A Reel Epic

National runner-up season seems taken from the big screen


Leading the Raiders to a national runner-up finish, Tyson Kooima was named the NAIA player of the year. He led the nation in passing, completing 65% of his attempts for 3,882 yards and 31 TDs, breaking numerous school records in the process.

A movie scriptwriter couldn’t come up with a better plot line than the Northwestern football team’s 2020–21 season.

Start with a group of seniors who were recruited when the Raiders were 3-7 under their first-year head coach. Over four years, their teams qualify for the national playoffs each season and lose only eight games.

Throw in a global pandemic that alters protocols for games and practices and upends the schedule. For the first time ever, the season is extended into the spring semester after the Raiders finish 8-1 in the fall.

Focus on head coach Matt McCarty ’03, who emphasizes building a culture of pursuing excellence every day and overcoming adversity.

Show amazing footage of the NAIA’s national-player-of-the-year quarterback Tyson Kooima and his receiving corps, including three-time All-American Shane Solberg.

Use music to create tension as the Raiders travel to Des Moines to play second-ranked Grand View in a quarterfinal-round playoff game April 24. Northwestern is down 14-0 early in the second quarter. A quarterback sack for a safety by Trevor Rozeboom at the start of the third period makes the score 14-9 and provides NWC momentum. With 1:03 left in the game, Eli Stader converts on a 21-yard field goal to give the Raiders a 27-24 victory.

Coach McCarty talks at practice the following week about the opportunity to face perennial nemesis Morningside in the semifinal-round game in Sioux City. News stories highlight the top-ranked Mustangs’ dominance. They are the two-time defending national champions, boasting a 39-game winning streak, 10 straight GPAC titles, and seven consecutive wins over the Raiders.

Drone footage shows a crowded Olsen Stadium on May 1 as close-ups of sweat-drenched players reveal the 90-degree temperatures. Potent offenses trade blows as the scoreboard advances. Visitors 9, Home 14 … 16-27 … 29-34 … 36-41.

With 1:49 remaining, the Raiders get the ball on their own 9-yard line. Kooima leads the team to the Morningside 23. The scoreboard shows 16 seconds left and third down as Kooima takes the snap, scrambles and heaves the ball into the end zone. A receiver, well defended, snags it for the go-ahead touchdown. The Raider receiver is Michael Storey, and it doesn’t take long for people to post on social media about Northwestern’s “Storey-book ending.”

But wait. As Raider fans go crazy, Kooima is in pain on the field for several minutes. He has suffered a debilitating Achilles heel injury and needs help getting to the sideline after setting a single-game school record of 490 yards passing. The backup quarterback, who has attempted only 14 passes this season, comes in. Blake Fryar keeps the ball and runs for the two-point conversion, giving the Raiders a 44-41 lead.

Morningside moves into Northwestern territory, but Solberg—who hasn’t made a reception all game and is playing with a torn ACL and two broken ribs—breaks up the Mustangs’ Hail Mary pass with 2 seconds left. Northwestern is going to the national championship game for the sixth time in school history and the first time since 1984.

In a press conference preceding the title game versus Lindsey Wilson, reporters hurl question after question about how the Raiders can fare with Kooima on the sidelines.

“Tyson really transformed our program,” McCarty responds. “He is such a playmaker. [But] when we were recruiting Blake, we felt he could help us win a championship. We have a ton of confidence in him.

“This is the perfect group for such a unique year,” he continues. “They really embraced all the adversity that came their way.”

Hundreds of cheering NWC fans line the road to the locker room as the Northwestern buses arrive at Grambling State University’s Eddie G. Robinson Stadium for the title game on May 10. “I got chills,” Coach McCarty later says. “That was pretty awesome.”

Early in the Red Raiders’ first defensive stand, All-American safety Noah Van’t Hof suffers a high-ankle sprain that renders him unable to compete. Quarterback Fryar throws for 157 yards and two touchdowns. But two Lindsey Wilson TDs in the third quarter give the Blue Raiders a 31-7 lead, and Northwestern falls, 45-13.

The next day, parents and fans greet the team in the Rowenhorst Student Center. “Red Raider fans are awesome,” McCarty tells the crowd. “It felt like home games in Des Moines, Sioux City and Louisiana. It’s a great feeling to be welcomed back.”

The team’s 10 graduating seniors—who were in Louisiana on the day of commencement—wear flip-flops or gym shoes and short pants under their gowns as they receive their diploma covers from President Greg Christy.

Later that week, Kooima undergoes surgery. Coach McCarty tells a reporter the quarterback is considering coming back next season since eligibility has been extended due to the pandemic. The doctor says an early fall return to action could be possible.

Fade to black.

Perhaps there will be a sequel?


More than 500 Red Raider fans cheered on the team at the national championship game in Grambling, Louisiana.

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