Reap The Fruit
There are about four posts I've wanted to write today. This is the fifth one. The best one. I need to describe my afternoon and evening if I'm going to explain why I bailed on the first four posts. Just like last night's post, this might take a while.
It's October 12, 2019. I told you, in no uncertain terms, that this was going to be the moment. Just hold on, a payoff is coming. We will finally announce our presence on a national stage.
And when we cut the 28-point lead to 3, I honestly thought it was happening. Is October 12, 2019 seriously going to end with the greatest comeback in Illini history? How would I even write that post? Would my fingers fall off?
That was post one. It didn't happen. Stanley Green was one inch from an interception. We had a chance to stop Michigan on fourth and three. None of that happened. Michigan won. I pointed to the left field bleachers and then popped out to the shortstop.
I then recorded From The Stands which... I might not post? I tried to post it, but it wouldn't work, and when I went to try to upload it from my laptop, my laptop battery died. I can tell you what it was about - it was about Dre Brown. He inspires me. The things he did to get from three knee surgeries to a touchdown (and two-point conversion) getting us within three of Michigan at home on October 12, 2019 - it inspires me. I choked up talking about it. Does anyone truly comprehend the effort he personally put in attempting to bring this program back? It's so incredibly inspiring.
I then interviewed Dre after the game which... I might not post? It felt more like a conversation than an interview, and posting it feels like I'd just want you to hear how many compliments I showered on him. I really think I'm going to just keep it between him and me. I needed to tell him that his fight meant something to me. So much turmoil around him (three head coaches), so many barricades in his way (three knee surgeries), and now, so much fight in his senior year. Kid is balling out there.
I wanted to post my From The Stands but I also wanted to swing by the tailgate I attend (a Tailgreat-winning tailgate, I might add), so I went to the elevator to go back to the pressbox to get my power cord to charge my computer to post the From The Stands (that would have been post #2). While waiting for the elevator I was engulfed by the Michigan media horde returning from Jim Harbaugh's presser.
I'm not sure if you know how these things work, but media hordes are much like cliques at high school. The stoners behave the way you'd expect the stoners to behave and the mean girls behave like you'd expect the mean girls to behave and the Michigan media horde behaves exactly like you'd expect a Michigan media horde to behave. Line for the elevator? There's no line - I don't know that guy, but I'm going to get in front of him because I have a Michigan story to write. Normal filing off of an elevator, people near the door first and then people at the back last? Screw that, I'm shoving past. He must not know we write about Michigan. Michigan.
At that point, I'd had enough. I grabbed my power cord and headed right back to the elevator. I can't write right now (that would have been post #3 which would have basically been "ever watched the Michigan media horde descend on a visiting pressbox like they own the place? I have"). Best to just get out of there. Someone get me a drink.
So I went to the tailgate where I met up with my wife and friends. I needed to forget about Illini football. The tailgate wrapped up around 5:00 and then we headed to Murphy's. It was my freshman roommate and his girlfriend, my senior roommate and his wife, my wife and I. Time to act like it's 1994 again.
My wife and I arrived first (ALWAYS park on Healey, people), so we held down a table and waited for our friends to arrive. Well, my wife held down the table and I went up to order. I ordered a basket of fries for an appetizer, a pitcher of beer for the table, and a vodka tonic for my wife. Then a guy appeared from my right saying "are you Robert? I want to pay for your order." Then a guy appeared from my left saying "are you Robert? I want to pay for your order." And then they fought over paying.
I need to you know, this means a lot to me. When you do something as your hobby and not your career, I can't really describe how great it is to have people reach out and say "hey man, I appreciate what you do". When I'm driving home from Champaign at 1:30 in the morning after some basketball game in February, thinking back on moments like two guys wanting to pay for the drinks at my table means a ton. Seriously - a ton.
And that was going to be my fourth post. I get "are you Robert?" a ton, and please, never hesitate to stop me on the street. Knowing that people read and appreciate the blog is life fuel for me. We're all in this together, so if you want to stop me on the street to chat about the offensive guards, I am absolutely down. You're never, ever bothering me. To the group of guys over by where you pick up your Murphy's order - I'm sorry I couldn't stop and talk longer. To the guys who split the tab for my drinks - thanks so much.
Then we went to KAM'S. And we've now reached the fifth post. The one I'm writing.
