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Why I’m an Illini Fan: Matt O’Neall

We all want to hold on to our childhood.

Why am I an Illini fan? This question doesn’t even make sense to me.

It’s like asking someone why they love their family or a childhood pet.

I’m a second-generation Illini and both of my siblings and I have followed in our mother’s footsteps and attended the state school.

Perhaps it was intentional brainwashing by our parents to make us fall in love with the school that would offer us in-state tuition later in life, but the University of Illinois has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I can’t tell you the moment, or the game, or the visit that made me an Illini fan. It’s something that’s always been there.

In short, like most things, my Illini fandom is a product of timing. And in a way, I was sold some false promises.

I turned 5 in 1999. I think 5 is an age where you can actually start forming opinions about things you like and don’t like. Over the next four years Illinois Football would amass a record of 28-19, including a first-place Big Ten finish where the team won 10 games and played in the Sugar Bowl. Illinois hasn’t won the Big Ten or won that many games in a four-year span since.

In those same four seasons the basketball team would post a record of 100-34, make four straight NCAA Tournaments as a 4-seed or better, and share two regular season Big Ten titles. The football team would begin to spiral, but basketball would take its success to another level over the next four years, which only increased my adoration for the school.

I was all in. I was obsessed. Not only was this a winning program, but they were in Illinois just like I was. And once I found out I could go there one day and be a part of Illinois, I was sold. I loved the White Sox and the Bulls, but I realized relatively quickly that I didn’t have much of a chance of being a part of either of those organizations.

We went to at least one football game every year for my entire childhood. I watched every game that I could. I lived and died with Illinois, and still do.

And when the success started to fade, like most of you know, it didn’t matter. The song is Illlinois Loyalty, after all. I was still set on Illinois. None of my friends could ever understand why I cared so much about a bad sports team in a middle-of-nowhere town. I try to explain my fandom with my story about the 2005 Arizona game:

At the four-minute mark with Illinois down 15 I started crying in my family room. I was a well-behaved kid, but this was full-blown tantrum. I tore up the tournament bracket that I had filled out with the Illini winning it all and stomped off to my room to be alone. My dad didn’t let me. He told me to come back and watch because anything could happen, and I had watched all year so I should stick it out with the team until the end. Luckily I listened, and after the comeback was completed I celebrated harder than I ever had before. And I have no shame in saying I would have a similar childish reactions — good and bad — 13 years later.

Most people think of their universities and think of their late teens and early 20s. They think of partying and coming of age. They think of a fun four years they had.

I’ve now since graduated. And when I think of Illinois I think of watching games in my Brian Cook jersey as an 8-year-old. I think of rooting on an undefeated basketball team when I was 10. I think of the day I had to stay home sick from a friend’s Thanksgiving Turkey Bowl game. That day I would sit by myself with a bad fever and watch Illinois upset No. 1 Ohio State on the road on its way to the Rose Bowl.

When I think of the University of Illinois I think about my childhood. While there are other much more defining moments of my life than watching Illinois sports, you can’t tell the story without those teams and those colors and those songs. They are a constant backdrop and setting to the story of my life. We all look back fondly on our childhood. We all want to hold on to the items, people and memories from that time in our lives. Luckily for me, one of the most influential parts of my childhood just so happened to be my future alma mater.

So yes, I know Illinois has been really bad lately. I know more than anyone. So my friends and internet acquaintances can poke fun at me as much as they want to for being so obsessed over a silly school playing a silly game. But for a lot of this it’s more than a silly school or silly game. It’s our childhood, or our relationship with our parents, or where we met the love of our life, or where we sent our children to grow up. All of those things, and all of the suffering over all these years are going to make the next Arizona game that much sweeter.

Thank you, Illinois.