This upcoming Sunday is the Fourth of July. Americans will be celebrating our independence from England and the massive trading companies that controlled our fledgling nation. This celebration might seem to have nothing to do with Illini sports, but I disagree.
I see similarities between the nature of different fireworks, used to help celebrate the Fourth of July, and the lifecycles and behavior of people. And I especially see connections with the success patterns of different athletes. But before I expand on that, please allow me some nostalgia as I remember how important a role the University of Illinois has always played in the celebration of Independence Day in the Champaign-Urbana area.
When I was young, we used to travel to Champaign just to enjoy the day's activities. After my family moved to Urbana, we continued the yearly tradition on campus. I even got to participate in some of the parades. The parades still occur each year, and there is still a large fireworks display after sunset on the fields West of Memorial Stadium. But this activity is rather muted compared with previous celebrations.
Before the days of the Intramural and Physical Education Building (IMPE), and before they tore out the track to install artificial turf, Memorial Stadium was the absolute center of an entire day of festivities on July 4 of each year. The track was set up as a "U" that began and ended outside the stadium. Track meets actually started 400 yard dash runners from a position outside the Northwest gate, and viewers had to wait a few moments before they could see the runners enter the stadium.
Because the track connected with the East-West road on the North end of the stadium, the Fourth of July parade was permitted to include the inside of Memorial Stadium as part of its route. Many celebrants would congregate in the stadium around 1:00pm and soak up the sun as the parade weaved its way around town and toward the judging stand inside the stadium. This made great viewing, and it was a thrill for parade participants to enter the grand arena to much applause.
The parade was nothing special, but it had numerous floats, bands and individual entries. Those who enjoy parades got great views while sitting above ground level. The stadium was easy to access, and there was no fighting for position as sometimes occurs on the roads leading to the stadium. People who lived locally could return home at the conclusion of the parade for a cookout, or they could tailgate while waiting for the evening festivities to begin.
There is one parade participant I must mention. I played a couple of years with the Champaign Elks band. We were volunteers of all ages, as I was a teenager and some others were too old to march. They had us all sit on the back of a flatbed truck, and we played music while bouncing up and down on the parade route. I will never forget one fine gentleman, an 80 year old French Horn player. He was so old that we needed to carry him to his seat. But that kind of participation opportunity made the parade special to him and to us.
Evening festivities began again around 6:00pm back inside Memorial Stadium. There were all sorts of entertaining performers to keep impatient children occupied while waiting for the fireworks. Former Illini gymnastics coach Charlie Pond coached a group of youngsters he called "Charlie Pond's Palestra", and they would perform great feats of tumbling on the field. The first time I saw this, Urbana's Hal Holmes, who later starred in gymnastics at Illinois, was an especially exciting performer. If I remember correctly, he was the first person to ever do a quadruple flip.
One or more Drum and Bugle Corps would usually perform as well. Since most high school and college bands did not practice in the summer, these special outfits became popular and highly prized performers for various celebrations around the country. Some of the best ones performed at the stadium.
Illinois Summer Youth Music Camps were meeting simultaneously on campus, so one or more of their junior high or high school bands, orchestras or choruses would perform on occasion. Composed of outstanding musicians from all over the state and country, these groups gave much enjoyment to the crowds.
Frequently, there would be time allowed for a discussion of the meaning of Independence Day. Sometimes, a narrative with musical accompaniment from the Chanute Air Force Band would try to inspire gatherers of the true meaning of independence and the difficulty in obtaining and maintaining freedom and equal rights for all citizens regardless of race, creed, religion or political persuasion. Of course, some people were too eager for the fireworks to listen with understanding, but at least they heard it.
Right before the fireworks, "Taps" would be played by three trumpeters in different corners of the stadium, each echoing the other. And there was a special match-lighting ceremony where everyone lit a match or cigarette lighter to show how much light can be created when 40,000-5000 people all work together for a common purpose.
And then, there was the highlight of the day, the fireworks. Before artificial turf, many ground displays as well as aerial fireworks could be utilized since the grass would not catch on fire. Some of the set pieces included a block UI, one saying "Salute to Chanute", the American Flag, and period pieces from cartoon characters or movie tie-ins that were popular at the time. Others were more action oriented.
