Catching up with Darnell Autry
Sixth in a series of stories by Larry Watts on the players of the 1995 Northwestern Wildcats on this, the 20th anniversary of their Rose Bowl season.
Darnell Autry was the face of Northwestern's run to the Rose Bowl in 1995, the most famous player on the Wildcats' most famous team.
It was Autry who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in November of that year, and it was Autry who was invited to the Downtown Athletic Club in New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist.
His popularity endures today. It's no accident that he was chosen to be the Grand Marshal of Northwestern's Homecoming weekend.
Yet it was also Autry that left the Northwestern football program early, after his junior season in 1996, to jump to the NFL. So we'll get the big question out of the way first: Does Autry regret leaving NU early?
"I regret not graduating with my teammates,'' the 39-year-old Autry says, choosing his words carefully. "For the first time in my life, I made a selfish decision and there's no way to make up for that. I don't regret getting drafted, but I wasn't prepared for the experience. My thought process was you could always graduate when you want, but you'll never have the same (NFL) opportunity again.
"Had I come back to Northwestern (in 1997), who knows what we would have done? We graduated a lot of players (from the '96 team) and there were going to be a lot of new faces out there, including a new quarterback and several offensive linemen.''
When Northwestern burst onto the national scene in 1995, so did Autry, then a sophomore running back. He finished fourth in the Heisman balloting after setting school records for rushing (1,785 yards), all-purpose yards (2,023) and rushing touchdowns (17).
After helping lead the Wildcats to a second straight Big Ten title in 1996, he elected to pass up his senior year for the NFL Draft. By that time, the two-time All-Big Ten first team selection had rushed for 3,793 yards (now third in Cat history), 35 touchdowns (second) and logged 4,609 all-purpose yards (third).
The Chicago Bears selected him in the fourth round. But as Autry says, he wasn't prepared for the next level.
"If I had it to do over again, I would have hired a personal trainer and a nutritionist,'' he says.
Autry lasted just that one season with the Bears. He rushed for 319 yards and one touchdown on 112 carries.
His agent pointed him to Philadelphia in 1998. Although he was on the roster, he never dressed for a game and again was released at the end of the year.
"I essentially retired from football,'' he says. "I went out to Los Angeles to see if I could make that (acting) work and it was brutal for nine months. I was working various jobs, including bartending, and finally decided I still had something to prove in football.''
Having not set foot on the gridiron for nearly two years, Autry went back to Philadelphia in 2000 and made the team. He wound up starting 11 games, rushing for 334 yards and scoring three touchdowns.
"It was an incredible experience, but I wound up getting cut again after the season,'' he says. "I felt like I was just getting into my groove.
"A new team was getting started in Houston (in 2001) and my agent had me go down there to work out. But by Week 9, Houston finally called and said they were going to go in a different direction.''
So it was back to Los Angeles as Autry continued to chase the acting dream he had ever since he came to Northwestern.
"I really love the entertainment industry and I felt I could make it work,'' he says. "However, I found out LA is much harder than the NFL. They will tell you to your face you are not good.
"I started going out to Vegas three times a month just to hang out. Then I got offered a job as a casino host. I did that for a couple of years and enjoyed it.''
But there was still some unfinished business weighing on Autry's mind. He had left Northwestern in the middle of his junior year and he was determined to finally earn his degree.
"It was really strange to be back in the classroom at age 29 with a roomful of 18-19 year-olds, talking about things you used to talk about as an 18 or 19-year old,'' he says with a laugh. "I would sit in the front row because my eyes aren't as good as they used to be.
"A professor once did a role call and after he called my name, one guy turned around and said, 'I used to watch you play football when I was a kid.'''
After nearly two years, Autry had earned his degree with a double major in theater and communications. He elected to stay at Northwestern to work in the academic advisor's office.
"I gained a whole new respect for the athletes in other sports during that time,'' he says. "In football, our schedules were always so structured with practices, studies and game day on Saturday. The schedules for most of the other athletes were crazy compared to ours. Now we're talking about games or tournaments in the middle of the week and working schedules around them.''
Not only was Autry a standout football player in Tempe, Ariz. back in 1993, he also won state track titles in the 100 and 200. Syracuse, Colorado, UCLA and hometown Arizona State were all battling Northwestern for his pledge.
"Arizona State was right across the street from my high school and they wound up putting me in a hotel further from campus than my house,'' he says. "I figured the last thing I needed was my dad popping into my dorm room any time he wanted.''
Colorado was actually the first visit on Autry's list. He would have committed had his father not reminded him he was only starting his visit list.
