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January 1, 2008: A Rose Bowl Column

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Today Ohio State plays Washington in the 2019 Rose Bowl Game. 11 years ago Illini Nation was there. And it was glorious.

Like many people around this time of year, I find myself reflecting. New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are times when memories are easily traceable: “Where was I five years ago today?” “Where was I 10 years ago today, and what’s changed?”

Every New Year’s Day for the past 10 years, I’ve made sure to give myself 10 minutes to sit in peace and remember where I was, who I was with and what made that day so special on January 1, 2008.

The Lead Up: A Football Season Unlike Any Other

I was a bright-eyed, out-of-state, excited and confident 18-year old freshman when I arrived on the campus of the University of Illinois in August 2007. I grew up in a family of college football fans — I knew the sport backwards and forwards and one of my earliest memories at U of I was going to Illini Pride Night/Orientation the day or two after I had moved into my dorm, Illini Tower.

Just a few months earlier, when I was wrapping up my high school studies in Southern California, I distinctly remember a conversation I had during free period with some of my friends and classmates, who were going to UCLA, Wisconsin and USC.

“How many wins do you expect out of Illinois your first year there?” Unabated, I said nine wins. “We’ll go 9-3.” They laughed. I was serious.

Illinois did just that, winning nine games, and while many of the alums and students at U of I felt we had a good team, it all seemed surreal as Illinois knocked off ranked foes in Penn State and Wisconsin on back-to-back fall weekends in Champaign.

Surreal is the key word. 2006 produced just two wins, and now Illinois was on the national stage and being talked about on SportsCenter and on ESPN’s College GameDay. I was living the dream.

I was in the student section for every single home game that year, and with an offense spearheaded by Juice Williams, Rashard Mendenhall and Arrelious Benn, it’s still hard to put in words just what it was like going to my first college games as a student and seeing that team on a weekly basis.

Illinois fans are called many things. Spoiled isn’t one of them.

January 1, 2008

Full disclosure: I come from a USC family. My older sister is a USC Alum (Class of 2007), and I have cousins, family friends and countless high school friends who’ve all gone to USC. Going through elementary, middle and high school without an NFL team in Los Angeles, watching USC and all of its success packing a 90,000 seat Coliseum was must-watch television.

I was so proud that my school, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was representing the Big Ten, the Midwest and a college community I had grown to love my first five months there. And there we were — at the Rose Bowl, the Grandaddy of Them All.

House Divided. Me: Illinois, Class of 2011. Sister: USC, Class of 2007

For Winter Break, a bunch of my friends I had made that first semester at U of I made the trek down to Southern California to stay with me, go to Disneyland that weekend AND to watch our football team play USC in the Rose Bowl. It was a party worth hosting and celebrating.

This image sticks with me:

Illini at the Rose Bowl

The orange Illinois-painted endzone. The orange-clad fans beginning to fill their seats. The rolling hills in the backdrop of the massive grandstands. The perfect blue sky overhead.

The Rose Bowl isn’t just any other game, and here’s why: While the rest of the country is dealing with tough winters, sun-less days and cold, the weather at the Rose Bowl — and scene in and around the stadium — is always perfect. No matter how technology has changed or no matter which teams qualify for the Rose Bowl each year, there’s a historical and mystical transcendence that exists in Pasadena that’s unlike anywhere else. In a constantly changing world, the Rose Bowl is lost in time. And Illinois was part of that 11 years ago today.

If we ever make it back... GO!

The expectations for USC Trojans Football are the same each year: Qualify for the Rose Bowl. The Trojans have been to the Rose Bowl the most times out of any team, and it’s not even close. USC has gone 34 times. Michigan (20 times) has gone more than any Big Ten team, and Ohio State will be playing its 15th Rose Bowl later today.

The Rose Bowl affects so many people involved with the universities they represent. Not just the players and football staff, but administrators, alumni, students (including marching bands!) all get the chance to attend the Rose Parade, followed by the Rose Bowl Game.

Speaking of parades — not to rain on any Illinois fans parade — but it does not seem like the Fighting Illini Football team will be going back to the Rose Bowl any time soon. I think that’s what makes fans like me cherish our time both during the 2007 season and at the Rose Bowl Game that we lost (first time I’m mentioning the fact that we actually lost the game) 49-17. We don’t live in the past, but we certainly take our time to remember it because it makes us happy in what is a present doom-and-gloom sporting outlook sadness.

The Rose Bowl Stadium is sacred. The rolling hills around it are godly and invoke goosebumps up and down your body. It’s not a rite-of-passage to go because so few teams actually get the chance to play in the Rose Bowl in their lifetimes: Just ask your Minnesota and Indiana alumni friends about that.

I’m not religious. I just know that the Rose Bowl and thinking about our experience there in 2008 brings me happiness, peace, gratitude and a wider notion of being part of something bigger than myself. That’s holy.

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