Just before the grand finale where many sky rockets are fired in one brief, loud spurt, there was a special ground display called "Niagara Falls". Each year, workers would dig holes into the ground in a semicircle around the North end of the field and install four telephone poles. A string of fireworks was then spread across the top of the four poles. When lit, white sparks would come streaming down from hundreds of points along the string and fall the 30 or more feet to the ground. This gave the impression of being a large waterfall, and the brightness of the display lit up the entire stadium.
The last few years Memorial Stadium was used, "Niagara Falls" and other ground displays were eliminated in favor of synchronized music and once a laser light show. But the lack of space for ground displays was a limitation. And when stadium renovation prevented its use for a couple of years, a new tradition was created on the fields West of the stadium.
Unfortunately, these days most people either are too far away from the music speakers to hear the synchronization, or they do not bring their radios to benefit from the simulcast. So all that is left is to watch the sky rockets. None of the other prefirework activities, other than one rock or country band set up at one end of the large fields, is possible anymore since the people are too spread out and separate from each other. And there is no way of reminding everyone what we are really celebrating. The day is still a good one, but it pales in comparision with the Memorial Stadium extravaganza that used to occur.
For those of you who might miss a chance to see an Independence Day celebration this year, I hope the preceding can either be a partial substitute or perhaps bring back memories of your own earlier experiences. But my main reason for writing this piece is to make any fireworks display an Illini celebration by comparing the different types of fireworks with patterns of Illini athletic activity, past present and future.
If you think about it, the pattern of our lives is much like that of a firework display. At the least, we are all sparklers who burn bright for awhile and then are heard no more. We might even provide some temporary happiness to one or more who encounter us. Of course, some of us just want attention and pop off like a set of firecrackers. It might give us some temporary feeling of self-importance while annoying someone we dislike. Or, if we are feeling a little more nasty, we might behave like a smoke bomb, getting in the face of others while reducing their ability to see through our illusion.
Most of us are much more than that. In fact, just like one of those beautiful fireworks we see at Independence Day festivities, we have a mini explosion at creation and then grow upward and outward until we are self-actualized adults, where we explode again to show the world our goods before fading away back into nothingness. And just like fireworks, some of us last longer than others, some are more beautiful than others, some travel in different directions from others, and a few are duds.
Even if you cannot see your own life as similar to a firework, perhaps you can think of athletes as fireworks. After all, we usually look up to them and admire them, making it easier for us to describe them to others. And we can attach different names to fireworks. These names can represent different athletes if we name them based on their behavior.
In particular, I see the fireworks as different Illini players. Many Illini athletes are like Roman Candles. They have brief periods of brilliance as they shoot upward at a rapid rate, only to fade quickly. Kevin Turner had one glorious year in basketball, shooting skyward just like a Roman Candle. Cyril Pinder was limited to only a brief period of brilliance with the Illini, behaving more like a Roman Candle than his sky rocket potential due to a major knee injury and the Slush Fund. I am sure you can think of many other Illini who were special for brief periods.
Pin Wheels and other ground spinners stay in one spot but command great attention while in full bloom. Defensive stars such as Don Thorp and George Montgomery did not have long-lasting careers, but they were immovable objects for awhile. They spun their light from a stationary spot, but they were highly effective in appealing to Illini fans.
There was one ground display I always enjoyed. It involved two fiery objects on a string that chased each other back and forth between two poles. The second one was just never capable of catching up to the first. It was like watching Buddy Young or Rocky Harvey running to daylight. If they got into the open, opponents had a futile effort trying to catch them.
Sky rockets come in many sizes and types, but each kind reminds me of one or more Illini. Many Illini athletes have brief but beautiful careers. They shoot up in the sky and explode into one or a combination of colors. They don't go real high, and they don't last real long, but they all have their own unique value.
Some have an early explosion and then continue upward, as if delayed by unforseen circumstances, before exploding again later. Players who have had off years or season-ending injuries often have this type of career. Doug Altenberger and Jerry Hester come to mind, along with football players like Darren Boyer. There are many other examples. It is hoped Jon Beutjer will follow this pattern as well.
