.
The mother beside her sits with brown eyes wide, body tense. Through the years she’s grown to understand this game — what to pray for when it’s fourth and 17, when to expect the coach to call a time-out. But she’ll never understand the physicality of it, and she cringes whenever helmets crash and knees buckle and bodies land.
The father is more at ease. He scrutinizes the formations on the field below, makes mental judgments about the plays and enjoys the chance to breathe in a game he once played. Last night, someone asked him how he thought Northwestern would fare today. He said the first half would be shaky because of the new offense, but that things would eventually gel. It’s an educated prediction made from years of intently watching the Wildcats, and before the day is done, the proud father of No. 18 will prove to be right.
Running a hurry-up offense that has Syracuse scrambling just to line up, Northwestern dominates the first quarter, but can’t seem to finish drives. Quarterback C.J. Bacher throws an interception within the first six minutes and the team doesn’t score a touchdown until just before halftime.
A 6-foot-2, 200-pounder with baby cheeks and disheveled black hair whose face echoes his mother’s Korean roots and his father’s Irish-French ancestry, Bacher has worry on his brow. He was named co-captain a week ago and he’d like to lead this team out of trouble.
But, as his father foretold, the second half brings with it a happy ending. Northwestern cruises to a 30-10 win, with Bacher going 23 for 35 with three touchdowns.
Winning at home is always sweet, although it doesn’t matter where Bacher plays. That mother and father and sister are always in the bleachers. Any field, anywhere — home comes to him.
K.C. Bacher (pronounced buh-SHAY), 55, is outgoing and funny, at ease with strangers and accustomed to dealing with attention, having been a football standout at New Hampshire University. His wife, Susie, 47, is reserved and quiet, happy volunteering and cooking at home.
Their personalities converge, however, at this staunch belief: Nothing messes with family.
The two met while K.C. was in the Air Force and stationed in Osan, South Korea. Susie’s own stepfather, a native of Arkansas, had also been in the Air Force, so she was familiar with military life. Stability, she knew, would be difficult to establish for a family whose scenery changed every few years. But she and K.C. both came from large, close-knit families (five siblings on her side, six on his), and they vowed to try for it.
Their first, Christopher James, was born in 1985 in Washington, D.C., during K.C.’s time at the Pentagon. Stephanie came three years later, while the couple was stationed in Korea. As the family moved through other military bases, including assignments in Guam and Hawaii, K.C. and Susie taught the children that while friends and houses would come and go, flesh and blood would not.
“No matter what happens with anybody else,” K.C. would say, “we’re always gonna be here for each other.”
Weekends were spent as a unit — picnicking, camping, boating on their Cuddy Cabin, feasting on galbi. Every single vacation, save one, was a visit to relatives. Halmeoni in Hawaii, Aunt Sandra in Rhode Island, Grandma and Grandpa in New York, Uncle Patrick in Alabama, Uncle Greg in Vermont — K.C. and Susie insisted their children maintain close relationships with extended family members scattered across the States.
When the Bachers eventually made their way to Rocklin, a small suburb of Sacramento, they were able to put down roots. K.C. was about to retire a lieutenant colonel and the couple purchased their first home.
C.J. and Stephanie made friends easily, but the siblings still found themselves hanging together — going to movies, shooting hoops, singing karaoke. (Friends and family members agree that C.J., known for bursting into song at any given moment, happens to have a lovely voice.) A talented point guard in high school, Stephanie says her brother made time to give her pointers and come to her games.
“People always told me that we were so close and it was different than how they were with their siblings,” Stephanie says. “But I just never noticed, because that’s just how we’ve always been. Our parents wanted us to be good friends.”
The family, to say the least, was tight. Football would make them even tighter.
C.J. always had a killer right arm.
“Before C.J. was even able to hold a football,” recalls his aunt Sandra Shuster, “he would throw Popsicle wrappers toward the sink and it would stick to the wall.”
An active kid who couldn’t stop bouncing balls in the house and wasn’t afraid to greet strangers, C.J. channeled that strength into basketball, football and baseball, sports that were easily found on the base.
“It was a good way to make friends, especially when you’re moving around so much,” C.J. says. “You get on teams and you get an automatic bond.”
While in Hawaii, C.J. took up flag football and his father volunteered to coach the offense. At 8 years old, the son discovered what it was like to hurl a ball toward the sure hands of a receiver. It felt pretty good.
When they moved to Rocklin, C.J. played Pop Warner and K.C. once again became a coach.
“It was, I think, a great way to have an even deeper connection,” K.C. says. “I was part of the team with him, as opposed to just sitting in the stands not relating quite as much. I was engrossed in the same kind of emotions that the team goes through. We’d come home and talk about strategy at night. Stephanie got pretty interested in it, so did Susie, and they both learned quite a bit of football just from hanging around it so much. That really helped us bond even more.”
A pastime became a future when C.J. attended Jesuit High School in nearby Carmichael. Under the venerable Dan Carmazzi, a coach known for grooming quarterbacks and emphasizing team unity, C.J. played JV his freshman and sophomore years.
“He impressed me with his competitiveness, game awareness, knowledge of football and athleticism,” Carmazzi recalls. “He loved to compete, even in practice.”
As a junior, C.J. started on varsity and led the Marauders to a section championship. The local papers buzzed with his accomplishments, labeling him quite possibly the latest and greatest in a long line of talented Jesuit quarterbacks. Carmazzi called him a coach’s dream.
“Every player’s the best player in the country in their dad’s eyes,” C.J. says. “Hearing it from my high school football coach who’s very blunt and very straightforward — that’s when I kind of realized I could play college football.”
C.J. verbally committed to Oregon State, but after the Beavers recruited an additional quarterback, he began to look around at other options. Northwestern had always been on his radar — a Big 10 school with strong academics; it was also his mother’s No. 1 choice.
