My high school created a boy's swim team my freshman year. We didn't have a pool, so we drove out to Lockport every afternoon to swim in a public community pool that was overheated and overchlorinated. We went through three head coaches before I graduated.
The first lasted two years but left when the school decided he was as bad a teacher as he was a coach.
The second lasted a year, not really doing anything.
My senior year they hired the man who is still coaching the program that is now based at a local YMCA that was built when I moved to Champaign. Coach Sam was the first swim coach I'd ever had that I remember actually liking and respecting. The team bought into what he was preaching and the results showed.
Mid-December every year we went to an invitational up in Evergreen Park. We were a small team, so invitationals were our best showings. While watching the younger swimmers warm up between events, I stood at the back of the deck with my coach, staring at what I knew would be my last time walking across that pool deck. He noticed what was going through my head and asked "Are you sure you're a senior?" I laughed and remember wishing I'd had better coaching the previous three years. I was good, but never really had the chance to meet my full potential.
I think of that every Senior Day.
You're watching a collection of young men play what is probably (for most of them) their last football game. Their main role in life up to that very minute was to play football. And then the final whistle is blown and what's left? Now they're just like the people in the stands. The dream is over and you're left wishing you could have done more or things didn't have to end. You're staring at the grass that will never support you again. You're getting older and slower and nothing can stop it. You lose the ability to lie to yourself and pretend that you're immortal because just like that, you're forced to acknowledge that you aren't. You die a little bit that day. Welcome to the only game in town.
Getting emotionally attached to players is one of the stupidest and most wonderful parts of being a sports fan, especially in college sports. These kids have four years at most to try and win as much as humanly possible in a game that's stacked against them. It's a mug's game straight from the start and we all know it. But we all buy in because being a part of something bigger than you is fun and helps you connect with other people. It makes getting through the bad times easier and celebrating the good times better. And if you're lucky, there are a lot more of the latter than the former.
For the tenure of his Illini career, Nathan Scheelhaase was not lucky. He played for two head coaches and what felt like a dozen different coordinators. He played behind offensive lines that couldn't protect him and threw to receivers that other schools simply did not want. He played injured and he played hurt. He bought into the program and sold out on every scramble. He leaves the program having racked up more total yards as an Illini than any other player to don the orange and blue.
But there's that feeling. That annoying gnawing feeling that something more should have happened.
He beat Robert Griffin III in a bowl game as a freshman! As a freshman! But things bottomed out in the middle of his career and the team faltered. So the all time yardage leader built a career with a sub-.500 record. And there are people out there who believe that makes it somehow less impressive or meaningful. Because he didn't lead the Illini to some mythical promised land where we're on the level of the Michigans and Ohio States of the world.
I moved to Kansas and Nathan Scheelhaase took over as the Illinois quarterback. Illini football has been one of my lifelines back to the life I used to have back in my beloved home state. It's one of the main reasons I write. The Vonnegut line in my signature says it better than I ever could. It's nice being able to sit down and admit that I'm crazy and flawed and have thousands of people read it and think "Hey! Maybe I'm not so weird! That guy feels a lot of the same feelings and he seems to be doing pretty okay!" And that's what I think of when I look at the seniors at the end of every season.
I think of the fact that I'm terrified of not meeting my full potential. I see that ever-looming specter out of the corner of my eye, reminding me that no matter how much I work, no matter how much I do, it has to end. Those ghosts and demons sit there, watching. But that's what being human is. You take your four years and you do what you can with them. There will always be people who think and say you should have done more. You should have accomplished something so much bigger.
Nathan Scheelhaase was a pretty good quarterback. From all I've read and heard over the past four years, he's an even better person. He was frustrating and thrilling and entertaining and inspiring. And now that part of his life is over.
Nathan, if you ever wind up reading this, I want to say thank you. Good luck to you and the rest of this senior class with the next step. You've all shown that adversity is something that doesn't bother you much. You're going to keep making us proud.