24 Hours In Champaign April 27, 2010
Thanks to a pushed-back project deadline, a couple extra hours of vacation time, and an understanding wife, I drove to Champaign on Friday afternoon to get a head start on the Spring Game. I figured I’d watch practice, catch up on some blogging, and get a good seat for the game. All that, and I love the place. I miss it more and more every time I go back.
I had called to football office to verify that the practice was a) still on, and b) open to the public. It was. I hit the road, found a parking spot, hustled to the practice fields, and…
Now I had a decision to make. Bluster my way into the Irwin Indoor Facility and claim to be media? I’d driven there – might as well give it a shot.
On my way to the Irwin, I noticed the door to the northeast stair tower was open. They wouldn’t be, I mean, it wouldn’t be as simple as…
Open the doors, and there’s all the people.
I wasn’t exactly sure if I was supposed to be there, as most everyone milling about in the East stands seemed to know each other. But I used my jacket to dry off the wet bleachers and got to work watching Trulon Henry do his thing.
After 67 minutes of that, I wandered back in to the East Great Hall. Gameday Sports was doing a big garage sale of sorts. Miles and miles of Illini clothes, all of it super cheap. I purchased lots of orange. It was awesome. Everyone in the family got something, including a Vontae Davis fitted woman’s jersey for my wife. We’re all set for our next weekend away.
There was one item that didn’t seem to be selling very well. Not sure if it was the theme, or the design, or…
As I was getting ready to make my purchases, the players (THE PLAYERS!) started to wander through on their way to the Varsity Club. Eddie and Travon! My Man Mikel! Justin Green and his walking boot! How scary is it that I know these next two are early enrollee Shawn Afryl and freshman-next-fall Michael Heitz! I considered pictures (too creepy), or maybe autographs (too nerdy), and I settled on “mill about and pretend like I’m still shopping so I can see which players wander through next”.
That didn’t last too long – even that felt creepy – so I made my purchases and headed out. And who did I just so happen to be following as I made my way out of the hall?
Randall Hunt! Jack Cornell Jr.! Ryan Palmer!
(My phone makes a fake camera shutter sound when it takes a picture, and after I snapped this photo, Randall Hunt turned around to see who the stalker was. I put the phone in my jacket pocket and pulled the “hmmm – what is that up there above the concession stand?” routine until he turned back around. Creepy, I know. But Randall Hunt!)
Seeing Big Jack reminded me of the episode of The Journey where he tried to take the Big Fat Ugly Challenge (skip ahead to the 5:00 mark), so I knew exactly where I needed to eat.
It was about the time that I walked into this place that I realized that some dude who graduated from UIUC in Nineteen Ninety-something, eating alone, on campus, on a Friday night, was That Guy. I pondered that for a bit as I ordered the Big Fat Walk Of Shame sandwich, but I came to the realization that taking stalker photos of offensive linemen was a much worse social offense, and I could eat my sandwich in peace. With a caffeine-free Diet Pepsi.
For the record, that’s cheesesteak, bacon, egg, cheese, ketchup, mayo, and french fries on a bun. Yes, it’s real. Yes, it was spectacular.
After this, I headed straight to my hotel. Nothing but the Champaign’s finest accommodations for this blogger, complete with a piece of wood holding the air conditioner together and cigarette stains on the floor, the chair, and, yes, the bathtub.
I watched some NFL draft coverage (Rejus! Big Jon!) and attempted to get some sleep. But the high school tennis team in the next room wouldn’t let me. I didn’t mind – I was enjoying reliving the memories. And I felt really sorry for Justin.
“Hey Justin, coach wants to see you in his room upstairs”
“Coach does? Really?”
“Yep, Room 218. He said not to knock – just walk right in.”
“OK, if Coach wants me to…”
I considered yelling “don’t do it, kid” through the paper walls, but decided against it. Poor Justin.
Like Nathan Scheelhaase, I woke up before my alarm. Yes, because I was excited about the spring game. I headed down to the continental breakfast, ate a waffle and a bagel, returned to my room, showered, changed, and headed out to drive around good ol’ Champaign. I’m not kidding – I really miss that place.
Some friends of mine were tailgating, and I drove around a few of the lots to see if I could find them, but I couldn’t. So I decided to have my own tailgate.
That’s right. Diet Mountain Dew, Chili Cheese Fritos, and the News Gazette, sitting by myself in the Assembly Hall parking lot, staring impatiently at the clock waiting for 12:00 when the gates would open. Living. The. Dream.
I’m nearly finished reading the sports section when two students walk past my car. Wait… is that? *grabs phone/camera*
DJ Richardson! Demetri McCamey!
This time, I seriously considered autographs. My son would be loving life if the new t-shirt his dad brought home from Champaign included DJ and DMac’s signatures. Alas, Randall Hunt’s glare from the day before still had me scared, so I stayed in the car and moved on to the Lifestyles section.
The clock finally reached 11:45, and I headed to the stadium to get a good seat on the 50. Phyllis wouldn’t let me in – it was only 11:54, so I wandered around the sale items a little more until 12:00 hit. I had my spot picked out, marched right up to the 50, and…
A beautiful sight, isn’t it? Field of dreams. I could stare at that picture all day. The colors, the sounds, the smells – I’ll never not love the inside of that stadium.
The game? I covered that on Sunday. The game was secondary at this point. Yes, the crowd was disappointing. Yes, I’m scared of what the recruits – some who had been at Nebraska’s spring game the week before – thought of us. But despite the crowd, despite the lack of a crisp offense, despite the last 15 years of futility within those sidelines, I was happy. That place is Home.
I lingered for a bit after the game – waited until nearly everyone left, actually – and then headed back to my car. 23 hours in Champaign, and only one stop left to make.