1999 rolled around, and I was just about done with Illinois football.
I hadn't seen good football in almost a decade (including Ron Turner's first 0-fer season) and the most recent teams hadn't instilled me with a lot of confidence going forward.
So 1999 starts, and I'm feeling OK about this team. The defense hadn't meshed quite yet, but the offense seemed plenty capable in the hands of Kurt Kittner and Walter Young. Then we lost three in a row, including Homecoming against Minnesota in what can only be described as a dud for Illini fans.
‘Here we go again’ was what my 14-year-old brain thought. I regret to say I was on the verge of revoking my fandom. Lights off. No mas.
The Michigan Wolverines had been a model of consistency at that point. They had won a National Championship two years prior, with Charles Woodson winning the Heisman trophy. Boy, did I hate those Maize and Blue helmets. That smug entitlement that came with being a fan of a team that won year in and year out. The envy I felt for that program was hard to describe.
Bo Schembechler. Lloyd Carr. The winningest program in history. On and on.
So of course the Wolverines had started 5-1, losing a tough battle at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing to a very good Michigan State squad. Tom Brady and Drew Henson were playing well, and Anthony Thomas — who Bears fans will fondly remember — was rolling his A-Train through the Michigan record books.
On paper this matchup had all the makings of a blowout in Michigan's favor. And it was in vaunted Michigan Stadium in front of 111,000 people. I was not looking forward to it, but I was going to stick with them, by God. I had to. It was my team. I turned on my television and said, "Here we go, may the Devil take me".
Then the game started, and all my worst nightmares came true. We looked listless and sloppy in a first-half beating that continued into the third quarter, down 27-7. I kept saying to myself "it's over", "I can't watch", etc., etc. I did, however, because dammit if I wasn't going to stick it out one more time. I'm nothing if not a glutton for punishment.
Then it happened. Something in this ragtag bunch clicked.
Kurt Kittner started to look like the leader he would become, and a little known back named Rocky Harvey busted out against a formerly rock solid defense that sprung holes so wide you could drive a truck through them.
The defense got pressure, forced some horrible throws from Brady, negated the running threat of Henson, bottled up A-Train.
At this point my heart is pumping. My nerves are shot. I'm yelling "Come on baby!" at my small little T.V. set as my parents wonder what the hell is the matter with me. Rocky Harvey busts a long run, trudges past defenders and races to the endzone.
Final: Illinois 35, Michigan 29.
I plop down on the couch, shaking as I feel the excitement course through my brain. We just upset the No. 9 team in the nation. The Models of Consistency. The Michigan Wolverines. I ran outside and pumped my fist in the air. I haven't missed an Illini football game since.