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Why I’m an Illini Fan: Mark Schaer

It goes well beyond sports.

I could give you the long version or the short version.

If you have no interest of reading beyond “My father went to U of I and so did I,” then turn back now. By God, turn back now.

But there is actually more to the story. As I’m sure many of you who are in your early- to mid-twenties can attest, there were a number of incredible Illini sports moments when we were kids.

The first, and possibly most memorable, was the 2005 Final Four run. It ended in heartbreak, but that is the biggest stage the Illini have ever played on and witnessing it was memorable in and of itself. I didn’t go to any games in person (I was only 10, and my father was much too busy to take me down to any games), but I remember the excitement of the national title game. I also remember the disappointment in my father’s face when Deron Williams hoisted a desperation corner three, the buzzer sounded and the final score read 75-70.

Oddly enough, I don’t actually remember the Arizona game from that run, but we don’t need to get into that.

Let’s not forget the 2007-08 football season and Rose Bowl game. This one was perhaps more painful to watch, as the Illini looked like boys among men versus the Pete Carroll-led USC Trojans. Maybe the best part of that season was getting to hear a close friend of my father’s, who was a Mizzou fan, complain about the fact that they didn’t make the Rose Bowl. Little did I know poking fun at MIZ NOZ would become one of my favorite pastimes.

But being an Illini fan, to me, goes beyond sports. Sure, some of my greatest memories in Champaign are tailgating as the leaves began to change, flipping between heavy vinyl cards on command in Block I, and waiting outside State Farm Center in frigid temperatures to get the best courtside seat I could. But as I grew in my time on that campus nestled between two towns, I saw something bigger than sports.

I’ll never forget the first time I visited campus, either. Admittedly, I never thought I would attend the school. It seemed too big, too different and too risky for a kid from a relatively small high school to attend.

Everything changed during my senior year of high school. My college decision came down to Illinois or two smaller liberal arts schools. A professor at one of those schools, who had become a friend over the years, had given me some good advice before I had even applied to the school at which he taught:

“Sometimes, choosing a school is about fit. It’s about what feels right. You might not know why, but the place that feels right might be the right fit.”

When I decided to attend Illinois, I understood what he meant. Everything about Chambana — from the classroom buildings to the quad to, yes, even the often disappointing athletics — felt like home to me.

I think sometime during my four years there — that’s when I truly became a fan. It wasn’t watching them on TV as a kid, but rather attending classes, making memories, and feeling like I was a part of something bigger.

Now, as an alumnus, one of the few things that still gives me chills is hearing the “I-L-L” chant following by thousands clad in orange responding with “I-N-I” in Memorial Stadium. That’s how I know I’m a fan.