Through the Trifocals

Illini football players begin practice for another season this week. It is a special time for the players, both veterans and newcomers. But will these players feel the same way about the U of I after they graduate? Illinisports welcomes all football alumni and reminds them of their importance to the university. <br><br> Read more in Illinisports latest column for

The Illinois football team begins practice for another football season this week, and they have their Picture Day for media, family and fans on Friday. This is always an exciting time for the players and coaches as hope springs eternal. And it is an equally exciting time for the fans, who can show their support for the players by arriving in large numbers for Picture Day and attending open practices.

It is an especially memorable time for the entering freshmen players. Their whole college careers are before them. They are filled with a mixture of nervousness, uncertainty, excitement and joy. No matter what else happens, they will remember these experiences for their whole lives.

I have attended many of these early practices over the years, and they all have begun to blend together for me. I see different faces each year, but my memories all seem to be occurring simultaneously. I remember watching Dick Butkus attack-tackle his teammates like it was yesterday. I remember the concern when big New Orleans tackle Archie Sutton collapsed with heat exhaustion. I will never forget watching Simeon Rice returning punts and running a 4.7 forty after just graduating from a rigorous Summer Bridge program that prevented him from working out. I watched as media reps stood in complete disbelief when defensive line coach Denny Marcin announced excitedly that Rice would help us as a raw freshman.

I have movies of the 1985 Picture Day when Rose Bowl team heroes like Jack Trudeau, David Williams, Thomas Rooks, Craig Swoope and Jim Juriga began their senior years in the West Great Hall of Memorial Stadium while it poured down rain outside. I loved watching Dave Wilson, Tony Eason and Jeff George throwing bullets to a bevy of receivers. I remember with mixed feelings as all-time leading rusher Robert Holcombe sat in the middle of Memorial Stadium signing autographs for a long line of admiring fans in 1997 while nearly all his teammates were so insecure they huddled shyly as far away from the fans as possible. I knew right then it would be a long season.

Each new player has his own experiences and memories to create. He has goals and aspirations for his college career, both athletically and academically. And he has family and friends who plan to provide a support system for him. But will his real experiences match his dreams?

Sadly, some of these fine young men will leave the UI with less than positive memories. Injuries, academic difficulties, unrequited athletic dreams, and other negative experiences can prevent the fulfillment desired upon first entering the university. A few might even decide to sever ties to the university as a result.

The University of Illinois has a large and viable alumni base, and it works hard to maintain and increase alumni involvement in the welfare of the university. The Division of Intercollegiate Athletics also works to contact former athletes and encourage them to remain active in supporting their school. In fact, the UI is right now trying to entice all former UI men's basketball players, coaches, managers, trainers, equipment managers and strength coaches to participate in our upcoming 100-year celebration.

But the fact is that Illini football teams who have not achieved success may be treated with less than respect by some fans. It is a tendency of the human ego to reward success and punish failure, especially among those fans who live vicariously through their athletic heroes. They want to follow winners, and they have no use for losers.

Thus, those players who have not had considerable success during their time at Illinois may feel as if they are not welcome. This is not to say they are unwelcome, but they may believe they are unwelcome. Or, they are embarrassed they could not bring championships and glory to their school and stay away out of guilt and remorse for their perceived failure.

It would be ideal if athletes from each graduating class could return in triumph to the UI, as they tend to do at schools like Michigan and Ohio State. There, the football heroes become a support group for the continuing success of their schools, helping with donations, recruiting (including their own offspring) and other means of assistance. Some of their pro players even return during the offseason to work out with and become mentors for their replacements. It becomes a continuing, ever-expanding force for constant success.

Unfortunately, the UI has lost contact with a significant number of former athletes, many of whom were negatively impacted by the Slush Fund of 1966 and subsequent periods of failure endured by Illini football teams. For instance, some football players from the Jim Valek, Bob Blackman and Gary Moeller years have had no contact with the UI since they left school simply because they lost more than they won.

It is hard for these players to imagine being embraced on their return to the UI after suffering so many humiliating losses. It is like soldiers returning from a losing war. Would they really want to talk about their experiences with media, teammates and fans? Do they really have that many positive memories? Or, would they rather dwell on their more successful years since graduation? If the latter is the case, staying away from the UI might be their way to stay away from bad memories.

Of course, the reasons why players choose to sever their ties with the UI are many and varied. Some may have felt they did not get sufficient playing time or recognition and cannot forgive the slight. Some may have had difficulties with one or more coaches and burned some bridges by leaving the team or the school. Some may have expected the UI to help them clear academic hurdles that were no one's fault but their own. Some may remain bitter after having been run off subsequent to the Slush Fund for desiring to provide illegal assistance to the program.

Regardless, they are all Illini. They have all provided their time, energy and ability to help the Illini win football games. Whether they won or lost is immaterial, in my opinion. They are part of the lore of Illinois football, and they deserve to be treated with respect. Just like US Veterans of Foreign Wars, they all deserve to be treated as heroes even if their only contribution was background work.

Sadly, last year's Illini senior class may soon be lost to us if we do not reach out to them right now. And this year's senior class may suffer a similar fate if the team fails to meet fans' and their own expectations for this upcoming season. But each and every one of them has given everything they had to give throughout their college careers, and they will always be Illini. And they have learned a great deal about themselves that may make them successful in their future careers. They may all end up being winners as human beings, and that is how we should see them.

Thus, I ask everyone reading this to join me in reaching out to all Illini football alumni (and all former athletes) and ask them to rejoin the fold. Let's make them feel welcome and loved. Let's let go of any negative memories and remember the positive experiences. Let's learn to forgive imperfections and accept all former Illini as they are.

In particular, I would like us to reach out to last year's seniors Joe Bevis, Brett Boyter, Sean Bubin, Jamaal Clark, Carey Davis, Charles Gilstrap, John Gockman, Mike Gomez, Brad Haywood, Dave Hilderbrand, Aaron Hodges, Estus Hood, Marc Jackson, Eric McGoey, Christian Morton, Ty Myers, Jeff Ruffin, Lee Sicinski, Derrick Strong, Winston Taylor, J. J. Tubbs, and Dustin Ward. Yes, your college careers did not end with the success you and we expected or hoped for you. But you all deserve to be treated as loyal Illini, and you have a right to return to your Alma Mater at any time you might like. You will always be welcome. Please don't ever let your self-doubts prevent you from remembering this. And always strive to be winners in life by allowing your more negative lessions to mold and refine you into a more perfected and positive existence.

I would also ask my readers to join me in welcoming the entering freshmen. By putting on the Illini uniform, singing the Illini fight song, and enrolling in the U of I, you are automatically all life-long Illini. We certainly hope you win big, and our expecations are high for you. And we hope you have success academically and in your chosen professions. But win or lose, please always remember that you are welcome at the University of Illinois. We hope your future memories are as positive and exciting as your first Picture Day and first few practices.

Go Illini!!!
If you would like to contact Illinisports, you can do so at

Illini Inquirer Top Stories