I'm still not out in California yet. For a myriad of reasons, this is going to be a short trip for me. So my bowl experience so far has been flipping through Twitter and Instagram (yes, me, Instagram) to see the players enjoying their time in San Francisco. And I have to say, nothing makes me happier.
Let's do some backdrop here. As you've probably heard me say before, the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in 2011 (this bowl game, just a different name) was one of my favorite Illini experiences ever. Personally, it was my first-ever game in a pressbox. But beyond that, the players enjoying that trip was one of my favorite things to observe from up close. I traveled out to the Bay Area and documented all of it on the old blog.
It was quite the week. As you might remember, 2011 was the build-up and then the collapse. 6-0, ranked 14th, and then six straight losses and the coach was fired. There was a heaviness to that team - players always feel personally responsible when a coach gets fired (why wouldn't they?) and no one ever talks about that part of it - and then, the on-field celebration after beating UCLA was insane. Several months of bottled-up emotions come out in one big moment of triumph. The contrast of that moment - the whole world laughing at another useless bowl game while I was there observing this incredible triumph over the cloud of the previous two months - shaped the way I write today. It's the most important moment of my fake career.
Because of that, and I haven't been talking about this because I haven't wanted to talk bad about the bowl game, I didn't feel the need to replicate it this year. The team was serving meals at St. Anthony's yesterday in San Francisco and I felt like covering that again would just be an attempt to recapture that great moment in 2011. Those four days in San Francisco were really important to me, and there was this part of me that was disappointed our 2019 bowl destination was the same place (for me, not for the players - thrilled they get to visit San Francisco).
It's not like I'm skipping the game. I'm still headed out there and I plan to celebrate like crazy Monday night after a win. I'm just not doing the full bowl coverage like I did in 2011 and 2014.
And the main reason for that isn't even football. It's that my son is home with his fiancee and we've had nonstop family stuff since Christmas. His St. Louis friends planned a second engagement party at our place for the happy couple (their engagement was in Idaho and none of their friends have seen them until now), so we set that for December 28th. Why December 28th? Because the only bowl games on the 28th were the playoff games and there was no chance Illinois would be in a playoff game. Had we made the Pinstripe Bowl, I would have flown back yesterday afternoon for the party. We made the Redbox Bowl, so I'm flying out tomorrow morning.
Yes, the morning of the game instead of today. Why? Honestly, so I can fly with my son and fiancee. Their flight was booked for Monday first thing, and when we were picked for the Redbox Bowl and I started looking at flights to San Jose, I saw that I could join them on their first leg of their flight back to Idaho. We change planes in Denver, they go home, and I fly to San Jose. Then it's straight to tailgating and then the game.
There's a lot of strange things you get excited about as a parent when all of your kids are in their 20's. And nothing really tops having them all home for Christmas, fiancee included. The fact that I don't have to take them to the airport and send them back to Idaho and instead will board the plane and fly half of the journey with them is one of those really, really exciting things. I'm not sure if I'm more excited about that or the bowl game.
OK bowl game.
As a result of all of this, I'm obsessed with following the bowl festivities from afar. I'm apparently an Instagram Stories stalker now, checking out every post from every player. Not one of them have ever been to a bowl game (well, besides the transfers), so getting to see them living it up, taking photos of downtown San Francisco as they're being ferried out to Alcatraz Island... man, it's just so awesome. So much fight in this team - Wisconsin, Michigan State - and for them to get a holiday payoff in California is so, so great. I cannot get enough of it.
And that's how this should be. That's the whole reason behind this whole bowl thing. I love that I get to fly to California tomorrow and pull for my team, but this is about them and their trip and their five year battle to get back to a bowl. The swag bag, the events, the downtown San Francisco hotel - this is about them enjoying every moment.
Now, there is one big difference between this game and 2011: we really need to win. We need the offseason momentum. I spend the entire KFHB in 2011 tweeting "people, this game couldn't matter less - just have fun". It was interim coach vs. interim coach. Nothing meant anything. Zook had already been fired, Beckman had already been hired.
This game? This game would be a nice offseason boost. We wouldn't want to be Purdue and take a 6-6 season and then go gag on a bowl game (they were down something like 35-0 in the second quarter last year). Let's get this W.
But overall, this is about the trip. I'm so glad these guys are experiencing this. And I can't wait to join them tomorrow.
As long as I don't grab the wrong boarding pass and end up with my son in Idaho.