"It was amazing,'' he says. "I was ready to commit on the spot, but my dad told me to relax and find out what the others had to offer.''
Syracuse could only fit him in for a Sunday through Tuesday visit. On top of that, the students were already home on Christmas break and a blizzard was barreling in.
"I received a call to my hotel telling me there was a blizzard on the way,'' he says. "I was told if the blizzard forced me to stay longer than Tuesday, I would have to pay for my room, so I was out of there the next morning.''
Then came Northwestern. The campus met Autry's expectations and then there was the added bonus of downtown Chicago nearby.
"I went over to check out the weight room and Hudhaifa Ismaeli comes out and gives me a big hug,'' he says. "Now Hudhaifa and I were as different as night and day, but that experience was overwhelming.
"With Northwestern, I figured the worst case scenario would be if football didn't work out, I would still be getting the best education possible. But if everything happened the way (head coach) Gary Barnett said it could, it was going to be an incredible opportunity.''
Autry was signed, sealed and delivered to Evanston, but it didn't take long for his outlook to begin to sour. The adjustment process was one he never expected.
"I move into a dorm and then it was off to Kenosha for three-a-days,'' he says. "I came back from Kenosha beat up and questioning my ability. There were more practices and then another move to another dorm.
"We played two games before any kids showed up for classes and I was only playing on special teams. I missed my high school friends. It was horrible and then winter hit. I just decided it wasn't going to work out.''
Not even the fact he rushed for 171 yards against Penn State while making his first start due to Dennis Lundy's suspension was about to change his mind.
"Winter break came, I packed up all my things and told the coaches I was done,'' he says. "At 18 years of age, I knew everything about the world.
"During the winter break, Barnett and (running backs coach) John Wristen came to my house. I was defiant and they kept telling me I was going to play a significant role in the future of Northwestern football. Players were calling me and I was avoiding them as much as possible. They finally convinced me to give them one more year.''
What few people realize is Autry actually quit the team twice before the summer of '95. By the end of the spring quarter, his bags were packed again for a return to Tempe.
"I told my dad of my decision and he told me I had promised Barnett one more year, which meant playing another season,'' he says. "In my mind, the year was up in June.
"I started looking at junior colleges and finally decided to go back to Evanston, but I was pissed. I was going to have to deal with another camp in Kenosha, the bad weather and I was changing my major. I was angry that offseason and I was going to prove I was much better than people thought I was.''
The Wildcats were also much better than people thought they were. It all started with that victory at Notre Dame.
"It didn't hit me that the '95 season could be special until after the Notre Dame game,'' Autry says. "Every team talks about championships as their goal, but we still had to prove it. Coming out of camp, we had tremendous chemistry. By beating Notre Dame we proved we were as good as we thought we'd be.
"No one was giving us any credit before the game. We had veterans on our defense, but what did that really mean? On offense, we had a sophomore running back, a new quarterback and several new faces on the offensive line.
"After that win, no words could describe the excitement and relief we felt,'' he added. "I realized how much I loved these guys I played with and we rode it out all together. It was a shared experience; we knew we had something special and our passion for the game was going through the roof.''
But the game that really stood out in Autry's mind was the 21-10 victory over Penn State. He scored all three of the Cats' touchdowns and rushed for 139 yards.
"We got trampled the previous year at Penn State,'' he says. "Here we were, a sold out night game, national TV, Joe Paterno, the last big name on our schedule and we had all the attention of the world.''
Autry still has mixed feelings about some of the attention. The following week, he appeared on the cover of SI.
"We were aware Northwestern would be on the cover the following week,'' he says. "I was so excited there was so much interest in our program and we were getting all this media attention every week. But when that cover came out, and it was just me, I had mixed feelings. Football is the ultimate team sport and we all should have been on that cover, like maybe a photo of the team coming out of the tunnel. It was such a weird sensation.''
The magical ride ended with the loss to Southern California in the Rose Bowl. Like many of his teammates at the time, Autry didn't really grasp what that season had meant to the Northwestern community.
"As far as I was concerned, we left a win on the table,'' he says. "We should have won that game and we didn't accomplish that. But as I've gotten older, I feel differently now.''
Now living in Phoenix, Autry has been working as a wine associate for Total Wine and More for the past year. He is still chasing that entertainment dream, heading Team Autry Productions. He has a couple of shows in the works, but has yet to receive a bite from one of the networks.
Autry still helps out Northwestern in any way possible. Returning for this week's 20th reunion of the Rose Bowl team, he will be making an appearance with Michael Wilbon for Under Armour Thursday night and serving on a discussion panel Friday on campus.
WildcatReport's Catching Up series: