September 3rd, 2005.
The inaugural game for Ron Zook and my first game as a season ticket holder for Illinois football. I had been to games throughout my life, but this year I was all in. Ron Zook was wrongly fired at Florida. We’ll take him, and when he wins 8 games each season we’ll put a statue up next to Red Grange.
The 33-30 OT win over Rutgers cemented it. We were on the right track. Well, 2-9 overall and 0-8 in the Big Ten that season didn’t quite bring us back to prominence, but the Rose Bowl year was awesome, right?
In 2007 my friend and I upgraded our seats and added a couple more tickets to our group. We ended up sitting behind some of the best people you could hope to meet. That season was amazing and we decided to start tailgating together.
This is our 15th year together. The group gets bigger and smaller as families grow and people move away, but the core is still there. Marty and Marla Deem are the consummate hosts. They have never met a stranger. Every home game we get together. Meals are planned weekly via a group text and the bar is always stocked. Rumchata and Fireball are Marla’s specialty and no one has ever left hungry. We are a football family. Every season we pick up right where we left off. It is one of my favorite places in the world.
I always knew I wanted to write something about Illinois sports and what it means to me. My daughter rolls her eyes each time I yell at the TV and my son is just getting into sports and has his room decked out in Illini memorabilia. I wanted them to know that it isn’t just what happens on the field. It’s Marla’s caramel puffs and Marty on the grill. It is the sound of the band and the nervousness you feel in a close game. It’s the sea of orange and blue fans who all want the same thing. We all have our traditions and superstitions, but the feeling is universal. For those of us who love Illinois sports, there is nothing like game day.
Football at Illinois is a children’s book about Saturdays in the fall at Memorial Stadium. From the tailgate to the stadium, you’ll feel like you’re right in the middle of the action. It will be available Sept. 30 on Amazon and later through my website. You can join my Reader List for updates and reach out with any questions at nicksmithbooks.com.
I saw a meme recently that accurately represents most sports fans. I’ll paraphrase. It says we pick our favorite team when we are 8 and then proceed to let them make us miserable our entire life. I think that’s true, but picking the Illini has also given me some of the best memories and greatest friends of my life. So I’ll take 2-9/0-8, like in 2005, if it means I get to hang out with these people each week.