On an official visit to the suburban campus just west of Lake Michigan, he felt welcomed by the players.
“They really have aspirations that go beyond just playing football, and those are the kinds of guys I want to be around,” he says. “My family’s always pushed me towards being around the right kids. You kind of are the company you keep.”
Thing is, the company C.J. would eventually keep in Evanston, was, in fact, his family.
As a redshirt freshman, C.J. saw little action on the field, and the next year, he lost the starting spot after suffering a stress fracture to his right leg during preseason. Sensing his son’s frustration, K.C. flew out for the second game of the season to offer moral support.
“Then I came out for the next one and then the next one,” K.C. recalls. “Then all of a sudden he’s healed up, and a few games later they felt like he was strong enough to play. Once he started a game, it was just too exciting to miss. So we just ended up coming to every game.”
“We” meaning that every Friday after school, Stephanie would join her parents on a plane ride to Chicago or whichever D-1 school was hosting the Wildcats. They’d stay for the Saturday game, take C.J. out to eat afterward, then fly back to Rocklin on Sunday.
“I didn’t want to miss any of my kids’ activities,” Susie says about those whirlwind weekends. Sometimes aunts and uncles and cousins would fly in as well, although most would watch the game on TV, or pick it up on the radio — then call afterward to congratulate C.J. or offer moral support. Even Halmeoni has become a Northwestern fan.
When it came time for Stephanie to graduate and pick a college, she chose Loyola University in Chicago, just a quick train ride from Evanston. “I kind of wanted to be close to him,” the 19-year-old sophomore explains.
By the time Stephanie started school, her parents owned a one-bedroom condo in downtown Chicago. K.C. retired from the military in 1996 and has since been working as a director for a software company, which means his schedule allows for flexibility and telecommuting. So, instead of traveling to every game, it seemed a better investment to just buy property in the Windy City and live there during football season, then let Stephanie eventually take it over.
They still own a house near Sacramento (although they moved to the nearby community Gold River a couple years ago), and will return to it in December. But they’re thinking about making a permanent move to the Midwest. While K.C. enjoys living in a metropolitan hub for a few months, then returning to their gated community and a climate suited to biking and kayaking year-round, Susie is a city girl and likes the hustle of Chicago. When they’re in town, they make time for sightseeing, the theater and Cubs games.
The entire family recently checked out a house in Fox Lake, a western suburb of Chicago. Nothing’s final yet, but it’s clear that if C.J. and Stephanie stay in the city after college (and both hint that they will), then their parents will soon become permanent residents.
It’s a move that would make some kids cringe. College and your 20s are, after all, often about getting the hell away from your parents. C.J. jokes that his folks can’t let go. But he doesn’t deny that he can’t either.
“A lot of times I hear from people, ‘My kids don’t want us to be close,’” Susie says. “Our kids say, ‘Why don’t you guys move here?’”
Before he thinks about putting that communications degree to use (he’s actually enrolled in the master’s program now) or fielding questions about the NFL (yeah, he’s definitely throwing his hat into the ring and Carmazzi says he reminds him of 49er J.T. O’Sullivan, another QB he coached) or making use of the “purple mafia” alumni network (he held a summer internship with a sports and entertainment company founded by a former Wildcat quarterback), C.J. Bacher just wants to concentrate on winning games for Northwestern.
“My focus is completely on the team now,” he says. “Anything that comes after that is frosting on the cake.” It’s like his father always told him: Worry about your current squad, don’t set your sights on the next big thing.
Last season, the Wildcats finished 6-6, a respectable record for a school that has only seen six bowl games in its lifetime. Living on the bottom tier of the Big 10 where powerhouses like Michigan and Ohio State reign supreme, the purple has a history of struggling for wins and attention. It didn’t help that the team encountered tragedy two years ago, when then-head coach Randy Walker died of a heart attack at age 52.
Linebacker coach Pat Fitzgerald transitioned into the head position while the team leaned on each other, forced to mature in the face of adversity. “It’s made us stronger,” C.J. says. “A lot of our coaches have said that bad things don’t happen to people who aren’t prepared for it. We’re such a tight-knit family that we were able to handle it to the best of our ability, even though it’s not gonna be fully mended right away.”
In the following seasons, C.J. found himself stepping up, taking his leadership role as quarterback to heart.
“He really came into being more of a vocal guy,” says offensive linesman Joel Belding. “If something’s not going right, he’ll come over and he’ll be the guy that’s talking to everybody. He always puts the team first.”
C.J.’s known for giving himself low grades for performance, then talking up the merits of his teammates. He loves referring to Northwestern’s “brotherhood” and hates when reporters only swarm the quarterback.
“It’s really the offensive line that’s doing the dirty work,” he’ll say.
It’s one of the reasons C.J. was voted co-captain.
“That’s the highest honor that can be bestowed upon our players, because they’re elected by their teammates,” says Fitzgerald. “The guys respect his work ethic, his commitment to being the best player he can be. He’s always got a great attitude and a smile on his face. He just absolutely loves his teammates.”
In his final year of eligibility, C.J.’s made it no secret he’s gunning for a bowl game. It’s an aspiration that rests heavily on a guy commentators wryly note had 19 touchdowns and 19 interceptions last season. Maybe it’s a lofty goal, but he feels the tingle of chance in an arm that can drill a bomb to a wide receiver 50 yards away.
The pressure’s on the QB, but if it doesn’t happen, no hard feelings. That’s the best thing about playing football with teammates that feel more like brothers.
And no matter how many tens of thousands of strangers are stuffed into the stadiums on game day, he can’t forget that this is a family sport. Because somewhere up there his mother is praying, his sister is cheering and his father is grinning.
Anything’s possible when the football field feels like home.