When I was growing up as a kid in Chicago’s south suburbs, I didn’t think much about the Illinois Fighting Illini. Sure, I followed college sports as a general fan of football and basketball (and my gambling gene came to fruition by fifth grade, when I first started filling out NCAA Tournament brackets), but the teams I obsessed over when I was young were the Bulls, Bears, and White Sox.
This could have been the product of parents who attended the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois (as opposed to Urbana-Champaign), which has never been exactly a college sports hotbed. Plus, while Chicago has a great college sports presence with its proximity to Illinois, Northwestern, the other Big Ten schools, DePaul, and Notre Dame (that’s a wide and passionate fan base compared to New York or Boston), it’s still a pro sports town first and foremost. Certainly, Chicago isn’t a place like, say, Nebraska or even our neighboring state of Indiana, where the travails of the local colleges are the top sports stories not only during the season but in the offseason, as well.
Against all this, however, my sports priorities changed for the rest of my life ten years ago this fall. That was when I attended my first college football game as a University of Illinois student. Unfortunately, the Illini were pasted that day 550-0 by USC (that’s not a typo – I think they’re still scoring on us right now) in front of an ABC national television audience – an ominous foreshadowing of the performance of the Illinois football program until… well, until now. With nothing left to really be happy about (translation: we ran out of smuggled-in booze), we the members of the student section were at least able to taunt the Trojan bench with an “O.J. Simpson” cheer.
Despite having that damned Trojan fight song pounded into my head so badly that I now lash out everytime I hear it, from that point on I was an Illini forever. No other team – not the White Sox, not the Bears, not the Bulls – can evoke as much joy, frustration, and passion for me as the Fighting Illini, whether it’s basketball or football. The school bond transcends everything else.
That’s why March Madness is my favorite time of year. It’s the period where the most passionate sports bond you could possibly have – the one with your school – is on full display across the nation. Since a good number of my friends are people I went to college with, I sometimes forget that there are a lot of people out there who don’t understand or fully appreciate my outright fanatacism about the Illini. They might have gone to a school where sports weren’t on the radar of students or didn’t go to college at all. To them, the NCAA Tournament is the only time of the year where they pay any attention to college basketball, mostly to fill out brackets in an office pool.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with that – whether a school is in a BCS conference shouldn’t be a factor in determining where the average person ought to go to college – but it’s just that those people will never get to experience the pure exhiliration of dying hard for their schools. Anyone can wake up one day and decide to cheer for the White Sox, Cubs, or any other pro sports team (i.e all of the sudden, decent seats at U.S. Cellular Field are really tough to come by). However, there is only a finite number of people in the world, including the athletes that we cheer for, that attended the University of Illinois and we all spent the most memorable times of our lives in the same place. That’s a powerful connection that transcends cheering for pro players that may or may not have any roots in your hometown.
I’m still as obsessive about the White Sox, Bears, and Bulls as anyone. It’s only that my obsessiveness with the Illini is at an even higher level, if my friends and family believe that’s even possible. Despite Chicago having a reputation of having long-suffering fans, I’ve got to admit that I’ve been pretty fortunate as a sports fan. I witnessed the Bears put together the most dominating team in NFL history in 1985. Michael Jordan and the Bulls provided me with the best sports memories of my childhood with their NBA dynasty. The White Sox ended 88 seasons of futility with their World Series championship last year. Considering that my pro baseball, football, and basketball teams have all won championships in my lifetime, I’m pretty blessed.
However, I’d honestly trade all of those trophies for Illinois to win the national championship in basketball and the Rose Bowl in football. My sports life won’t be complete unless I see both of those things happen. Starting tomorrow, the dream of seeing Illinois cut down the nets during “One Shining Moment” could become a reality with 6 more wins. Even though the odds are against that happening this season, that ultimate sports dream is why March Madness is more than just a bracket to me.