Against UTSA, Illinois experienced a hair-pulling, heartbreaking loss that we are all too familiar with. I experienced an unforgettable, heartwarming contest that I am extremely grateful for.
Yes, I know the aforementioned statement will undoubtedly be taken by diehards as inflammatory, to put it mildly. How could anyone find that game unforgettable?! Much less heartwarming. For gods’ sake, the first thing any Illinois fan should want to do is forget the early September Saturday night scrimmage against a preteen program. The young Roadrunners secured a signature win at our expense; make no mistake. Bret Bielema’s program secured just another letdown in a decade-plus full of them.
None of the above is the point. The point is what makes Illinois games special despite the score. The point is what needs to be shared because it trumps wins and losses. The point is spending a gameday with family for the first time in two years. The point is talking ball with your dad from the 30-yard line, just yards away from the Illini you spend weekend after weekend rooting for. The point is hugging your mom after Gene Honda’s “Touchdown, Illinois!” rings out. The point is that after the COVID-19 pandemic took away football games for many Illinois fans, getting back into the seats was something I did not want to take for granted, disappointing outcome be damned.
Champaign is different on gameday. I notice it, my parents notice it, you and your friends probably notice it. The town is livelier, drenched in orange and blue. The people are nicer, ILL’s and INI’s ring out from block to block. The students are rowdy, music blares from seemingly every direction. When my parents told me they were coming down for the Illinois-UTSA game a few weeks ago, I realized this would be the first game we’ve attended together since COVID pushed fans to the couch. I was incredibly excited, of course. But I also had strange feelings of gratitude. It’s just another game, right?
We got football last year; calling it the full experience is an obvious lie. No fans in the stands meant no games for me and the folks — a staple for countless Illini old and young taken away. Now a graduate student, this very well may be my last game with my parents as a student at the University of Illinois. “This could be it,” I thought, when my parents told me they were coming down.
So we experienced the full friggin’ experience. Stop by new KAMS for a couple blue guys – the first time for mom and dad.
“They really dressed the place up,” they noted.
“Those your parents?” asks a drinking Illini next to me, “Take these, on me.”
Mom couldn’t have been more excited, “That was so sweet!”
We took in the memorabilia adorning KAMS’ second iteration, trying to name every member of the 2005 Illinois basketball team. “James Augustine,” my dad exclaims, finally putting the name to the face, “Man he was solid.” Two friends I hadn’t seen since their graduation in 2019 bumped into us, and we made sure to reminisce on our undergraduate debauchery. In true alumni fashion, we made sure to note the new KAMS could never, EVER compare to the old.
From one orange-and-blue bar to the next, we made the quick trip down Green for some grub at Legends. After all, I did tell you this was the full experience. Over some Legends Lagers, the pregame chats begin. “Can they pull this one out?” dad says, always the pessimist when it comes to his teams. He’ll say 60 years of Cubs games will do that to anyone. “I’m thinking the Illini lose this one, trap game.” Sports are our bonding time, and no bond is stronger than our love of Illinois. He may have made me a Cubs fan, but I made him an Illinois fan. “I think they got this one,” I reply. “I think our guys are bigger and better, I think it will be close but being at home will put us over the top.”
Emerging from the depths of Memorial Stadium to a beautiful, bright Zuppke Field is special. I don’t care about the attendance numbers. I don’t care what time or place. Seeing that field from the tunnel is special. Seeing that field from the tunnel after a year absence due to a pandemic is a grateful sort of special that surpasses the apathy decades of mediocre-to-bad football will bring. Our seats were spectacular, right behind the Illinois bench.
“Blake! Punter of the year,” I scream to the demigod who’s name we share. He smiles and throws a thumbs up. Truly, the little things make all the difference.
“Yeah, I’m here with Blake, the Illini are down 20-14 at the half, what do you think they have to do to get back in this?” my dad says, feigning a broadcast one-on-one.
Halftime and I’m, already getting that sinking feeling.
“They have to play better defense and try to get a big play, defense or offense” I reply.
Bouncing strategy off each other is something I dearly missed, and whether reveling in the great or fuming over the bad (oh has there been bad), when it comes to these games, we share our emotions. With my mom, we share the fun that happens outside the lines. We danced our way to the jumbotron, we cheered and hugged, and even though she doesn’t share the same diehard values, she tries her best and I couldn’t ask for anyone else share a game with.
I was happy to see a strong student section. I glanced towards the endzone more than a few times throughout the game, watching the corners slowly fill in. I remember the second game of my freshman year. 1-0 going into another home night game, this one against the Tar Heels. I remember the 76-yard Kendrick Foster run. I remember the roar of Block I. I remember the agony of defeat. But most importantly, I wish the freshman of 2021 a better fortune than the freshman of 2021.
“As bad as it tears up your insides and it should hurt, I think it does hurt” Bret Bielema said after the game.
Boy, Bret, does it ever.
The long walk down First Street hurt. I was silenced into the sort of walk you take just to think things out. A walk where no words are said, but countless thoughts are had. Saturday night’s loss sucked. It hurt, it frustrated, and worst of all, it felt all too familiar. The 2021 Fighting Illini sport an entirely different coaching staff and promise entirely different results, yet the familiar feeling of losing to a game you shouldn’t stings just the same.
However, a loss can’t take away the memories made with the people you love. I was able to take my parents out to see the best of Champaign on gameday for possibly the last time as a student. We got a full taste of what makes this town so great, why I love being a student here, and why I wouldn’t trade the last six years and (almost) two degrees for the world. Being an Illini fan is something different. Maybe it’s a curse, maybe it’s just an unfortunate series of events. All I can say is that I am extremely grateful for Saturday night in spite of the outcome.
So take the trip to Memorial Stadium with the people you love to be around. Take in the little things, the tailgating, the people, the passion. The outcome sure is a lot, it sure as hell doesn’t feel good to lose, and the memories sure would be better if you and I could walk down First Street with the thoughts of victory on our mind. Bielema sure as hell has a lot of work to do, but the outcome isn’t everything. At least, it doesn’t have to be.
“I had fun. I don’t care if we lost” said my mom, a vain attempt to cheer us up.
Me too, Mom, me too.