Our Guys


Robert
May 20, 2019
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11 Comments

Nobody understands our experience. We cheer for a team that doesn't win, and because we don't win, we're a little different. There aren't wins to cheer for, or bowl games, so we're left to cheer for the players. They're wearing orange and blue, so they're family.

Just walk around the field during one of these autograph sessions (like after the spring game) and you'll understand what I mean by "family". At Ohio State, when the players sit down for autographs, there's a long line of people lined up to get selfies and signatures from their heroes. "Can't wait to see you beat Michigan again", they tell them.

At Illinois, it's different. No tables, no lines - just the fans invited on the field to get autographs from the players. There aren't many fans, so there aren't any tables (well, besides the one line and table for Lovie to sign your Bears jersey). It's just... a bunch of people mingling. There's not much "can't wait so see you beat Michigan" because, well, you know...

I've watched this happen after Rantoul scrimmages and I've watched this happen after the spring games. I've probably stood around watching a similar scene 15 times, thinking how unique it must be. You can't do that at Wisconsin - there'd be 18,000 fans on the field. The only place where the players and fans could interact this much would be, say, a program that only has two winning Big Ten seasons in the last 25 years.

Maybe Kansas football fans have the same experience - I don't really know - but from my interactions with other Big Ten fans, our fandom is certainly unique. Mostly because we lose at the time and have no hope, which means we follow the players differently. Michigan fans cheer for Icarus to not fly too close to the sun; Illini fans know they're cheering for Sisyphus to push the stone up the hill. Michigan fans get angry at Icarus; Illinois fans feel compassion for Sisyphus.

Because of this construct, tragedy is personal. When Mikey Dudek went down with his fourth injury in four years, there weren't any "do we have enough WR depth to still reach 10 wins?" discussions. It was personal. Please no. Not Mikey.

Which is why I'm at "please no - not Bobby" today. If you don't know what I'm referring to, Bobby Roundtree was severely injured in a swimming accident this weekend and is in the hospital in critical condition. My heart aches just typing those words. Not Bobby. Not Superman.

We don't know much at this point. Just that this was a "severe spinal injury" which required surgery last night and that he is in critical yet stable condition. My first thought is that this is way beyond football. I'm not concerned about him returning to play football - I'm concerned that he recover and can live a normal life.

I'm a liar. That's not true. My very first thought was that this would mark the fifth consecutive year where the player who would be #1 on my "90 Illini" list was injured. The first thought is always selfish. The first thought is always "we're cursed". We're selfish beings to the core, so the first thought is always "woe is me".

But that thought is easy to shake away. Just go search for the words "Bobby Roundtree" on Twitter. Watch how his teammates (and our fans) are reacting. For us fans, it may sound harsh, but we already care less about wins and losses than just about any fanbase - I mean, we're Illinois fans. So we've developed this strange fandom where we care more about individual players reaching their dreams than perhaps any other college fanbase.

Don't believe me? Go look at Illini fans on Twitter Saturday night and their absolute glee at the way Meyers Leonard was playing in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals. Or just do this - go look up Justin Hardee tweets when he makes a big special teams play for the Saints this fall. Yes, other fanbases do this, but not to this degree. When Malik Turner caught his first pass in a Seahawks game one of my group texts erupted like the Illini had just beaten Wisconsin.

Is it sad? Sure. I'm sure some Michigan State fan would look down at me with "poor guy doesn't get to cheer for any wins so he's reduced to cheering for special teams tackles in meaningless NFL games" scorn. Yeah, it's fairly lame. But I'm telling you, when the AAF rosters came out and I saw that Chunky Clements was on one of the teams, I was crazy excited.

And when I saw that Bobby Roundtree was in a severe accident, I was crazy gutted. This is a man with an NFL future. At our training camp last summer is when I started writing "will he be the first Illini player to leave early for the NFL since 2011?" articles. There would be so many text chain celebrations for big NFL moments over the next 10 years.

Hopefully, there still are. I guess we don't really know the full severity of the injury, so perhaps "severe spinal injury" stops short of some form of paralysis. I've been assuming he's done with football, but maybe there's an ending to this that includes "he's lucky to have avoided serious injury and fully recovered". That's what I'll be praying for. That he can still reach his dreams.

But it doesn't feel like that right now. This appears to be a very serious medical issue, and the words "critical condition" are involved, so right now, we should probably echo his teammates prayers: pull through, Bobby. We can worry about the rest later - right now we want you with us.

Maybe I'm wrong and this isn't unique. Maybe all fanbases would eventually land on "this player had such a bright future in the NFL and I couldn't wait to cheer for him in the playoffs" instead of "this player had such a bright future and I couldn't wait to see him lead us to the playoff". But from 10 years of observing this up close, I think I'm right. I think Illini fans are fairly unique in how we follow our individual players.

And I also think that Illini players are unique in how they rally around a guy like Bobby. Not that they don't all have team goals to reach a bowl game, but I've noticed the last few years how the players that do make it to the NFL are the conquering heroes. This wasn't so much the case in the early 2010's when the Zook teams were seeing four players drafted each year. But in the last five years, with so many coaching changes and so much upheaval, these teammates really rally around a guy like Nick Allegretti getting drafted in the 7th round. Maybe it's the small town thing where everyone rallies around the guy who made it big or something. Whatever it is, our roster is unique.

Which means that the support behind Bobby Roundtree is overwhelming for such a small and insignificant football program. I really believe that. It sounds strange to say, but you'd have to lose like we lose to fully understand it. We're very player-centric, and when one of our players goes down, we feel it. I know I'm one of many who is absolutely sick to their stomach today.

