Monday, June 27, 2011

Big Ten Memories - Illinois

Illinois has never been one of my favorite places to visit in the Big Ten. The stadium was older, I didn't like the fight song, and the PA announcer had annoying ways to fire up the crowd. We would be subjected to the phrases of "It's Special Teams Time" (something we constantly heard in 1994) or "3rd Down for the Illini." However in 2008, our most recent trip, we saw a renovated stadium and some of the amenities had improved. But the fight song hadn't changed. In fact, one of the greatest traditions in college football, Chief Illiniwek was no longer around, and the PA announcer continued to be annoying.

Every once in a while there is that one memorable game which identifies a season. In 1990 which one of those memorable games could be debated, but there was no more of a dominating Hawkeye performance that year than a match-up between #13 Iowa and #5 Illinois. The game was broadcast on ABC featuring one of the best teams in Illinois Football History. And on that day, we were reminded of how good Illinois football had been as they had been celebrating their 100 years of Illini Football.

Iowa had played very well on the road, with wins at Michigan and Michigan State earlier in the year, but few knew if the Hawkeyes could beat the mighty Illini on their home turf.

There was an excitement throughout the Iowa camp the week leading up to the game. Tickets were hard to come by, and many of my college friends were looking forward to an Iowa win as they had enough of the Illinois-based Iowa student body. There was a buzz the night before at the team hotel. The buzz was more of a confidence than excitement. Local stations from throughout the state had travelled to southern Illinois to cover this important contest.

In one of the more dominating performances I've been associated with on such a high profile stage, the Hawkeyes dominated an Illinois team that had little fight in them by half time. Nick Bell ran over and through them, making him a presence on the national stage. And Iowa football coach, Hayden Fry reached into his bag of tricks, faking a field goal and scoring a touchdown, another dagger to the Illini team. The celebration lasted late into the dark November night.

Another reason I disliked the trip to Memorial Stadium was the end zone shooting location. Beginning in 1990, the only place for us to shoot was on a scaffolding in the south end zone. Over time the platform was raised to many different levels. But in 2004 the scaffolding was one of the scariest experiences I had ever encountered. Winds had gusted throughout the game, and there was no protection from those winds. It had blown so hard that at halftime I had to take my camera off its tripod in order to collapse it. Otherwise I was afraid it would blow off. Throughout the game I had to hold onto a crossbar of the scaffold to ensure I wasn't going anywhere.

Fortunately it wasn't cold in 2004. It was in 1996 I realized how brutal it can get in that remote shooting spot. The wind chill dropped to 8 degrees above zero. I shared that end zone location with a student of the Illini Video Department. Just before half, his boss brought him two hot chocolates, myself had none. There were times it was cold to shoot the end zone, but I can't remember one much colder than that day.

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