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Welcome back, Illini

We made it (kinda).

NCAA FOOTBALL: SEP 10 North Carolina at Illinois Photo by Michael Allio/ICON Sportswire

Ever since I started college at the University of Illinois in 2015, the eve of the opening football game is better than the night before Christmas (or Hannukah, in my case).

It’s a night where I want to go to bed as early as possible so tomorrow can already come. There won’t be any gifts under the tree, but there will be a game with the Illini and some other team, preferably one from the MAC (unless it’s Western Michigan).

So when I realized that Saturday’s Week Zero kickoff against Nebraska wasn’t starting until 12:20 p.m., I got frustrated! How dare I have to wait an extra hour for Illini Football!

But it’s a price I’m willing to pay to watch the game on Fox, with a (hopefully) packed crowd at Memorial Stadium.

A few things before I keep going:

  • I know there have been other sports with fans so far this week (soccer, volleyball).
  • I know the pandemic is far from over.
  • And I know the gameday experience still won’t look totally normal when it comes to it on Saturday (i.e. masks in the indoor parts of the stadium).

But Saturday will be as close to ‘normal’ as I think any of us would have hoped for when all of this started nearly 20 months ago.

While I know I shouldn’t, I did, and I went back and found the first TCR article I wrote about COVID-19.

It was March 11, 2020. We learned Illinois Baseball and Softball would have no fans for the season. A week later, there would be no season at all.

“You’ve said your last ILL in person this season,” I wrote.

Little did I know, we had all said our last ILL in person at a sporting event for a long time.

But that was 534 days ago, and since then, I think my fandom — and many of our fandoms — have actually strengthened. It’s been a time where I appreciate every ILL I get in public in Madison, Wisconsin (where I live), just a little bit more. Even tonight, as I was walking around downtown in my orange Illinois shirt, a guy with a beer (very Wisconsin of him) hit me with an ILL.

“INI,” I reply. “You ready for tomorrow?”

“Hell yeah,” he said. “Let’s do it.”

I don’t know this man at all, and I didn’t get to know him, but it’s those little things that I’ve missed — and we’ve all missed — over the past year and a half.

And finally, after all this time, tens of thousands of Illini fans will get to do it all together.

I’m not sure what will happen in the game. I’m not sure if the Bret Bielema experiment will work. I’m not sure what the Marching Illini’s new pregame entrance looks like. And I’m not sure if any of the Block I card tricks will work (if there’s not a “BRET” one, we riot).

But the one thing I do know is that it will be good to be back together.

And after the time we’ve had apart, I don’t think there will be any better feeling.