A relationship between most fathers and their children has something to do with sports. For generations, fathers have provided the introduction to a game or team that usually relates to something that their father (or father figure) introduced to them when they were young. It’s a time-honored tradition that people everywhere experience while growing up, and ultimately look to share with their kin when/if they are lucky enough to have the opportunity.
As children, we hear stories about a favorite player that once dominated the playing field during a special time in the program or team’s history. We hear about how our fathers were brought to a game by their fathers (and/or grandfathers), or how they would get to games early just to see their favorite players up close and in person for the very first time. We hear about enjoying a hot dog in the stands, or getting to eat ice cream on a warm afternoon, and it only makes us want to live those same experiences.
When it comes to selecting a college or university, some of us look to where our parents went to school in order to decide where to spend the next four years of our academic lives. A select few of us are even more fortunate to have fathers that took part in something a little more “unique” during their time on said campus, which helps make our decision a little easier.
My choice was easy: I wanted to play in the Marching Illini at the University of Illinois.
You see, my dad played in MI from 1979-83 and was lucky enough to play in the Rose Bowl during his time at Illinois. From day one, all I would ever hear was stories about the east balcony shaking during the largest ever attended game at Memorial Stadium. I heard about Jack Trudeau and Thomas Rooks and David Williams and Mike White, and I heard about this team in Champaign that was the last team in Big Ten history to beat every single team in the conference in one year.
I heard about my grandfather and my great-grandfather, and how they were so proud of him that they would open all their windows and play Marching Illini records during football season. Heck, I even heard about Illini beer, and how my grandfather left a case of it on his Ohio State neighbor’s front door with “17-13” written on every can after Illinois beat the Buckeyes. The stories of that season, and what it was like to be a part of it had me sold to pursue Illinois from a very early age.
We went to Homecoming games, and I would walk through the east Great Hall with the ever-addicting sounds of the Marching Illini pulsing through the stadium’s bones. My dad, grandpa and I would work our way up the ramps in the southeast corner of the stadium, with our echoing chants of “ILL” being responded with a few passionate “INI” calls from the balcony above. We would hike up the steps of the east balcony, and watch as the band took the field for pregame and halftime. Seeing 20,000 people clapping in unison, cheering for the school song, the Alma Mater and the team made me want to experience that feeling from the field. Little did I know, I would march in the same footsteps as my dad during my time in school.
I will spare you the details of where the teams went while I was there, or any of the details of my time in Marching Illini (that’s for another blog post at another time), but those are years I will always cherish. The “piece de resistance” though would come in my senior season on Homecoming, when I would high-five my dad at the 50-yard line during a show. With my family in attendance, I got to experience the thing I had been striving to achieve before I even picked up an instrument.
Getting to experience it with my dad? A dream come true.
Whether you’re a fan of the Orange and Blue, or if you happen to be visiting this post for some other reason, I want to leave you with this...
Sports can teach us so many different things about life. We all have had metaphors shoved down our throats about winning or losing, with a lesson on honestly and sportsmanship added in for good measure. If you played sports with a father figure growing up, you also likely got a lesson or two about hard work, perseverance and respect. Watching sports doesn’t give us those individual lessons we always hear about (or experience), but they give us a sense of belonging and personal connection that few other things can.
I am a fan of the Illini, because it was one of the things that helped bring my grandfather, dad and I together when I was very little. The success and failure of the team was something the three of us could always talk about, and we all were able to give our opinions on how the program could improve. We could visit each other on the weekends to huddle around the television and watch games on ABC, listen together in the car while Brian Barnhardt and Jim Grabowski called games over the radio, and even crash together for a weekend at the Chancellor Hotel after watching a game at Memorial Stadium (which also meant Aunt Sonya’s breakfast).
It’s the lessons I have been taught and personal connections I have made through sports that have helped shape me into the person I am today, with my dad to thank for all of it. I hope that on this Father’s Day, you reflect on the father figures that have been in your life. Thank them for being such an important part of growing up, and for their continued support in anything that you do.
So Happy Father’s Day, dad, and thank you for everything. It’s going to be one hell of a time trying to be as great of a father as you have been to me. Someday soon, we’ll hopefully be able to take that Rose Bowl trip to watch the Illini. When they win that game, the first three rounds are on me.