Dave Diehl has proven his loyalty to Illinois in a number of ways, including donating the weights for the weight room. Now a starting left tackle for the New York Giants, Diehl returned to campus for the reunion of the 2001 Big Ten Championship team.
"It's great to come back and get back with the guys and spend time with each other. It's tough when all of us are all over the country. It's great to get back here and catch up with each other, talk about what's going on in our lives."
Relationships strained from years apart are renewed quickly at a reunion, especially for a group of men with special memories.
"It's funny because we all come back here and, once we start talking, we get back in the groove of being with each other. It's like we never left. It's awesome to be able to come back and spend time with these guys and celebrate something that we did that was really special.
"For all of us that were on that team, the combined effort of all of us to work hard and accomplish a major goal of something people said going into that season we could never do is awesome. These are memories we will have the rest of our lives."
The starting offensive line that season was good enough to keep the versatile and humble Diehl the first alternate at both tackle and guard.
"We had a really good group of guys up front. I think that's what you have to have."
Diehl says it was camaraderie and teamwork that made success possible.
"Everybody was a contributor, and everybody had a part. Offensive guys, defensive guys, special teams guys, we won and did everything as a team. That was all of us."
Illini fans didn't realize how much talent was on that offense at the time. Four receivers played in the NFL, and Brandon Lloyd and Greg Lewis are still active. Antoineo Harris and Rocky Harvey formed a potent one-two running attack, with future pro Carey Davis operating at fullback. And consummate leader Kurt Kittner was the quarterback.
"There was quality at every position. We had receivers, running backs, o-line, tight ends. We had a really good team."
Diehl is enjoying his pro career.
"Absolutely. I love my job; I'm blessed to be able to do what I do. It was a dream I had my entire life, so I'm living my dream. Playing out in New York is special to me. I continue to work harder each year than I did before because one play, and you can be done."
When Diehl is introduced on national television before a game, he says he is from "The University of Chief Illiniwek." Illini Nation loves that remark and loves Diehl for it.
"I have pride in this university. All of us are Illini here. For that symbol to be taken away from me and almost all these guys is difficult. To watch the Chief dance and do all that stuff, it would give you goose bumps. It was a major symbol for all of us. It was that deep pride that made all of us who we are today."