Look, I'm not saying "if a Penn State player had a severe spinal injury their fanbase wouldn't care - they'd all run to the depth chart to see who the Next Man Up would be". We're all humans, and tragedy is gut-wrenching. I'm just pointing out that this fanbase - this tortured, butt-of-all-jokes fanbase - is extremely player-driven. If the team isn't going to succeed, we want to see individual players succeed. And when the one with the brightest NFL future is injured this way, it's absolutely devastating. Bobby was destined for NFL stardom and all that comes with it.

Perhaps he still is. I'm still hoping and praying that "severe" doesn't mean "severe". That's all we can really do right now.

So we're praying for something miraculous, Big Bob. All of us.

Comments

ktcesw on May 20 @ 02:44 PM CDT

Great post! Thank you!

Chukwuwumba on May 20 @ 10:03 PM CDT

Excellent read. Thank you.

ATOillini on May 21 @ 09:32 AM CDT

I was wondering how you were going to handle this. Certainly a tremendously difficult situation to address, yet you've made many great points here.

I turned on the GS/Portland game last night and immediately saw Meyers hit a 3 pointer that I believe gave him 18 points at that moment. I saw Portland was leading, and it was still in the second quarter. I quickly turned it off as I thought to myself...."Don't mess things up by watching."

Yes, that's what years and years of what you've discussed above can do.

Prayers out to Bobby and family.

Sweetchuck13 on May 21 @ 09:58 AM CDT

Well said Robert, you captured it perfectly. Praying for Bobby and his family. He's got a ton of us pulling for him.

George on May 21 @ 08:06 PM CDT

"Mostly because we lose at the time and have no hope, which means we follow the players differently. Michigan fans cheer for Icarus to not fly too close to the sun; Illini fans know they're cheering for Sisyphus to push the stone up the hill. Michigan fans get angry at Icarus; Illinois fans feel compassion for Sisyphus."

....

"But that thought is easy to shake away. Just go search for the words "Bobby Roundtree" on Twitter. Watch how his teammates (and our fans) are reacting. For us fans, it may sound harsh, but we already care less about wins and losses than just about any fanbase - I mean, we're Illinois fans. So we've developed this strange fandom where we care more about individual players reaching their dreams than perhaps any other college fanbase."

...

"This appears to be a very serious medical issue, and the words "critical condition" are involved, so right now, we should probably echo his teammates prayers: pull through, Bobby. We can worry about the rest later - right now we want you with us."

...

Nicely done. Very nicely done. This is what we are ... and if you consider it, it's not so bad to have your soul reflect the right things, good things.

Thanks.

George on May 21 @ 08:21 PM CDT

"They're wearing orange and blue, so they're family."

Yes, yes, yes, and a million times yes. Ayo chooses to stay another year before making his dollars and we all immediately love him because he stayed loyal to the colors ... for whatever reason.. Mikey Dudek and Allegretti come in unheralded -- and we have had so many players like that -- but they stay true to the colors.

Dee Brown -- need I say more?

When they had those rubber bracelets years back, every school had them ... and each one had a word that the marketing people figured told a story about their school. Illinois' word was loyalty.

I still have it.

And we love athletes who love our colors as much as we do. May Roundtree come out of this stronger than ever. May he go on to a happy productive life, happy marriage, lots of children who love their father. And may the illinois family always keep him close. Loyalty. That's what being an Illini fan means.

It should be what Illinois athletics is about.

Bear8287 on May 22 @ 03:17 AM CDT

We're loyal to you Illinois
We're "Orange and Blue," Illinois
We'll back you to stand
'Gainst the best in the land
For we know you have sand,
Illinois
Rah! Rah!
So crack out the ball Illinois
We're backing you all Illinois
Our team is the fame protector;
On boys, for we expect a
Victory from you Illinois
Chehee, Cheha, Cheha-ha-ha
Go Illini Go
Chehee, Cheha, Cheha-ha-ha
Go Illini Go
Illinois, Illinois, Illinois
Fling out that dear old flag of
Orange and Blue
Lead on your sons and daughters,
Fighting for you;
Like men of old, on giants
Placing reliance, shouting defiance
Oskee-wow-wow!
Amid the broad green plains
That nourish our land,
For honest labor and for learning we stand,
And unto thee we pledge our heart and hand,
Dear Alma Mater, Illinois

Keep up the fight Bobby. We're all hoping for the best for you.

Thanks for the article Robert.

mrmill on May 21 @ 11:12 PM CDT

I think this perfectly captures my emotions on this one. Guilt in thinking first that our FB program most likely will be terrible again, when this is way bigger than that. Hope he's ok.

212Daniel on May 22 @ 10:08 AM CDT

This might be the time/place to ask about a player who my mind(which is slipping badly) remembers. But I wonder if I've got the story right. There was a FB player in the Blackmon era whose name ( again, I think) was John Wilson. This guy had NFL written all over him. Played HB, WR, returned punts/kicks, etc. He left after a couple yrs. My recollection is that he had a brother with kidney failure. If the player donated a kidney, the docs said playing with 1 kidney was too dangerous. But the player went ahead & donated, ending his FB career. Am I remembering this right? Anybody know the rest of the story? Has the Univ ever acknowledged him? If I'm recollecting correctly & I had $80M, the new S end of the Stadium would be named in his honor. That sacrifice & love is what this should be about. Illinois Loyalty

track on May 22 @ 10:32 AM CDT

"So we're praying for something miraculous" Yes, we are. Difficult to put words to this. I haven't looked at any of the football forums on the other two sites. It's just too painful. "Our Father...."

deadguy on May 22 @ 05:34 PM CDT

This is why you are the best blogger around.

Pretty much sums up how I feel and expressed in a way that I could never do.

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