Category Archives: Illinois Football

9/11 at 11

We go from here.

When I was growing up my father said this to me when I did something that threw me off stride in my march to adulthood.  No choir boy, I heard it often.

I’m grateful to have been raised by parents born in the 1920’s. Mom and Dad weathered the Great Depression and WWII. “Potato pancakes” was a staple at their supper tables. Mom was a survivor of polio, Dad, bloody combat.  When he was nineteen his platoon was decimated in the Battle of the Bulge, seven soldiers alive at the end, five walking, they carried the other two to a field hospital.  The platoon was filled with replacements and Dad and the others followed Patton across Europe to victory.

We go from here.

My parents experienced suffering in a way few from succeeding American generations have. But that suffering provided a sense of proportion to their daily lives. Far too often now, Americans, as individuals and a country, invoke the term “crisis” to describe things that I’m certain my folks would view as challenges, but not crises.

9/11 was different.

I asked Mom if it was worse than Pearl Harbor.

“Yes,” she said, voice cracking.

I called Dad.  Only months from death, three packs a day of Lucky Strikes taking their toll, he struggled to breathe and his short-term memory was shot. But he understood what happened on 9/11.

“We’ll beat ’em,” he whispered.

We go from here.

A few weeks after 9/11 I drove to West Lafayette, Indiana with three buddies from high school to watch the Illinois-Purdue football game.  I don’t remember who won. I recall a small plane approaching the stadium, a wind-whipped advertising banner in tow. Everyone’s attention went from the game on the field to the plane in the sky.  I realized I’d never hear the approach of an airplane or gaze at its flight path in the same way again.

Ten years passed.

The fall of 2011 I was at the Illinois home game against South Dakota State with a friend I’ve made since 9/11. Two trumpeters played taps and there was a moment of silence. Throughout the game uniformed service men and women, Illinois alums, talked and waved from the big screen on the stadium scoreboard, some holding babies, others taped from overseas posts.

The next morning, the tenth anniversary, I stretched in front of the TV, preparing to run three miles on a quiet Sunday morning.  Relatives of people who were killed on 9/11 read names of victims, ending with their loved one and a brief remembrance of what they meant to them. Tears welled in my eyes.

I ran.

Along the way I waved to friends, neighbors and a local cop on patrol.  I thought of the last decade, years 9/11 victims and their families lost. With rare exception, my wife, Yolanda, and I put our children to bed every night and awoke with them each morning.  We went to piano recitals, soccer games, swim meets, first communions, birthday parties, and high school graduations. Our daughter, Anissa, blossomed into a woman. Our son, Michael, survived a horrific auto accident. The paramedics told us there was a ten percent chance someone survived such a crash in one piece. Our son walked away and, two years later, off to college.  Both my parents died.

I finished my run strong, racing up the final hill to our house.  I snatched a cold bottle of water from the fridge and wandered into the TV room where Yolanda was watching the 9/11 memorials.  Paul Simon sang “Sound of Silence.”

When he finished, Yolanda told me that earlier that day a suicide bomber injured seventy-seven American service men and women at a base in Afghanistan. Five Afghani civilians, including a three-year old girl, were killed.

It’s Sunday, September 9th, 2012, and I open the Champaign News-Gazette to articles about memorial plans for the eleventh anniversary. At the bottom of page one is the headline “On average, U.S. has lost a soldier each day in 2012.” One of the latest casualties was Pfc. Shane W. Cantu, twenty, one year younger than Michael. Cantu was, according to his buddies, a lot like my son, a gregarious guy who lit up every room he entered. Cantu was ten years old on 9/11. In the story, a military historian says Afghanistan has become the “’Who Cares?’ war.”

Ten years, now eleven.

We go from here.