A few specialty shells produce pictures in the sky. How can we not think of Deron Williams and Bobby Jackson when we see a big bright heart in the sky? They are/were the heart and soul of their teams. The Illini have had many players who have shown great heart, and each one had a career as obvious as this type of firework. Stars are sometimes created also, and any number of Illini could be named after them.
One kind of sky rocket has a primary explosion followed by secondary offshoots, some of which suddenly whistle off in unusual directions as they spin and charm their way around the sky. How can we not think of Dee Brown and Brandon Lloyd when we see these talkative, exciting and unpredictable crowd-pleasers.
Everyone looks forward to the shells that climb higher than the others before finally exploding because they invariably make up for the delay with the magnitude of their handiwork. They are often louder, bigger and more beautiful than their counterparts. Some have the ability to fill the sky with their beauty, and they may have prolonged displays that include secondary explosions and longer-burning filaments. Jim Grabowski, Kenny Battle, Bobby Mitchell, Nick Anderson, J. C. Caroline, Don Freeman, Ray Nitschke, Deon Thomas, Bill Burrell, Richard Jones, Kevin Hardy, Johnny "Red" Kerr, Simeon Rice, Kiwane Garris and many other Illini stars have exploded in identical fashion and have been special enough to be remembered long after their displays have ended.
And, if the celebration committee has the wherewithall to obtain them, one or two really special mammoth shells may be included in a fireworks display. These can only be described as superstars. They climb the highest in the sky and spread their influence the widest over all the land. They explode in one or several mighty sounds that reverberate and penetrate every living thing. Their beautiful rays and spikes shoot outwards and then repeat the process with secondary and tertiary explosions of equal size and brilliance. It is as if they have multiple lives, and each one is special. Truly, the lives and careers of Hall of Famers like Red Grange and Dick Butkus can be described in this fashion. The multiple sport greatness of Dike Eddleman is another example. Rare, deeply memorable and special.
One can also compare games and teams with fireworks. Some are duds while others have special brilliance. In terms of games, the Flying Illini of 1988-89 played an away game at LSU that was just like "Niagara Falls". Everything went our way. It seemed like every shot went in the hole as we won 127-100. The Micronpc.com football game between Virginia and the 1999 Illini football team was similar. Our 63-21 victory was so complete we even saw a halfback pass back to quarterback Kurt Kittner for a touchdown. Just like water falling off a waterfall or a ball rolling downhill, we could do no wrong.
And how could we not also see analogies between "Niagara Falls" and special seasons like the Whiz Kids, the Flying Illini, the 1983 Rose Bowl season where we defeated every Big 10 team, and the BCS Sugar Bowl season of 2001? In each case, everything fell into place and created a brilliance that became obvious to everyone. Whether we were really that good or just having one of those serendipitous seasons, these Illini fireworks made for much enjoyment and created memories that can last a lifetime.
Each fireworks celebration ends in an aerial repeating barrage that includes multiple numbers of sky rockets and roman candles. The combination of auditory and visual stimuli comes fast and furious, and it is the culmination of a grand evening of celebration. May your Independence Day celebration end with large numbers of fireworks that call to mind Nick Weatherspoon, Brad Hopkins, Skip Thoren, Ernie McMillan, Andy Phillip, Don Hansen, Derek Harper, Doug Dieken and many other Illini greats.
Likewise, may the University of Illinois school year of 2004-2005 be filled with success for all sports that is as brilliant and special as any firework. May our teams be filled with aerial barrages, repeating barrages, delayed shells, mortars, missiles, roman candles, ground and aerial spinners, parachutes, fountains, and all the other beautiful fireworks. And may the teams enjoy unparalleled success that can feel like water falling off a cliff. And may each team recruit one or more of the really special Hall of Fame type athletes who will explode with a brilliance greater than anything that has come before.
Happy Independence Day
Please feel free to discuss this column on the message boards with other Illini fans, or if you have a specific question for Illinisports, he can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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