The Illinois vs. Penn State game this weekend in Champaign is a major game.
My colleague Matt Rejc here at TCR made the case that it is in fact the most important Illinois game of the season.
James Franklin seems to go into every season with a warming seat and a chip on his shoulder.
There are multiple future top-10 picks on the Nittany Lions roster. That can’t be overlooked.
But that’s not the topic of this story.
My name is Pleas Andrew Honeywood, and I come from an Illinois/Penn State family.
This game means a lot to me every year. It’s more than just football. It’s more than just a moment on the schedule. It’s a touchpoint in my family history that reminds me of some of my favorite memories, most demanding challenges, and most significant moments.
My older sister Nicole dreamed of going to Princeton. She worked extraordinarily hard to land in the Ivy League. She was an honor student at a top Chicago prep school, which seemed like the ideal route.
But life didn’t go her way in that instance. She wasn’t accepted.
No shame in that, right? The overwhelming majority of Princeton applicants are rejected.
My sister’s safety school was Penn Sate University. And it was one of the best things that ever happened to her.
My big sister blossomed in State College. She was a proud member of the Phi Mu sorority. She enjoyed the academic rigor of a top public university while getting the “traditional” college experience.
And she was far away from her Chicago upbringing. The distance was cathartic for her.
Our parents were in the middle of a divorce and our home was full of palpable tension. Penn State gave my sister distance from the stress and an opportunity to find herself truly.
For that, I will always be thankful to Penn State University. It changed my sister for better and for always.
When she came home for summer break, we had a blast. She was a Hotel/Restaurant Management major, so she always worked at a relevant venue in the Chicago area. Usually, it was a concert venue. She would take me to see shows every year.
My sister and I were born with a 10-year age gap, so you can imagine how cool I felt as a fourth-grade student standing on a chair at a large summer concert.
I gloated so, so hard when I returned to elementary school for the year.
One of my prized possessions is an autographed football my sister got me. She hung out with some of the guys on the football team through Greek life, and got most of them to sign a football for her little brother who was a football fanatic.
But the whole time, Nicole was excelling socially and academically. Penn State was good to my sister and, by proxy, good to my family.
My father in particular loved Penn State. He bragged to all of his coworkers about the depth of its alumni network and the breadth of academic opportunities. He was smitten.
I sometimes get jealous of my good friends Brandt Dolce and Drew Pastorek when they talk about how being Illinois fans brought them closer to their fathers. I admittedly got choked up reading/listening to both waxing poetic about those relationships and how it fed their Illinois fandom.
My father was disappointed in me when I chose to go to the University of Illinois. Not just because he thought it was an “inferior” school, but because his respect for my sister led to his belief that her ability to make big decisions was better than mine could ever be.
(He was probably right. Not because I picked a bad school, but because my sister’s selection of Penn State as an impeccable choice for her and her life.)
U of I drove a wedge between myself and my father that was never repaired.
But my sister’s life and work continued to thrive and evolve. Having been a standout student at St. Ignatius College Prep and Penn State University, the largest hotel chains in the nation sought after her for management roles. And she excelled.
She excelled until that fateful day in April of 2010 when my mother informed me that she died suddenly.
She had just moved back to Chicago after long stints in Atlanta and Baltimore. She wanted to be closer to her family.
And she was closer to her family in her last days. She died in our father’s arms.
Needless to say, it was gutting. She was my best friend. I trusted her more than anyone in the world. She understood me like nobody else. I remember the day I got my first writing interview, I called her and she was so, so proud of me. While my father laughed at my ambition, my sister stood loudly and proudly in my corner. Support like that doesn’t grow on trees. And it impacts you as much in its absence as in its presence.
After she passed away, my father proudly wore her old Penn State sweatshirt. Raising an amazing daughter was his life’s crowning achievement.
He always gave Penn State the credit for teaching my sister all of the things he couldn’t. I always gave Penn State the credit for being the place where my sister’s prodigal talent and exceptional intellect could flourish without boundaries.
Over the years, my sister repeatedly needled me over Penn State vs. Illinois football games. It was good-natured ribbing. And I rarely had any valid comeback. All I could do was sit back and hold my L year after year. I tried to get her back during basketball season, but by that time on the calendar, she had already stopped caring. My jabs made no impact.
So it’s with that backdrop that I will try my best to enjoy the game. I will think of Nicole often. I will think about my father making the long drive from Chicago to take me to her graduation. I will think about Nicole’s summer breaks and all of the concert shenanigans we got into. I will think about how my father would have loved James Franklin. I will think about how her sorority sent the most beautiful flowers to her memorial. But most importantly, I will remember the amazing big sister I had for the first 31 years of my life.