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Filed under 21st Century America, 9/11, Citizen Soldiers, Family, Friends, Greatest Generation, Illinois Football, Newspaper, Running, September 2012, Small town America, World War II

Everything Old is New with the Orange and Blue

When  I was a kid in the early 70’s my folks would pile the family into our speed boat length Plymouth station wagon, with a rear facing back seat, a couple Saturdays each fall and drive from Bloomington-Normal to Champaign to see an Illinois football game.  We caravanned with a couple other families. Often we swung by my oldest brother’s fraternity house so he could join us.  I remember walking up the steps of the frat with my mom, dad and brother so the folks could check out his room.  As he approached each floor my brother hollered a warning to guys who might be walking to the showers:  “Female on second floor…female on third floor…”

Sometimes we ate buffet style at a family operated restaurant not far from Memorial Stadium.  Other times, we’d tailgate in the stadium parking lot, a spread of cold cuts, crackers, cheese, fruit, and vegetables with brownies for dessert laid out on a card table. My folks and their friends had a few adult beverages, the men carrying leather cases containing high ball glasses and steel mixers, Martinis and  Manhattans a favorite of the WWII generation. Most of the men smoked, flicking grey ash on the concrete, stubbing the cigarettes out with the toe of their shoes. The kids drank Coca Cola and tossed a football, pretending to be Mike Wells, the all-star quarterback for the Illini.

Wells, who my brother played high school basketball with, was the then designated savior of Illinois football. From an athletic perspective, Wells was super human.  Six-foot five, two hundred twenty-five pounds, he was a three sport star in high school. The San Diego Padres offered him a hefty bonus to sign as a pitcher.  Wells threw ropes on the football field, the spiral tight, the ball zinging past defenders.  When he turned up field to run, his long legs gobbled up yards.  Bigger than many of the linebackers and secondary backs of that era, Wells did not go down easy once caught.  He was also an accomplished punter and placekicker.  Wells kicked off using the old straight legged method, rocketing the ball high and deep into the far end zone.  All the major colleges recruited him, including the new coach at Michigan, Bo Schembechler. My dad, who Wells asked to sit in on a breakfast meeting with Schembechler at the local Holiday Inn, was impressed with the Michigan coach and hoped Wells would play for the maize and blue. Treasonous talk in Illini country, but my dad, a pragmatic man, when asked his opinion (and, let’s be honest, when not asked) spoke the truth as he saw it. But Wells chose Illinois.  While a great player for the Illini and drafted in the fourth round by the Minnesota Vikings where he played backup to Fran Tarkenton, Wells could not resurrect the Illinois program.

In fairness to Wells, since Red Grange galloped off campus in the 1920’s, the Illinois football “tradition” has been spotty. Not that there have not been good teams and players.  The Ray Eliot squads of the mid-forties, with a national championship in ’51, Dick Butkus leading the Rose Bowl champs in ’63, Mike White’s run in the 1980’s, seven bowl appearances in the ’90’s, the Sugar Bowl in 2002 and the Rose in 2008.  But in my almost fifty years on earth, the Illini have never been consistently good, unable to build a nationally recognized program on a par with midwestern rivals like Michigan, Ohio State, or Notre Dame.

Yet, for Illini fans, hope springs eternal. There is no Mike Wells at Illinois right now, but sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is talented. The Missouri Player of the Year in high school, Scheelhaase runs a 4.5 forty and throws a good ball.  So it was that yesterday, compelled by tradition and the chance to spend a beautiful fall day on an energized campus, I drove over to see the Illini face off with nationally ranked Arizona State.  These are games that Illinois traditionally loses, the 2001 team the last to beat a ranked non-conference opponent.  My kids are attending other colleges and my wife, Yolanda, a Texan used to supporting winning teams is not interested in the mediocre Illini, so I tailgated with a good friend, grilling fajitas and homemade tortillas.  Some kids next to us tossed a football around while we tossed back a few brews.  Some ASU supporters, sporting gold and red shirts, were nearby and we talked to them about everything but football, the game to settle that debate.  Later we hooked up with friends from high school and my younger sister, before taking our seats, a typical tailgating game day not much different from when I was a kid.

But then, an unexpected thing happened: Illinois won.

