Jeremy Werner

Bain of life

Illini junior DT Rob Bain finds inspiration from family and loss

CHAMPAIGN - Us younger siblings are lucky. We get to learn from the experiences, successes and mistakes, of our older kin.

Rob Bain learned from three older brothers, who already knew a little about life before Rob was introduced to the world. The fourth son of Cindy and Richard Bain, Rob was a “pleasant surprise,” his mother said.

Rob, 21, is 14 years younger than the eldest Bain boy, Rick, and seven years younger than the next youngest, Ryan. Rob had to quickly adjust to an older, more advanced world -- hanging around his brothers and their friends who almost all were about a decade older.

While Rob had some advantages, he also had to pay a price, as many younger brothers do.

Usually, he took the brunt of it in the Bain basement on a couch that was so beaten and broken from hundreds of hours of horseplay that Cindy never bothered replacing it while the boys were young. The Bain brothers, who wrestled, often tried out their newest submission moves on their youngest brother who had no other choice but to comply.

“They would have no mercy,” Cindy said. “He would either have to tap out or choke out. That was pretty much it. If he didn’t tap out, they didn’t stop. I had a couch I never replaced that was broken because of that. You’d have lamps super-glued together that you didn’t know were broken.”

Said Rob Bain: “I think we went through a lot of furniture. A lot of windows.”

The brotherly torture wasn't just physical, it was mental. 

Rick said the brothers once told Rob they were going to teach him to count to 100 by increments of 10 in Spanish. Blissfully naive, Rob quickly learned from his brothers and happily shared his new knowledge with family, friends and neighbors. But young Rob didn't know instead of numbers, he was spouting off inappropriate words -- to the amusement of his older brothers.

"Every time I see (Rob's) mom I just give her a nice big hug," Illini senior linebacker Mason Monheim, Rob's roommate, said with a laugh. "That's a tough group. That's a bunch of hard-nosed kids."

We often call this “tough love.” But the Bain brothers knowingly instilled the foundation of Rob’s character, Cindy said: “Don’t quit;” “Don’t let anyone be better than you;” “You’re the best.”

Rob also had to learn to be alone. His brothers all had left the house by the time he entered middle school. But he learned life lessons from watching his brothers grow into men.

Rick, who served in the Army, spent a tour in Iraq for more than a year while Rob was in fifth grade. Ryan played football at Iowa and Akron. Randy, 11 years older than Rob, played football at Truman State.

Us younger brothers have many advantages, but we also have the burden of higher expectations. The brothers Bain always had the highest expectations for their kid brother.

They still do, even if they are whole no more.

“The brothers always said that Rob got the best of everybody, which he did,” Cindy said. “He got the athleticism, the brains, he’s very, very smart; and just the drive.”

“As time passes, do not forget to let the ones you love know how much you care. Do not pass an opportunity to embrace the ones you hold dear to your heart.”

Few knew the pain in Rob Bain’s heart. See, Rob doesn’t talk much, especially about his feelings.

But on Christmas Eve this past December, Rob lost one his best childhood friends. Chad Cooke, who had been a walk-on basketball player at the College of Charleston, died suddenly while playing a game of pick-up basketball in his hometown of Bolingbrook. Cooke was 20 years old.

Rob was in Texas as he and the Illini football team prepared to play in the Heart of Texas Bowl, Bain’s first bowl experience and the Illini’s first (and ultimately last) bowl under head coach Tim Beckman, who was dismissed last week.

Cindy didn’t know whether or not to alert her son immediately about Cooke's death, so as not to take his focus away from the game. She consulted the older brothers, who advised her to tell Rob about Cooke “to drive him to get that sack.”

Rob hadn’t yet recorded a sack during his Illini career, and it was a frequent topic of conversation with the Bain brothers, especially Randy. Rob couldn’t attend Cooke’s funeral due to the bowl game.

“No one knows what Robbie was going through because Robbie doesn’t talk too much to people,” Cindy said.

But three minutes into the third quarter, Bain gave Cooke a tribute of his own. He chased down Louisiana Tech quarterback Cody Sokol for his first career sack.

“He got the sack, and we were like, ‘Wow! He got the sack for Chad.’” Cindy said. “Well, now we say, because 10 days later Randy died, ‘Well, that sack was probably for Randy,’ and Robbie agrees."

“Randy lives through us as we do these things. So let us not forgot the message that Randy's sudden and untimely death brings: life is short.”

Randy Bain had dealt with some personal and health issues, but his Jan. 3 death from a pulmonary embolism – blockage in one of the arteries in the lung – was still “sudden,” Cindy Bain said.

While she grieved for the too-early loss of her second son, Cindy Bain worried too about the well-being of the three surviving Bain boys, especially Rob.

“That's funny, because I was more worried about her,” Rob Bain said. “I'm still worried about her. I can deal with myself. I'm a grown man. But that's your mom. I just try to keep an eye on her. I'm always there for her when she needs it.”

The living Bain brothers banded together. Rick, an eloquent English teacher, wrote the obituary (the subheads in this story) but went through several drafts before having an emotional sit down with his two surviving younger brothers to get their approval for the final draft.

The three remaining brothers all wore knit stocking caps to the funeral service – Randy’s go-to look – without knowing that Cindy planned to bury Randy with a similar knit cap.

“That was weird,” Cindy said with a laugh. “They all had such a brotherly bond, no matter what happened.”

Still, Cindy worried how her boys would handle the Brothers Bain would deal with losing one of its members.

“There’s nothing you can do about it, so you just have to deal with it as best as possible,” Rob Bain said.

The 21-year-old doesn’t talk much about Randy’s death – though he doesn’t avoid the topic – even within a football program that describes itself as family-oriented.

