Football players at Northwestern University addressed the media for the first time since a hazing investigation rocked the program, leading to the firing of Pat Fitzgerald and a slew of lawsuits filed against the school.

“They understand that these aren’t calm waters. They are turbulent,” interim head coach David Braun said. “In some regards they are facing the storm.”

That theme of overcoming adversity has been one sounded often by the Wildcats since Fitzgerald’s dismissal, including during Braun’s remarks at Big Ten Media Days in Indianapolis last month.

Several players, including linebacker Bryce Gallagher and wide receiver Bryce Kirtz, were supposed to address media in Indianapolis, but opted out of the availability. They both spoke to media on Wednesday in Evanston.

“We have really just stuck together through all of this,” Gallagher said. “Checking in with each other to make sure everyone is doing okay through this difficult time, especially the younger guys who just got here. Just looking out for them.”

While most players did not comment directly on the allegations against Fitzgerald and the program, there were still some shows of support for the former coach, with some staffers and coaches wearing t-shirts that said “Cats Against the World,” along with Fitzgerald’s No. 51 jersey number.

That decision sparked immediate criticism, and Vice President of Athletics and Recreation Derrick Gragg issued a statement on the matter.  

“I am extremely disappointed that a few members of our football program decided to wear ‘Cats Against the World’ t-shirts,” Gragg said. “Neither I, nor the university, were aware that they owned or would wear those shirts today. The shirts are inappropriate, offensive and tone deaf. Let me be crystal clear: hazing has no place at Northwestern, and we are committed to do whatever is necessary to address hazing-related issues, including thoroughly investigating any incidents or allegations of hazing or any other misconduct.”

Braun called the matter one of free speech.

“It certainly isn’t my business to censor anyone’s free speech,” he said.

Braun also spoke about his ongoing relationship with Fitzgerald, whose son Jack is still on the Wildcats’ roster.

“Coach Fitz and his family brought me in under their roof for two months,” he said. “The relationship with Pat is much deeper than just as someone I worked for six months.”

Northwestern is currently facing numerous lawsuits from former players that alleged intense hazing rituals during their time with the program. Several have directly named Fitzgerald and former Northwestern AD Mark Murphy, now the CEO of the Green Bay Packers.

With all of the turmoil, which has included several high-profile recruits decommitting from the programs, players are insisting that they will focus on football in the weeks ahead.

“Our main focus is to win games and stick together,” defensive back Rod Heard said. “That’s a big aspect of what we’ve been trying to do as a team.”

Northwestern will kick off their 2023 season on Sept. 3 with a Sunday game against Rutgers. Their home schedule will get underway on Sept. 9 against UTEP in Evanston.