Editor’s note: The following is the first of a two-part interview between NewsTribune Sports Writer Chris Yucus and former Northwestern standout and NFL wide receiver D’Wayne Bates, who took over as director of athletics and activities at La Salle-Peru Township High School this summer. The first part of the interview will focus on Bates’ life before and during his professional football career, while the second part — which will run next Thursday — will look at his life post-football and his path to La Salle-Peru.
NewsTribune: Before your career in education you played professional football. Growing up, was it a goal of yours to become a pro athlete?
Bates: I’d say it was probably more of a dream. As a kid growing up in the small town of Jackson, South Carolina — 1,600 farmers, very similar to the L-P area — I always dreamed of making it to college and making it as a pro. So I played as many sports as I could — football, basketball, baseball and track. It wasn’t necessarily one sport. I was thinking that any one of them could give me an opportunity.
NT: You say you grew up in a rural area, did you live on a farm?
Bates: I grew up on a farm. We had a lot of vegetables, corn — like I see around here — beans, tomatoes. We had a chicken coop, so at times I had fresh eggs every morning. We had a neighborhood cow pasture where we could sneak around and milk cows if we wanted to — did cow tipping at night. So definitely for the first 18 years of my life, I was a true farmer.
NT: You played a lot of sports growing up, did you always excel at sports?
Bates: It depends on how you define ‘excel.’ I always tried to be the best when I stepped into any arena, whether it be football, basketball, baseball or track. I always made it my goal to be the best out there. Some people may have seen me as excelling. All I know is I wanted to walk off the field knowing that I competed the best that I could to my ability. I always wanted to walk off with someone saying, ‘that kid is pretty good.’
NT: Playing multiple sports gave you several different opportunities out of high school, how did you end up playing collegiate football?
Bates: That’s one of the biggest reasons I played multiple sports and why my philosophy here is to motivate kids to participate in multiple sports. You never know which one is going to pan out come senior year. While I thought I was better as a basketball player, I was only 6-1 1/2 — and baseball ended up statistically being my best sport. I was drafted out of high school by Toronto and had a lot of letters from across the nation for a chance to go play baseball. I also did track during baseball. I wasn’t Mr. Super Jet-man, but I ran the 100 about 10.7 and the 400 in about 50 seconds.
I was pretty busy as a high school student year round, but I think at the end of the day, all of that prepared me to be a great football player. Not even knowing it, baseball helped me become a better quarterback throwing the ball. Track helped with my speed and basketball helped with my agility. All of it kind of came together on the football field and helped me become a dynamic football player.
NT: After growing up down south, was going to college at Northwestern a big change for you?
Bates: A huge change. Probably the most culture-shocked I’ve ever been. People ask me, ‘Why did you choose Northwestern?’ I simply say that I took football out of the equation. All the schools I was recruited by I took football out of the equation and said, ‘Where am I going to enjoy being a student and a person for the next four years of my life?’ Academically, it was an easy choice, and socially being next to a city like Chicago you couldn’t find a better location. … It’s of the major cities in the United States and a small-town farm boy was going to get an opportunity to go there on scholarship for four years.
NT: Eventually at Northwestern you had a big change on the football field as well, moving from quarterback to wide receiver. What was that transition like for you?
Bates: Coming out of high school we won two state titles while I was the starting quarterback, and also the two years we lost, we lost to the eventual state champions. ... When I went to Northwestern I felt like they were honest up front, saying they’d bring me in as a quarterback, but to keep in mind they would be trying me at other positions.
I got there my first year and played quarterback. I was even scout-team player of the week when we played Air Force because I could do the option. I prepared our defense very well that week — going up against (current Northwestern coach) Pat Fitzgerald with the triple-threat option, we had a lot of battles.
Later in the year, we had a couple of receivers on the scout team get hurt and I moved over to fill in a position, and gosh, did I have fun. I guess as a quarterback I knew the plays and I knew what the quarterback was looking for in the offense, so I made a lot of plays on the scout team at wide receiver and kind of stayed there the rest of the year.
