Defensive end Derek Walker is an intelligent, thoughtful young man who saw the ending of the Ron Turner era and the first four years of the Ron Zook era. He was honest and forthright about his experience.
"I think one word to describe it would be perseverence. Coming in during really bad times in Illini football, we went through a lot of bad seasons. I was caught in the middle of changing coaching staffs.
"You don't know how to accept the new coaching staff, but I wasn't really comfortable with the old one. But we bought in. It was hard at first because they were preaching a lot of new stuff to us. They told us we were going to be good, but the results still weren't there.
"Last year kind of just popped for us. It was a great ride. This year is not as promising as we all thought it would be. It's been a good ride with a lot of highs and lows. You learn a lot about life experiences and how to work through tough times."
Walker sees a bright future for Illinois football.
"There's a lot better days ahead. I feel Coach Zook is a good coach, a high energy coach. He's bringing in a lot of good guys. He recruits a lot of good players. I think this program is about to really take off. Hopefully, we were able to set the foundation. I think in a couple years Illinois will be a place everybody wants to go to."
Ryan McDonald was a part of Walker's recruiting class. He wondered if he would even see playing time when he arrived because he was not highly recruited. But he ended up being a four year starter on the offensive line. As a frequent captain and graduate in Aeronautical Enginering, his words carry weight.
"It's been a wild ride. Coming in to a program where we really didn't know what was going to happen, there was a lot of turmoil and not winning much. We walk by the Rose Bowl sign painted on our wall in a couple places and touch it. The first couple years, it was like 'why do I bother to touch this thing?' But it became a reality. I just thought that was a cool thing, to go from the bottom to the top."
McDonald is the son of Illini graduates, his father also a center for the football team. He knows he will always be a fan.
"I think I'll be an Illini for the rest of my life. It's something to be proud of. It's a first class university, and they've taken care of us here. I've really enjoyed my time here, and I'm hoping to have it in the rest of my life."
Defensive tackle Dave Lindquist enrolled at Illinois as a walkon but earned a scholarship with his talent and hard work. He shares the views of Walker and McDonald.
"It's been a long ride. I'm really happy to know we've taken this program somewhere. A few years ago, people wouldn't have cared so much that we lost to Ohio State. They would have expected it. I think we've taken the program to a place where people expect us to win, and they're angry when we don't. I'm proud to say we've done something like that."
Lindquist is also excited for the future.
"I think it's going nowhere but up. Coach Zook is always recruiting real well, and he's a tireless worker who gets us to work as hard as he does. The jump we've seen from a few years ago to now will be multiplied within the next couple years."
Defensive end Will Davis also knows the Illini will be a quality program for years to come. What he will always remember best is his teammates.
"I think about the players. A lot of people don't know how close we are. We went through the lowest times and also to the highest highs, going to the Rose Bowl and things like that. Your teammates is what keeps you sane in college. When those bad times come, you always have someone to lean on. I remember the teammates more than anything. We're a very close unit, a lot closer than some of the teams I've seen."
Talkative middle linebacker Brit Miller wishes he could have said more, but team spokesmen must guard their words carefully so opponents won't use them against Illinois. When he thinks about his career, he recognizes how it has affected him personally.
"Growth as a person. When I came in, I was definitely far more immature and incapable of the way I think right now. Graduating, being a little more educated. One thing that people may not know, I do take some things seriously. Football on Saturdays and school."
Miller will explore pro possibilities. If that doesn't work out, he jokes he might wish to follow the lead of last year's star linebacker J Leman, who among other things now does car commercials. Although, Brit may prefer a competitor company for his commercials. One way or the other, he will always be an Illini fan.
"The future of Illinois football is bright with Coach Zook. I think he finally feels at home, being back in the Midwest where he's from. All these athletes coming in. I know I'm not as athletic as these guys. Hopefully, the football knowledge and the want-to rubs off.
"Once these young athletes really know how to play the game and what it means when you're a little older and time's running out, you play a little harder. You don't ever take a play off. These last few games, I haven't been out a play. I don't want to be out a play, that's a missed opportunity."
Yes, the future is bright. But the foundation was laid by some quality athletes who are now graduating and moving on with their lives. They wanted desperately to finish the season with a win at Northwestern and another bowl bid, but it was not to be. They will be missed.