Making the Most of Opportunities

Feb. 7, 2008

D'Wayne Bates has always tried to approach life by taking advantage of opportunities when presented and making the most of them.  Whether that be traveling from the South to play football at Northwestern, adjusting to defenses as a wide receiver on the field, becoming a professional football player, or taking online classes for a degree so he could become an educator, Bates has rarely been one to shy away from opportunity.

And now the Northwestern Hall of Famer, who initially hadn't given any thought to becoming a Wildcat, still lives and works in Evanston, just down the street from where he made quite an impact at Ryan Field.

Born and raised in Jackson, S.C., Bates learned the value of a strong work ethic at an early age.  Raised on a farm by a single mother, Bates' chores ranged from basic gardening to feeding the chickens and pigs, and of course, cleaning up after them as well.  He says life was about survival back then, trying to make it day-to-day, knowing that his way of living was dependent on his work on the farm.

By contrast, Bates says sports were easy for him.  He was a highly touted, two-sport standout in high school, having been a baseball prospect that was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays and an option quarterback that a number of colleges were longing for.

Most of the schools were from the South, primarily out of the ACC and SEC conferences.  He was sure that his top-two choices were NC State and Georgia.  But as signing day drew closer, Bates wondered if there was life outside the South and if so, what it was like.

When Northwestern was one of the last schools to get into the recruiting process, Bates looked at it as an opportunity.

"During the recruiting process, I was looking to stay close to home, but as it got closer to signing day, I looked at my life and thought I needed to go somewhere I had never been to," he said.  "Northwestern was my last choice of schools of all the schools that recruited me for football and the only reason I looked at them was because it was a prestigious school known for its academics.  I saw Chicago and Evanston and said `take that opportunity.'"

At Northwestern, Bates was quickly converted from quarterback to wide receiver.  It did not take long for him to make the best of another opportunity.

His first collegiate game was a road contest against the Fighting Irish at the historic Notre Dame Stadium.  This was one of Bates' most exciting and memorable experiences in his football career because he grew up a huge Notre Dame fame in South Carolina.  He talks about the days of watching standout "Rocket" Ismail make unbelievable plays, while head coach Lou Holtz paced the sidelines.  

"Standing on the field that first time was amazing," he said.  "It was like a dream come true.  It wasn't until kickoff that I realized I wasn't dreaming."

At that time of Northwestern football, the Wildcats boasted a potent rushing attack behind Heisman Trophy finalist Darnell Autry.  Despite playing in his first game and first at the wide receiver position, Bates knew to block for Autry first and then look for the pass.

But when he noticed that Notre Dame's defense was moving toward the line of scrimmage with hopes of containing Autry, the young freshman wideout went to the sidelines looking for an opportunity.

"I told our quarterback, our offensive coordinator and receivers coach that they weren't guarding the post route," he said.  "They were looking to contain Darnell and I thought we could catch them off guard."

Sure enough, Bates' play was called and he caught a post route for a touchdown and later converted a third down late in the game that helped seal a 17-15 win over the Irish.

Bates continued his impressive play throughout his rookie season, leading Northwestern with 49 catches and 889 yards, both of which were Big Ten freshman records.  Most importantly, Bates helped lead the Wildcats to the 1996 Rose Bowl, where he shined in the spotlight with seven catches for 145 yards in a 41-32 loss to USC.

"That whole year was just a tribute to my teammates," he said.  "We had a good team and I think I was a part of that.  The biggest thing for me was to take advantage of the opportunities when they came along."
In what was arguably Northwestern's best passing game of the season, the Rose Bowl loss gave Bates a great deal of confidence leading into his sophomore season where he again posted impressive numbers.  He also led the Wildcats to their second consecutive conference championship.

But in 1997, Bates' junior season, Northwestern was poised to start its journey for a third-straight league title when things went wrong.

In the season opener against Oklahoma, Bates broke his ankle and fibula, something he referred to as more of a physical injury.

"It was a mental setback," he said.  "I learned a lot during rehab and had to work harder to get myself better than I was before.  I think my work ethic came through there, because in rehab you tend to work harder than you would if you were totally healthy."

