The Fighting Illini occupy some special real estate in my heart. They are firmly entrenched in the most prime, unique space my realtor can offer. Yet, they are relative newcomers on the block. How did they possibly get here.
I was not born an Illini fan. In fact, I have distinct memories of my dad paying far more attention to Northwestern. I was, however, born a Chicago sports fan. Like many of us, fandom is in the bloodline. My dad was born into it, inherited from his father, and so on. Illinois is certainly not in the bloodline, yet it supersedes everything else. How did that come to be?
It’s because I am an Illini. I am not a Chicago Cub or Bear, but I am 100% Fighting Illini. I have never lived in Chicago, but I have spent the last seven years in Champaign. I share these towns (how could I forget Urbana?) and this school with the athletes and coaches I support. We’ve walked the same halls, taken the same classes, ate at the same restaurants, danced at the same bars, and matured in the same environment. We represent the same University, and that cultivates a relationship unlike any other. That relationship is what made October 19, 2019 so special.
Three seasons of youth and inexperience preceded the 2019 season. After suffering through Lovie Smith’s roster demolition and construction my entire college career, things were finally looking up. 2019 appeared to be my first chance to experience a solid, consistently competitive Illinois football team. The roster was aged to perfection, and Lovie just brought in two of the highest rated recruits in Illinois history. Just in time for my senior year, I was ecstatic at the direction of the program.
And then I received a field-level view of Eastern Michigan’s game-winning field goal. And then three more losses followed, and then the season was over. 2-4, 0-3 in conference with number 6 Wisconsin coming in. All hope was lost. Until October 19, 2019.
Oct. 19, 2019 was a perfect fall Saturday. Warm and sunny, the browning leaves danced and dropped in the Champaign air. The gameday I would never forget began as a gameday I didn’t want to remember. The Illini had only brought me disappointment and anger, enough was enough. I planned to enjoy the weather with my friends and completely ignore the 30.5 point underdogs in Memorial Stadium.
The first half was completely forgettable. Wisconsin goes 75 yards on the opening drive and Illinois missed a field goal, 7-0 at the end of the first quarter. Wisconsin kicks a field goal to open the second quarter and Illinois responds with a three-and-out. Through 20 minutes, Wisconsin has outscored Illinois 10-0 and outgained the Illini 148-43. Everything going according to plan, and I’m glad I made the right decision. Illinois forces a fumble and scores, but Wisconsin responds with a field goal. By halftime, it’s 13-7, but it sure doesn’t feel that way. There’s a sense of impending doom.
Through much of the third quarter, that sense seems spot on. Illinois starts the second half with a three-and-out, Wisconsin returns the favor, but pins the Illini at the 5 yard line. Josh Imatorbhebhe would fumble four plays later and Wisconsin would punch in an easy score, 20-7. Illinois responds with a punt. The impending doom is now plain-old doom.
With 24 minutes left in the game, Wisconsin has a 97.7% chance to win. They have outgained and outscored the Illini significantly. Illinois lone score was aided by a Wisconsin turnover. I was all but tuned out, enjoying a party, surrounded by friends, unbothered by Illinois football.
Things slowly begin to change, and it feels like everyone is slowly sucked back into the game. Wisconsin misses a field goal and Illinois caps off an 80-yard drive with a 43-yard Reggie Corbin run. What could have been 23-7 is 20-14. There’s a buzz in the crowd. “Illinois is coming back!” “Illinois could win this game!” “How the heck is Illinois in this?” People are checking their phones. Nobody wants to get their hopes up, but there’s a palpable chance for something special to happen.
Wisconsin drives, but the Illini defense puts together a miraculous goal-line stop to hold Wisconsin to a field goal. 23-14, but that stand feels like an enormous win.
The partygoers are restless. After hours of drinks, there is a demand for something crazy. Apartments begin to open up, the game is on every living room flatscreen. People are piling into any open room just to catch the chance of the unthinkable. I follow the crowd into a living room. I don’t recognize anyone and I really don’t care. We all share the same goal here.
Every snap brings silence. with only 9 minutes left, Illinois needs to score to keep a realistic shot open. They do not. They turn it over on downs. The room deflates like week-old birthday balloon. Hope remains, however, and we’re staying till the end.
Eight minutes left - plenty of time. Illinois desperately needs a quick stop. They get something better - Heisman hopeful Jonathan Taylor fumbles on the third play of the drive. The watch party roars. I feel the apartment shake. In this tiny apartment living room, fifty fans become one.
The next few minutes are a blur. Every play is excruciating. Snap - silence - roar. Snap - silence - groan. Repeat. Peters hits Imatorbhebhe in the endzone and the building shakes again. Hugs, high fives, the realization that a 30.5 underdog is in the game with 5 minutes to go. Disbelief, excitement, anxiety. Some games are unforgettable simply because the range of emotions they can create.
Snap - silence - relief. Snap - silence - nervous clap. Wisconsin can end the game here. Illinois has to get a stop if they want a chance. Snap - silence - frustration. Wisconsin is driving to the two-minute warning. Snap - silence - insanity. An interception! The tiny apartment living room feels like a different world. People are flooding in. They know what could happen. There’s more people in one tiny room than I’ve ever seen in my life. Illinois is close, but they need two first downs to make it happen.
The potential electricity could spark a gas leak. Everyone breaths together and exhales together. Peters completes to Barker for a first down. We are so close. Dre Brown finds a hole and gets 13. All hell breaks loose. The sheer mass of people could bring the house down. I don’t know where I am anymore and I don’t care, just let me get a line of sight to the television. Wisconsin spends their timeouts and the room shifts from cheers to prayers. A game winning field goal is one of, if not the most nerve racking events in sports. So much more than a win is on James McCourt’s leg. A miss almost ensures four years of bowlessness and Lovie Smith’s dismissal. A miss likely turns the fanbase off for the rest of the year. A miss likely ends a four game winning streak before it begins.
But McCourt doesn’t miss. He sails it through the upright as time expires to win the game. I can’t tell you what happened after, it feels like a blackout. When I came to twenty minutes or so later, I had no idea where anyone was. I started walking back to find them, content that even if we don’t get a bowl game, I just witnessed the greatest game of my life.
Let’s do something similar this weekend.