Every fall from 7th through 12th grade my dad took me on a trip to Austin, Texas, to watch his Alma Mater, the Texas Longhorns, play a football game. Growing up in Los Angeles, I had been to many UCLA and USC football games, but those trips to Austin — a college town that rivals any and all others in America — felt different. I had never been to a place that lives and breathes and emphasizes how important college football is to a community.
Every store and bar and restaurant is filled with people rooting for the same team, wearing the same colors. Every car in the city had some sticker or license plate frame or insignia of the Longhorns.
Texas is a community, and I wanted to find my sense of community in a college town.
As a young lad I was enamored by the notion of a town’s heart beating at the same pulse as a college or university. It was so unlike Los Angeles, and I knew I had to be part of a campus town like this.
My first visit to Champaign came my junior year of high school during Fall 2005. I took an official tour and fell in love with the campus. I’ll never forget the day I first laid eyes on the Main Quad.
I knew in my heart of hearts it had to be mine. That fall day in 2005 I saw an Illini Football game against Penn State, and while things didn’t exactly go well for the Illini against one of the best Penn State teams ever assembled, I didn’t care at the time. Illinois was a big school, an academic powerhouse located in a small but comfortable college town community. It was everything I wanted, and it happened to play sports in the Big Ten Conference.
Fast forward to 2006, my senior year of high school. Illinois was at the top of my list, and while I was spending many weekend hours filling out applications and writing essays, I distinctly remember, in the background of my work, watching a three-game stretch of Illini Football on ESPN2 on back-to-back-to-back weekends against Penn State, No. 18 Wisconsin and No. 1 Ohio State. Illinois lost those three games by a combined 27 points and Juice Williams really struggled throwing the football — but it was exciting football. It looked like Illinois was just on the cusp of competing with the big boys of the Big Ten, and they did so with swagger and personality and were competitive in all of those games.
Earlier that 2006 season, this controversial moment happened — and in all honesty, I loved it. Illini fans had suffered so much through several 2-win seasons, but this brief moment of albeit poor sportsmanship sent a message: We are here. We are not intimidated, and we will be a force to be reckoned with and we will be respected.
Illinois was still a basketball school — just one trip to Follett’s Bookstore (sadly now a Panda Express) on Wright & Green would prove that — but Juice Williams was beginning to turn that around with his leadership and his dual-threat abilities as a quarterback. He made people excited to be associated with the university.
My final trip to Illinois before I went as a freshman in the Fall of 2007 was in early summer of that year for orientation. I met with my advisor Bob Steltman to craft my schedule for the coming semester, and to take a tour of the dormitory I’d be living at. With more time on my hands than during my previous visit in 2005 to take everything in, I wandered around an empty campus for hours and hours, and eventually stumbled upon an empty, desolate Assembly Hall. There were few cars in the parking lot, but no one else was around.
I remember walking up to the doors of the spaceship-looking arena, pulling the handle — and giddy with unexpected delight that those doors were unlocked. It was dark inside. I made my way though the concourse and into one of the small tunnels that opened up to the main level of the stadium, and I saw the basketball court. I grabbed one of the metal barriers with both hands, looked up, down and all around with a grin: “I made it. This right here is home. This is mine. This is where i’m supposed to be.”
Football season 2007. My freshman year went beyond my wildest imagination. It’s still a season that I, like so many Illini fans, hold onto and refuse to let go. I remember back-to-back weekends beating Penn State and then Wisconsin at home. I remember the roar of the stadium during Arrelious Benn’s heroics and Rashard Mendenhall’s attacking style of running. I remember watching the Illinois at Ohio State game in my dorm room at Illini Tower with my freshmen roommates, and then once the game was officially over throwing on my Illini gear and sprinting with my friends to the Alma Mater Statue where there were already hundreds of students at the corner screaming “ILL-INI!”. I remember sticking around campus even when all of my friends had gone home for Thanksgiving because I wanted to see Illinois play and beat Northwestern.
Just under two months after that, over winter break Illinois would play in its first Rose Bowl since 1983. Growing up near L.A, I had gone to several Rose Bowls, mostly watching USC consistently beat teams like Michigan and Penn State. I was also fortunate enough to go to the “Vince Young Game” in 2005 when he led Texas to an upset win over the Trojans for a national championship.
Here was little Illinois — little by college football prestige/winning standards, in my freshman year — with a bid to play in the ROSE BOWL. Between my freshmen roommates and several friends from my fraternity coming in town to go to the Rose Bowl we had quite the Illini crew in Los Angeles/Pasadena that New Year’s Day in 2008.
Basketball. Over the next four years I’d be back in Assembly Hall/State Farm Center many, many times.
Through bad times: Losing to an Eric Gordon led Indiana, anger fueled game standing in the Orange Krush section court side. Watching the ugliest basketball game of all time against Penn State.
Through good times: Beating UNC in a sold out game in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Beating No. 5 Michigan State that year when Champaign hosted ESPN’s College Gameday. And of course, Graduation Day at our campus-wide ceremony.
I am an Illinois fan because I went to school there as an outsider. Curiosity struck me from afar, the campus community drew me in and welcomed me, and I’ve repaid that back by going to games and supporting this team through thick and thin.
Illinois Loyalty. Illinois Family.