Bates did return for his senior season with career highs in catches (83) and receiving yards (1,245), and was named first-team All-Conference for a second time.  He ended his career second on the all-time Big Ten list for receiving yards and second in receptions.  His marks of 210 receptions and 3,370 yards are still school records and now fifth and sixth, respectively, among conference receivers - two rankings equally impressive seeing that Bates played only three full seasons.

Opportunity knocked once again in 1999 when the Chicago Bears selected Bates as the 71st overall pick in the NFL Draft.  The man who once came to Northwestern with no dreams of playing professionally, was at home with his mother and a couple of family members when the phone call came from the Bears.  The fact that he was already in the Chicago area was added comfort.  Bates has already created a name and a rapport with the Chicago media and he did not have to move, both major bonuses as he points out.

Bates was primarily used on special teams and as the fourth or fifth receiver with the Bears in his three-year stint in Chicago.  He was moved to the Minnesota Vikings where his career took off.

D'Wayne Bates first played at the wide receiver position in this game against Notre Dame. His efforts as a wideout would eventually lead him to the NFL.

"When I got my opportunity with Minnesota, it came back to making the most of it," he said.  "I was playing with two future Hall of Famers in Randy Moss and Daunte Culpepper."

In fact, Bates hauled in 50 passes in his first season as a Viking in 2002, more than three times the 15 total receptions he had totaled in three years with the Bears.  He scored four touchdowns that year and averaged 50 yards receiving per game.  In 2003, he caught just 15 passes on the year and averaged 15 yards per outing.  Bates was shipped to Tampa Bay and was cut after a month.  He returned to Evanston with the hopes of still playing in the NFL.  He trained constantly, but decided to retire from the game in 2005.

It was at that time Bates began volunteering at a nearby high school and started coaching as well.  He speaks proudly of his post-NFL days because he knows that he is someone kids can look up to.  After all, he worked hard and accomplished things only few have done.

"I think I represented something or someone that kids were interested in," Bates said.  "Kids were excited to hear I graduated from Northwestern and played in the NFL.  When they hear about my background, having come from a poor, single-mother household, I could tell that I give them hope.  If you work hard and put yourself in position in life, good things will happen.  My mom couldn't pay my college tuition, so I knew I had to earn a scholarship."

And in order to become a full-time teacher, Bates knew he had to work hard and put himself in a position to do so.  While he was coaching at Evanston Township High School, Bates observed history and social sciences teachers and completed his master's work online with the University of Phoenix.  He had wisely saved his money from the NFL and was able to spend the next two years following retirement making the most of a new opportunity. 

Today, Bates has reached his ultimate dream.  He is teaching U.S. and World History at the high school and is looking to now give back to Northwestern for all the opportunities it provided him.  He still stays in contact with Wildcat head football coach Pat Fitzgerald, with whom he played in college.

"I remember when D'Wayne first came to Northwestern he was practicing as the scout team quarterback and we couldn't cover him on defense," said Fitzgerald.  "And off the field and in the locker room there was no better person in the country than D'Wayne Bates.  The best thing I remember that happened to him was that his character and who he was never changed."

Bates was inducted into the Northwestern Hall of Fame in 2005, an honor which he calls the greatest accolade he has ever received.  He admits to have watched so many Hall of Fame events in the past for the sole reason of watching an athlete receive the ultimate honor.  He says he never envisioned that one day he would receive both a letter and a phone call from Northwestern regarding that ultimate honor.    

"I love my NFL career, but for Northwestern to give me that honor and to be placed with the other great student-athletes in the Hall, you realize you are just one of a few and it is very humbling."

It all seems a little surreal when looking back at what Bates has been able to accomplish during his time in the Evanston community.  For a young high school prep star who once had no intentions on leaving the South, Bates has grown into a man respected by a university, a conference, and certainly several local kids in the Midwest.

Several opportunities have come his way throughout life, but even he admits that none would have happened had it not been for that initial one of coming to Northwestern.

And did he ever make the most of it.