Scheelhaase was not great, but he ran the ball well and made a couple of big throws. The Illinois defense was aggressive and opportunistic, collapsing the pocket on ASU’s six-foot eight quarterback, Brock Osweiler, forcing turnovers and making big stops.  After one last defensive stand, the Illinois offense took possession with six minutes to go and on the last play of the game with four seconds remaining, Scheelhaase literally ran out the clock, taking the snap and racing backwards. Somewhere Red Grange may grimace at such tactics. But, hey, it was a smart play and we won.

As we waited for the traffic to clear, my buddy and I raised the hatchback of my thirteen-year old minivan, sat in lawn chairs and listened to the post-game show on the car radio.  The kids next to us tossed a football and took turns being Nathan Scheelhaase.

The night cool, the stars bright, we all enjoyed what can only be called a winning tradition.

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Filed under Family, Football, Illinois Football, September 2011

“We go from here”

We go from here.

When I was growing up my father said this to me when something occurred that threw me off stride in my march to adulthood.  No choir boy, I heard it often.

I’m grateful to have been raised by parents born in the 1920’s. Mom and Dad weathered the Great Depression, “potato pancakes” a staple at both their supper tables, and WWII.  Mom was a survivor of polio, Dad, bloody combat.  When he was nineteen his platoon was decimated in the Battle of the Bulge.  Seven soldiers alive at the end, five walking, they carried the other two to a field hospital.  The platoon was filled with replacements and Dad and the others followed Patton across Europe to victory.

We go from here.

My parents experienced suffering in a way few from succeeding American generations have.  But that suffering provided a sense of proportion to their every day lives which I find lacking in America today.  Far too often as individuals and as a country we invoke the term “crisis” to describe things that I’m certain my folks would view as challenges, but certainly not rising to the level of an emergency.

9/11 was different.

I remember asking Mom if it was worse than Pearl Harbor.

“Yes,” she said, voice cracking.

I called Dad.  A few months from death himself, he struggled to breathe and his short-term memory was shot. But he was aware of what occurred.

“We’ll beat ’em,” he whispered.

A few weeks after 9/11 I drove to West Lafayette, Indiana with three buddies from high school to watch the Illinois-Purdue football game.  I don’t remember who won. I recall a small plane approaching the stadium, an advertising banner trailing behind.  My attention went from the game on the field to the plane in the sky.  I realized I’d never hear the approach of an airplane or gaze at its flight path in the same way again.

Ten years pass.

Yesterday I’m at the Illinois home game against South Dakota State with a friend I’ve made since 9/11.  Two trumpeters play taps and there is a moment of  silence. Throughout the game uniformed service men and women, Illinois alums, talk and wave from the big screen on the stadium scoreboard, some holding babies, others taped from their posts overseas.

This morning I stretch in front of the TV, preparing to run three miles on a quiet Sunday morning.  Relatives of people who lost their lives on 9/11 read off the names of the victims, ending with their loved one and a brief remembrance of what they meant to them.  Tears well in my eyes.  I go run.

Along the way I wave to friends, neighbors and a local cop on patrol.  I think of the last ten years.  With rare exception, my wife, Yolanda, and I put our children to bed every night and awoke with them each morning.  We went to piano recitals, soccer games, swim meets, first communions, birth day parties, and high school graduations. Our daughter is now blossoming as a college freshman.  Our son, having survived a horrific auto accident (the paramedics told us there was a one in ten chance someone walks away from such a crash — our son walked away) is halfway through college and making plans to live in Taiwan after graduation.  Both my parents passed but remain a presence, a gift I will cherish until my final day.

I finish my run strong, racing up the final hill to our house.  I snatch a cold bottle of water Yolanda put in the fridge for me the night before and wander into the TV room where she is watching the 9/11 memorials.  Paul Simon sings “Sound of Silence.” Tears well in the eyes of the people in the crowd.

When he finishes, Yolanda tells me that earlier today a suicide bomber injured seventy-seven American service men and women at a base in Afghanistan. Five Afghani civilians, including a three-year old girl, were killed.

We go from here.

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Filed under 9/11, Family, Football, Friends, Greatest Generation, Illinois Football, Running