Today was really, really difficult for me. This might not be my job, but I do ask people to pay $24 per year for full access to every post. So I feel a certain responsibility to my readers. It's dumb, I know, but it's the only way I can do this. We made a deal and you pay me money so I must bring you my absolute best.
In the last 3.5 years, I cannot tell you how many people have reached out to me with "October 12, 2019" (Twitter, texts, emails, yelling it across the street). I clung to it and I asked you to cling to it. Just hold on. It's all going to turn around soon. Just a little longer.
Michigan 42, Illinois 25. It didn't happen.
So my anger at the Michigan media horde was probably a tiny bit related to that. I feel like I let everyone down. I know that makes you say "Lovie let us down, not you", and I get that, but this is just how I felt. This is where I was when I walked into KAM'S one final time before it closes (and moves) in a few weeks.
Then I ran into... all of you. As I type this, the phone keeps buzzing with group texts from my friends and more photos they took of people coming up to say hi. I got absolutely Are You Robert'd to death, and I loved it. I needed it.
You told me how much the site means to your dad. You invited me to your weddings (I'll seriously be there). You told me how your husband clings to the blog to get him through these impossible times. You asked me to never give up hope. You bought me shots.
I ran into the group of guys who all tweeted me at midnight last night (like, all of them, exactly at midnight) to point out that it's October 12, 2019. I told them this morning that we were going to meet up at the northwest corner of the stadium if it happened today. When we cut it to 28-25, I was dreaming of that celebration. We just couldn't get there.
I ran into the group of guys I hung out with at Braggin' Rights a few years ago when I couldn't find my friends at Ballpark Village afterwards. We recorded ILL-INI chants to be sent to parents. We talked what's next and how will this ever turn around and is basketball really going to save us?
I ran into a group of former student managers who called themselves five of the seventeen. They gave me the same encouragement - keep going, keep believing, some day we'll get everything right and it will happen and we want to read about it when it does. I cannot tell you how good it is for my soul to remember that we're all in this together. My angst over October 12, 2019 faded and I remembered why I do this: to be inspired by Dre Brown and to laugh, cry, grieve, and (hopefully, eventually) celebrate with you.
Like, I don't need to figure it out. I don't really need to tell you when the program is going to turn around. This whole October 12, 2019 thing grew into something I couldn't control, and I rode the wave, thinking I might be on to something, and then we got to a scenario where if we had won on 10.12.2019 our coach would have been 5-25 in Big Ten games. Instead, he's 4-26. Was October 12th really going to make that much of a difference?
So tonight re-centered me. I'm so incredibly inspired. I know what I need to do. And my chat with Jack helped me get there.
Jack was the last person I talked to before we left KAM'S. He comes to every game, and he reads the blog, and he wanted me to know how much it meant to him. Again, I'll never tire of hearing that. I do it for that.
I'll try not to share too many details of my chat with Jack - he got very personal discussing his father and how his Illini fandom stretches back to the construction of Memorial Stadium - but I do want to end on something he said.
"Some day, we will reap the fruit."
He talked about olive trees, and how they sometimes take years (more than a decade) before producing fruit, and his family's rich history with olive trees (and their patience waiting for the fruit). And his statements were completely disconnected from what we spend all of our time thinking about ("is the coach the right guy?" "will this ever turn around?"). It wasn't "just wait, the Lovie hire will bear fruit". Nothing of the sort. It was very simple: Illini fandom is in our blood, and for some of us (like him and me), it was passed down from our fathers, and we'll never, ever stray from it.
That can be taken advantage of, obviously. If Jack and I are going to show up for games year after year, decade after decade, why is there any incentive for the powers-that-be to build a winning program? Wouldn't it be better if we spoke with our wallets? Shouldn't I use more words here to put pressure on the administration?
I can't speak for you (and perhaps I'm making a big assumption by saying I can speak for Jack), but we can't do that. This is college football, and the players are there because they want to attend my school and wear our colors (OUR colors), and I want to watch them every chance I get. It absolutely sucks that we let them down time after time with bad administrative decisions, but the reality is that Jack and I will simply wait to reap the fruit. If it takes ten years for the tree to bear any fruit, man, that's so unfair, but we're in.
So I feel like I sit here a changed man. A re-focused man. Like I lost my way but just found the road I was looking for. I'm not a reporter nor am I a prognosticator. I'm a fan first and foremost (and, perhaps, only), and we're all in this together. Tonight, you all helped me remember that.
And when it does happen? I'll see you all at the Rose Bowl.
Please come say hi.