I know what you're thinking.
How could any reasonably sane person pick an Illinois football game as their favorite sports moment of the last year?
Well it starts with a date with my wife. We were dining at a local restaurant, and I'm the kind of Illini fan who bores his family with talk about all things sports, specifically Illinois football. I admit, I am a glutton for punishment.
Now I've been an Illinois football fan for 25 years or so, since my grandfather used to take me to games and I soaked it all up, the good and — usually — the bad. I went to games coached by Jon Makovic, Lou Tepper, went to games during Ron Turner's first season (0-11), to his Sugar Bowl season (10-3). Recently, I enjoyed Ron Zook's very first game — an overtime thriller over Rutgers — had a blast when Illinois upset #19 Penn State at home — Arrelious Benn's two touchdown performance in an electric atmosphere — and even took in the most ridiculous ending fitting for Illinois football — the 2009 53-52 loss to Fresno State, ending with a 350 pound lineman catching the game winner on a deflected pass.
I've seen it all as a fan of Illinois, and I can tell you I'm ever the optimist. I let anyone who will listen know how this coach will get us back on top, and that coach will bring us bowl relevancy. After the Tim Beckman fiasco, however, I had become a bitter, more jaded football fan and I hadn't been to a game until Lovie Smith became head coach, and even then it was few and far between.
Which brings us back to the dinner date. I had gotten the idea to attend the game against Western Kentucky last fall. Seeing as we were underdogs at home, I wasn't sure what type of game I would see. And after seeing our effort against Minnesota in person the year prior, I can't say I was optimistic.
My wife of course was supportive and told me I should go. She's not a football fan, and believes it's a rather dumb sport, but she understands my passion for Illinois football won't die, so she begrudgingly excepts that part of me. I thought to myself, “you know what I'm going to go, if only to support an athletic program I've been attached to since way back when.”
It was one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had as an Illini fan. Call me crazy, but I could see a level of enthusiasm and energy in Illinois' play, in that particular setting, in that particular game, I haven't seen since maybe ever.
I can guess what you're going to say. "That's ridiculous", "quality of opponent", "you're nuts", etc, etc. In the moment, though, it was just fun to get out on Saturday evening and watch a bunch of players act like they care in a game that, defensively, they dominated.
Just watch the reaction of the players and coaches to this play by Patrick Nelson:
That's a team that despite its shortcomings (and there were many that bore themselves out as the season progressed), played hard and had fun for their coaches and the few fans who turned out.
The end score was 20-7, and of course you can point out all the inconsistencies on offense and the poor quality of an opponent Western Kentucky turned out to be. I can honestly say, though, that I haven't had as much fun at a football game in 10 years or more. It was satisfyingly pleasant, for at least one night.
Now obviously I know last season was miserable for any remaining Illinois football fans, but this evening, the amount of joy they brought this particular fan was my favorite moment of the athletic year.