At its root, football is football. Whether at the peewee, high school or big-time college level, football is still football.
Ethan Wiederkehr is reminded of that every so often when he steps onto the football field for Northwestern University.
“When you get to this level where coaches are paid like millions to coach, I thought this game would turn into more of a business, but the relationships are built with teammates and my coaches,” he said. “It felt more like the game of football that I loved, that I loved in high school, that I loved growing up, and it’s the same old thing. Even when I’m out in warmups and there’s 90-plus thousand people in the crowd, I always think to myself how this is just the game I grew up [with] when my dad was helping me tie my cleats. It’s the same old thing, and on the field it’s bigger, faster and stronger, but what it comes down to, it’s still the game of football.”
From his early days of youth football with the Long Island Sound Sharks to his championship seasons with Shoreham-Wading River High School to his current time with Northwestern, Wiederkehr still derives the same joy. Of course, the big difference now, as a starting offensive lineman in the Big Ten, is he’s performing on a much grander stage.
Wiederkehr, a 6-5, 295-pound junior, started in eight of nine games this past season for Northwestern (7-2), a 35-19 winner over Auburn in the 75th Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 in Orlando, Fla.
Following a stellar high school career, Wiederkehr transitioned from playing for the SWR Wildcats to the Northwestern Wildcats.
“It’s been an unreal experience,” he said. “I love every moment of it.”
At SWR, Wiederkehr played primarily as a blocking tight end and defensive end, helping the Wildcats to a 34-2 record and three Long Island championships. He started on both sides of the ball in every game during that three-year championship run.
A highly rated recruit, he was showered with awards following his senior season. He was the USA Today New York State Defensive Player of the Year. The All-State first team player received awards from the Suffolk County Football Coaches Association as the top defensive player and top lineman in Suffolk.
Still, it was a huge jump, going from Suffolk Division IV to the Big Ten. Wiederkehr built up his size and strength while redshirting his freshman year. He appeared in three games and was an Academic All-Big Ten selection in 2018. In 2019 he was a backup for both tackles, appearing in all 12 games and making three starts. This past season he played right guard.
Pass blocking was something Wiederkehr had to work on since SWR ran the ball primarily. With pass blocking, he said: “There’s a little bit more finesse and if you do it wrong, the QB gets sacked, so there’s more of a spotlight on you. I’d rather push a 300-pound guy and run the ball right at him.”
“It’s been an unreal experience. I love every moment of it.”Ethan Wiederkehr
Football may be in the family genes. Wiederkehr’s father, Hans, played for Syracuse and spent some time with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“He’s been more of a mental rock in my life,” Ethan said. “He’s always there to help me out with school or just personal life, and he’s been an amazing father that way.”
Hans coached his son from eighth through 12th grade and was SWR’s defensive coordinator on those three Long Island champion teams. He and his wife, Karen, who live in South Carolina, made 17-hour drives north to watch their son play this past season.
“It’s a lot harder because it’s the first time you just don’t have any input,” said Hans, a member of the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame. “There’s no input on what he does. So, you just kind of hope that what you have instilled in him in those years, you know, comes out on the field. It’s probably one of the most difficult things that I’ve ever done. It’s just, now you’re in the stands instead of the sidelines.”
Asked if he sees any of himself in the way Ethan plays, Hans said: “He’s a lot smarter. He’s a lot more cognitive of what he does. Players today are just a lot smarter.”
Wiederkehr isn’t the only SWR graduate playing NCAA Division I football. Xavier Arline is a freshman quarterback for Navy who started and played almost the entire Army-Navy game. Suffolk has other players who have played in the Big Ten recently. Former Sayville quarterback Jack Coan was with Wisconsin (he has since announced plans to transfer to Notre Dame for his senior season) and Ohio State junior receiver Jeremy Ruckert, who played in a 52-24 College Football Playoff national championship loss to Alabama Monday night, is from Lindenhurst.
A typical day for Ethan this past season went like this: morning practice, film study, recovery and then afternoon online classes. He was pretty much confined to the football facility and the house he is living in.
That may explain why the team, including staff, didn’t see a single positive COVID-19 test this past season. “We stayed in what we called our football bubble and we were really disciplined and we won the battle on the field and off the field this year,” said Ethan.
Ethan said he still reflects on his high school days.
“Those were really some glory days of mine,” he said. “I played football with guys that I grew up with my entire childhood. Playing ball with those guys was so much fun, and even before games sometimes, I’ll look around at the big stadium and just think about my days when I played peewee with the Sharks with all my buddies I grew up with, where I started and where I came from, and it’s just a surreal experience.”