"He's not a guy that will open up," Monheim said. "It is hard (to approach). As a good friend ... whenever you face something hard, you just tell them, 'Hey, I'm here for you.' You say it sincerely. You mean it to the bottom of your soul. He knows that. Anything he ever needs, I got him. If he needs to talk to anybody, I got him. Same thing with him to me. He's a strong guy. He's kept tight with his family."

Rob said he confided in a few teammates but knows that there's nothing even his best friends can say or do to make him feel better. But just being part of the team has helped him cope with his loss.

“I think being around these guys every single day, your best friends, best buds, I'm never really by myself just to wallow in my thoughts,” Rob Bain said. “I always have someone to talk to, so I think that's really helpful.”

There is no playbook for handling death. We all respond differently. In the Bain family, there was overwhelming grief and anger following Randy's death. It is something they will be reminded of every day for their rest of their lives. And they may never fully understand or accept it. There may not be any life lessons for Rob to take from Randy's premature death.

"I don't know if he can fully realize either what was learned or what was missing," Rick said. "I think he's going to figure that part out as time goes by, either what he didn't get or what he's going to get knowing that (Randy is) not going to come back. I don't know if he can or he should pull something that is still so recent."

Though, some around Rob seem to think Randy’s death somewhat inspired Rob. You know, seize the day while you have it.

"I think there's a renewed sence of immediacy to what one does in their life," Rick said. "He kind of sees what happens when you go through life and you kind of run out of time and you don't capitalize at the right time."

“Do not leave anything unsaid or undone. Take advantage of the time you have here.”

And, boy, has Rob Bain seized the moment.

“I’m so glad he has football because I think this is helping him so much,” Cindy said. “He’s practicing so hard and playing so hard that I think football is his answer to that.”

Two years ago, Rob Bain was buried on the Illini offensive line depth chart. The Illinois staff switched him to defensive line, which is a better fit for a fighter, an aggressor.

Even as he adjusted to the new position, Bain had moments during spring ball as a redshirt freshman. That fall, he played in 10 games and totaled seven tackles – while earning Academic All-Big Ten honors off the field.

Last season, Bain showed signs of an impending breakout. He started the season as one of the final defensive tackles in the rotation but quickly established himself as one of the team's best interior run stuffers. He started seven games and finished with 29 tackles, four tackles for loss and a sack.

This spring, Bain was one of the standouts of spring practice until he suffered a torn meniscus a week before the spring game. The coaches had to convince Bain to opt for surgery rather than try and delay it to allow him to play in a meaningless spring game. The junior starter said his health is now “100 percent.”

“That dude right there, he's a bull,” Illinois senior defensive lineman Jihad Ward said. “Speechless. My god, he’s just amazing. So much body and so much force on the field. I don’t know if anybody can stop him on the field.”

Few know his name yet, but some are taking notice. recently tabbed Bain as one of its "Top 25 breakout players of 2015."

Bain looks like the Batman supervillain of the same name, only different spelling (Bane). He fills out a No. 16 jersey better than anyone in the country. He repped 225 pounds 40 times on the bench press. His one-rep max bench press is more than 500 pounds. He has deadlifted 700 pounds.

But he's not just a bodybuilder. The strength translates from the weight room to the field.

“You can see his strength,” first-year Illini defensive line coach Mike Phair said. “He knows how to use his strength. I’ve seen a lot of guys that put up a lot of weight that don’t know how to use their strength. He’s one guy who knows how to use his strength. With him, it’s just football stuff, details, technique things that he’s getting better at and working at it.”

“As we do good deeds; as we treat each other with kindness, love, and respect; as we all continue to march on and search within ourselves for what makes us special and use those gifts in this world, Randy watches over us.”

Rob Bain's role grew following word that classmate Teko Powell will miss the season with a foot injury. Bain is the unquestioned starter at nose tackle.

But Rob knows Randy would tell him not to be satisfied with that accomplishment. Rob keeps Randy's voice in his head.

“Probably him telling me to stop being lazy or something and go hit someone,” Bain said. “I just try to make the most of this opportunity and just play hard. (Randy's death) just kind of puts everything in perspective."

Rob also takes Randy with him on the field. He writes Randy's name on the athletic tape on his wrists.

“I just try to go out there every day and make him proud," Rob said. "He used to always tell me to try be the nastiest guy on the field, not like a dirty player but get after it. I always keep that in my mind.”

Randy also emphasized to Rob the importance of education and stuck on his youngest brother more for academics than football. Rob, a Big Ten Distinguished Scholar (3.7+ grade-point average), is making his brother proud in that endeavor too.

For Rob, Rick hopes that the advantages of being the youngest Bain brother outweigh the downsides. He thinks Rob will really start to show -- and understand -- the man he will become this year.

"As the youngest you're extremely lucky and extremely unlucky," Rick said. "You're extremely unlucky because you're the last one. Everyone's seen it, heard it, done it before you. You feel like you can do nothing new. To an extent, whether you accept it or not, you're living in the shadows. You have to do something to overcome it because you have to become you. But you're also extremely lucky because what he gets to take from us is all of the good and all of the bad. Now, he gets to pick and choose. He gets to see what works and see what doesn't and then apply whatever it is to his life. He can take some of it. He can take none. Or he can take bits and pieces from everybody."

Even if the Brothers Bain will never be whole again, their bond isn't broken. While the pain of losing a sibling never fully heals, Rob attempts to let Randy live through him -- even on the football field.

“At first, I was worried [about how Rob would handle Randy’s death], but he’s doing really, really good now,” Cindy said. “If there’s a good thing out of it, this has just inspired him so much. I can’t even explain that.”

Brotherly love is tough to explain. But it is forever.

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