I had a different path to Illini fandom than many of my colleagues. I grew up largely indifferent to college sports. My mother is a Connecticut alumnus and my father is from upstate New York, so I liked when UConn and Syracuse won at things and I hated Notre Dame and Michigan. However, college sports weren’t really something I actively thought about.
That’s not to say I wasn’t a sports fan. I immersed myself in the NBA during the later part of the Bulls’ run of dominance, lived and died on the arm of Brett Favre and spent most Sundays hoping Dale Earnhardt would catch that damn 24 car and put him in the wall. Illini fever broke out during the 2001 Big Ten title run, but I didn’t notice because I was busy picking up the pieces of my innocence from Earnhardt’s fatal crash at the end of the Daytona 500, taping them together with hope, and pinning the whole mangled mess of emotions to Dale Earnhardt Jr’s car every week.
Eventually, I had to choose a place to continue my education. Unlike many fellow suburbanites, I hadn’t grown up with Illinois as a cultural institution in my home — none of my family members went there, nor did they care much about it. As a result, I paid Illinois no mind and, in fact, dismissed it because I didn’t want to just follow a bunch of people there. As it so happened, I wanted to study engineering but have the option to develop as a musician and possibly pursue that at some point in the future, and wouldn’t you know it? I was accepted to several engineering schools, and Illinois had by far the best music program of any of them.
With that, I began to understand that Illinois had the most to offer me outside of engineering and I was in.
My Introduction to the Fighting Illini
Having decided that I would be an Illini, I also greatly anticipated having a top-flight basketball team and a Big Ten football program to root for. However, I never saw the Rose Bowl season coming in my freshman year of 2007. I only made it to a couple of games, but I was hooked. There they were: A collection of top-flight athletes wearing the colors of Illinois, MY Illinois, competing for the right to proclaim MY UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS the victors! I hadn’t heard about Memorial Stadium, and the first time I went, I wondered why the hell I hadn’t. The iconic facade with the columns formed the foundation that held a full stadium of fellow Illini faithful ready to cheer these boys on. It was incredible!
The basketball season was disappointing, but more seasoned fans assured me it was an anomaly caused by a major roster adjustment, and this was backed up by the run to the finals of the Big Ten Tournament. Look at all these cool things I can participate in now as a newly-minted fan!
I still think about the night game against Indiana in 2008. A packed house witnessed the Fighting Illini hang 55 points on a conference opponent, cheering and chanting the whole way. THIS IS ILLINOIS FOOTBALL! I never really intended to become a big college sports fan, but it was incredible to go from that to suddenly being a part of this electric atmosphere in Memorial Stadium. Naturally, I had a very Illini experience tracking the score as they lost on the road to Western Michigan, but those home games were such a blast even when we lost.
I’ve always been and will always be a bigger football fan than basketball. However, I didn’t want to commit all the time that Marching Illini would have taken, especially since I needed that time for all the music I was doing on my own. I found out later that basketball band was open to auditions, though. I knew about Illinois Basketball from the 2005 title game run, and now I had a chance to be part of the whole experience!
This was when I really experienced the magic of Illini Basketball and got invested. As part of the band, I had courtside seats in the then-Assembly Hall, and the circular sea of orange gave me chills. At halftime, it was my great privilege to play the Three in One, and I was able to go with the team to the NCAA Tournament in Tulsa. I was now part of March Madness!
I took the elevator down to the lobby wearing my “BRUCE WEBER IS MY HOMEBOY” shirt, and who should get on one floor down but Bruce Weber himself. He did a double-take, laughed and said he hadn’t seen that one before. After the Illini knocked off UNLV, we lined up to high-five the team back at the hotel.
In my redshirt-senior year, I was part of a senior design project that was an interscholastic competition. The Parker-Hannifin Chainless Challenge was not only crucial for my graduation but also ended up proving to me at long last that I belonged in engineering.
I’d had a rough go of it and questioned what I was even doing. What started up that fire, though, was knowing that my small team had an opportunity to prove that our beloved University of Illinois was better at engineering than our competition. Hell-bent on representing Illinois Engineering as best I could, I put unfathomable hours into this project. Though we did not secure the overall victory, we did bring home some winnings — and most importantly crushed Purdue and Northwestern.
I graduated and moved to Michigan to take a job in the auto industry. Illinois hasn’t done particularly well at football or basketball since I was there. Nevertheless, anyone who talks about college sports knows that I bleed orange and blue.
Occasionally, when someone finds out, they’ll ask me why I haven’t just adopted one of the local Big Ten teams. This question doesn’t even make sense to me. I usually have to explain that that simply isn’t how it works: Illinois is where I’m from, who I am, where I learned so much and a big part of the reason I’m even here. Michigan fans can Hail To The Victors all they want, but it’s notable that our song doesn’t say anything about whether or not they win or lose. No matter what the circumstances, whether they’re the victors valiant or hopelessly defeated, we’re loyal to you, Illinois.
Nevertheless, though I had little exposure to Illinois, it was something that I discovered myself. It was the path I chose and I’m proud of that, and as long as the University continues to field teams in contests of sport, I will support them.
Plus, as someone who has lived and died with the Illini over the last six years, I’m in way too deep to quit now. I haven’t endured what I’ve endured as a fan just to miss out on the eventual payoff that is coming some day when our programs are competitive again and we pack the stadium like I assumed we always would. I’ve followed these teams all the way to the bottom and there’s no point in abandoning my convictions now.
I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or not that those Michiganders who understand best are die-hard Detroit Lions fans.