Purple Reign

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In just a few short days, Evanston will be filled with alumni. Thousands of alumni. All decked out in purple and celebrating "Purple Reign," a 100-year-old tradition that we like to call Homecoming. Already, one of my former teammates has made my couch her home for the week.

So what's all this about Homecoming? When did it start? Why do we celebrate it? To answer these questions I headed over to the library and made my way into the University Archives, a small room lined with bookshelves filled to the top with school history.

University Archivist Kevin Leonard hands me an old black book when I arrive, pages brown with age and tattered at the edges. It's embossed in gold- The Northwestern- and dates back to the 1800s. We tenderly flip open its cover and search through the dilapidated collection of student-written pieces until we stumble across this:

"Next Saturday, we will witness the first alumni game in the history of Northwestern," it reads. "Present students will have an opportunity of seeing former heroes in their old places."

The piece is dated back to November 18, 1897 and marked the unofficial 'beginning' of Homecoming. That Saturday, alumni were defeated by the varsity football squad 25-0 in a game that kick-started the tradition of trekking back to Evanston. Over the next decade Northwestern alumni would continue to return to campus once a year; the event officially being named "Homecoming" in 1911.

Leonard hands me a stack of newspaper articles labeled 'Homecoming', and I delicately finger through tales of pep rallies, dances, mixers, auto parades, and home decorations. I read that by 1936, the festivities had grown to nearly 10,000 alumni gathering in Evanston, and with a chuckle, I find that students were outraged when a 40-year tradition was broken when the decision was made to give funds for the 1937 parade to charity instead.

The articles spoke of Homecoming 1942 as a somber affair due to World War II and detailed Homecoming 1965 as the year in which students pushed to make the event even more grandiose. The stack of black and white photographs that Leonard has left on my table depict Northwestern University Marching Band members from the 1920s and Northwestern cheerleaders in a 1930s parade. The homecoming queen contest was started in 1956 and I flip through pictures of candidates all dolled up in puffy white dresses.

Article after article raves about the 1968 Dionne Warwick performance before a sell-out crowd of 5,000 in honor of the alumni. A newspaper clipping gushes about the 1981 Homecoming parade's grand marshal -- an All-American quarterback who held Northwestern's record for most points in a single game -- Otto Graham. And near the end of the stack I discover a list of past homecoming themes: "Willie's Wonderland" in 1957 and "Get Your Ya-Ya's Out" in 1973, to name a few.

Finally, Leonard brings me an piece by 1972 Daily Northwestern writer Holly Sembrat: "Homecoming parade supporters come in different shapes and sizes," she writes. "Their ages range from 3 to 80 and beyond. But they share the belief that laughing out loud and huddling next to strangers to keep warm will be a good way to spend tomorrow evening." 

Apparently, some things never change.

Because as I look over the mess that I've made in the archives, papers spilling onto the chairs next to me and photos wreaking havoc across my table, I come to the realization that Homecoming is much more than the parades and the concerts and the games. On Saturday when Ryan FIeld is packed with alumni and students alike, it will be more than just a game we commemorate once a year.

Homecoming is a celebration that transcends time; a tribute to those that have gone before, those that are here now and those yet to come. It is a platform and a gateway into the legacy of what it means to wear purple. 

So I close that big black book and pile high the folders. I push in my chair and walk out into Evanston's autumn wind, smiling as I remember all that it truly means to be a Wildcat.

[Note: This piece was re-worked from its original publication in Northwestern's football magazine, The Den.]

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