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Hyundai Fanthropology: Following Northern Illinois from Iraq

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A conversation with Ryan Hietpas, an NIU fan that even followed the Huskies after he was deployed overseas.

For the first part of Fanthropology, we asked NIU fans to share their stories about what makes them the biggest fan. We crowned one fan the winner and now we get to know a little bit more about him. Every other college blog on the SB Nation network is doing this as well and the best story wins an expense-paid trip to the bowl game of their choice.

Ryan Hietpas is one of the most dedicated Northern Illinois Huskie fans on the planet. You may know him from the handle "niuguy" as a commenter here and on the Dog Pound message board. In a timely manner, he fell in love when the Huskies right around the time they were first ranked as high as #12 in the BCS in 2003. As with so many Huskie fans (myself included), those dream seasons of the early 2000s build the solid foundation of the program you see today. He never stopped being a Huskie fan, even through two separate tours in Iraq. How did he manage to keep up with the NIU Huskies overseas? Here is an exchange with a true fan:

RABA: What were some of your reasons for choosing Northern Illinois University?

RH: I attended NIU from 2000-2005. When looking for a school, I wanted a bigger state school that was fairly close to Chicagoland. I knew NIU had a solid business program with many links to businesses in the area. Northern also allowed me to get away from home while still being within reach.

I majored in Operations and Information Management in the School of Business. The program was a great blend of business and technology that has benefited me to this day.

RABA: What got you hooked on the NIU football team?

RH: Like many other NIU fans, the 2002 and 2003 seasons got me completely hooked. In 2002, #20 ranked Bowling Green came in to town and the atmosphere was electric. The win was huge and made me realize that our football team (and school) was something to be really proud of.

2003 opened with a bang with a night game against #15 Maryland. The atmosphere was even more awesome than the 2002 Bowling Green game. I remember PJ Fleck's game-winning catch like it was yesterday. With additional big wins against Alabama and Iowa State, the Huskies were ranked #12 in the country until we lost a couple games and fell out of the running for the MAC Championship. The losses were devastating but I was already hooked and there was no going back.

After the 2002 season up until I left for the Army after the 2005 season, I made nearly every home game. Even though I was still pretty poor, I scraped together enough money to attend the 2004 bowl game in San Jose. I joined the Huskie Road Crew and we were at every game. It was a great experience with a lot of great people.

RABA: When were you deployed to Iraq and how did you end up there?

RH: After a year as an IT Consultant, I was in a bit of a rut and looking for a change, so I enlisted in the Army as a cavalry Scout. So I joined in January 2006 and by August I was in Iraq. My first tour wasn't long; it was only from August 2006 to November 2006. My second deployment was much longer, it was from April 2008 to June 2009.

RABA: What were some of the difficulties of following the team while you were deployed?

RH: Following the team was tough, but my mother was supportive and made sure I received every game on DVD. Other guys on my platoon thought I was a little nuts. I wore my class ring out on patrol and my small NIU flag rode under my seat in my HMMWV. Most of them were fans of teams like Texas, Alabama and Michigan. When they got to see Garrett Wolfe though, they were impressed. I found that people respect a true fan no matter who they root for.

During my second deployment I scored a huge NIU flag that I nailed into the concrete wall next to my bunk. There was no way anyone was going to walk by room and not see the Huskies!

I've been active on the NIU message boards since 2004 so I've developed a lot of real life friends who, when I came back 5 years later, welcomed me back with open arms. It was like I never left.

RABA: What are some of your gameday rituals?

RH: My fiancee and I always wear the same gear. My jersey is a Michael Turner jersey from 2003 and she has a Josh Haldi jersey from 2004. We tailgate at the Huskiemobile. We've been tailgating with the same vehicle in the same spot since I began going to games. It's a blast and open to anyone who wants to tag along!

I had to be in Raleigh for work during the game against Toledo. It was the only home game I missed. Missing the game was devastating but I ran into a Toledo alumni group get together at a Buffalo Wild Wings so that made watching the game on TV much more fun.

RABA: What's your favorite part of being an NIU fan?

RH: My favorite part of being an NIU Huskies fan is that we have such a tight group of fans. We get far closer to the team than fans of bigger programs. A Huskie fan gets to meet the players and the coaches and other fans. I feel a bond with the program that is much closer than any other sports team I've been a fan of. The program also places an emphasis on education that I'm very proud of. I boast about NIU athletics' scholastic success as much as I boast about our wins.

It's so much easier to be a fan of big schools with huge budgets and millions of fans. I don't want any part of that. While I want the program to grow and succeed, I don't want us ever to lose our identity. I don't think we ever will.

A big thank you to Ryan for his time answering these questions for us. GO HUSKIES!!