Coming into the freshman year of spring ball, I asked the coach if I could try out some at wide receiver even though I was still getting some reps at quarterback. Within the first week it was just a natural transition — I scored a touchdown in our first scrimmage. The more reps I got the more confident I got. With Steve Schnur and all the quarterbacks at the time, I knew exactly what they wanted me to do because I still looked at it from the quarterback’s perspective. I felt that gave me a huge advantage at receiver.
NT: You went on to have a Hall of Fame career at receiver for Northwestern. I’m sure you have a ton of highlights, but does anything stick out from the experience for you?
Bates: I think the transition from quarterback to receiver and just being able to compete in the Big Ten. It’s one of the most respected conferences in college football. You’re right, when I look back, there’s a lot of catches and a lot of highlights. But I look at the teams we competed against — Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin — you name them, top 10 defenses, and what my team and I were able to accomplish week in and week out over the years. I see that as one of the greatest accomplishments I’ve ever personally achieved.
NT: What was it like being drafted into the National Football League by the Bears?
Bates: It was a dream. I went to college and had some successful seasons, but it wasn’t until my junior year that I saw the reality that ‘Wow, I could finally go pro.’
My junior year I was slated to go as second receiver — either Randy Moss or I was supposed to go first — and I ended up breaking my leg the first game of the season versus Oklahoma. It was kind of — no pun intended — a dream shattered. But that’s why I chose Northwestern. If football didn’t work out I knew I was going to have an excellent degree to go out and pursue a career.
I was able to come back my senior year and had my best season ever (83 reception for 1,245 yards) and got a chance to be drafted. I actually flew home during draft week to spend the time with my mom and my immediate family. I didn’t want the big party. I just wanted to be where I came from. I wanted to be around the people that truly made it possible — my family that allowed me 18 years to grow up.
When my name was called across the screen, it was a dream come true. I think I was just frozen for a second. My family was all screaming and I just wasn’t hearing anything. Mel Kiper Jr. was on the TV and I saw my highlights on the screen and I was the first pick of the third round for the Chicago Bears. (I just had) the thoughts of the things that I was going to be able to provide for my family that we never had, and not just financially — a life lesson that if you set your goals high and work to achieve them with the right decisions along the way, things like this can happen. If it can happen to me from a small town it can happen to anybody.
NT: What are your thoughts on your pro career with the Bears and Vikings?
Bates: I’m not a Hall of Fame player and I never judge success by statistics by any means. I enjoyed it. It was six great years playing at that level against some Hall of Fame-caliber guys. The biggest thing I was proud of was that I was able to go and hold my own. You come out of college and people always ask ‘Is he going to pan out at the next level?’ I felt that I was able to endure five seasons with two teams and really prove the NFL didn’t waste a draft pick.
The average is 2.8 years and I was able to almost double that so I have no regrets about my experience there. I knew it was short term and playing would eventually open doors for another opportunity.
NT: Do you keep up with any of your former teammates?
Bates: The only player left from when I was on the Bears is Brian Urlacher. We see each other a lot at alumni or other charity events. (I see) Marty Booker, a lot of the wide receivers like Dez White, and (quarterback) Jim Miller I see at a lot of charity events. Big Cat Williams, Jerry Azumah — a lot of the Bears are my closer friends because I went to Northwestern and was drafted by them and had a big tie-in with Chicago.
One of my best friends from high school was Corey Chavous and we played on the Vikings together for two years. We stay in touch like every day. Randomly, like two weeks ago, I got a text from Daunte Culpepper. I was like, ‘Hey, what’s up?’
I go to as many alumni events as I can because it’s good to catch up with the guys and really see what we’re doing after the pro career. Because one thing I learned from my career is that we are role models, and we can do a lot of good just by going back and sharing with the youth and the community. Just share some of the experiences we’ve had and hopefully some of the life lessons.
Chris Yucus can be reached at 220-6939, or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_SportsChris.