CHAMPAIGN – A funny thing happened at the Illini season-opening football game last weekend.
I didn’t scribble a single note.
I never glanced at my watch feeling my story deadlines closing in.
I never interviewed a player or coach.
I did not write a single word.
Before the game, my family and I wandered around Lot 31 across from Memorial Stadium and watched as happy-faced fans drank beer, mixed bloody mary’s, tossed a football and partied in orange and blue Illini gear.
I passed on a number of offers to stop and share a beer or savor morsels from their table of food.
We had a wonderful visit with Lynn and Rick Dudek, whose son, Mike, was preparing to begin his senior season. I bumped into Dana Howard, the newly minted College Football Hall of Famer who I covered as an Illini All-American back in the day.
Then we crossed the street and strolled through Grange Grove, listening to the music and enjoying the Marching Illini.
That’s when it hit me that I was experiencing something I had never done in the past 44 years.
I’d never experienced this phenomenon called tailgating. I’d never attended a college football game as a fan. And, four hours later, I’d never exited the stadium and walked immediately to my car for a carefree drive home.
Man, retirement has given me a glimpse of a whole other world and last Saturday’s experience has given me pause to ask myself this question: “What took you so long?”
Until retiring, I’d always arrived at the game at least two hours before kickoff. I wanted to grab a good parking place, get up to the press box and get set for a long, long day.
I’d always made it a point to be there early and to soak in the conversation that happens when fellow scribes, TV friends and even coaches and game officials, like the scoreboard operators and PA announcers, gather for a pre-game meal.
That’s where someone like Lou Henson would wander in and spin a few yarns. That’s where I’d bump into long-time friends like Mike Cleff, the former WAND sportscaster who is now in Bowling Green, Ky., or Chris Widlic, the former WCIA sports voice who is now in Indy.
That’s where I would first start hearing whispers that Lovie Smith had suspended five players and that 13 potential contributors would not play in the opener for reasons ranging from injuries to social indiscretion to academic problems.
Then once the game ended, I’d find another gear because it was time to scramble to the coach’s post-game press conference, player interviews and back to the press box, where conversations on my tape recorder needed to be transcribed and two or three stories needed to be written and sent off to various Lee Enterprises newspapers.
By the time I stuffed my laptop back into its case and headed to the car, it was often two-and-a-half hours after the game ended and most of the tailgaters had packed up and were back home or well on their way.
Then I’d drive home in the dark wondering if I’d used the right phrasing in describing the way the Illini had played two distinctly different halves in their victory over Kent State.
But last weekend, I drove home knowing we’d have time to throw something on the grill and watch most of the Michigan-Notre Dame game.
Last weekend I learned how the other half enjoys college football and I liked what I learned.
True, I was a guest in one of the Memorial Stadium luxury suites, so I had it easy. But I could picture myself sitting in the stands and for the first time I’d have to contemplate whether the money I was paying for my tickets was being rewarded by the home team playing well on the field.
In this case, I would have been grateful to see a victory but concerned that it took a significant comeback to make it happen. And I would have been bothered that five players didn’t think enough of their teammates, coaches or me – the fan – to have been eligible to play.
Selfish. Very selfish.
Late in the game, I saw Mike Dudek take a hit after catching a pass over the middle. It looked like his leg was bothering him when he left the field and knowing he had missed two full seasons with knee injuries, that was a concern.
But on the way to my car, I ran into Rick Dudek, who said he’d received a thumbs up from his son after the game. “I think he’s OK but, yeah, it worried me at first,” Rick said.
The awful news didn’t arrive until Monday when Lovie Smith somberly reported that Mike Dudek was done for the season – again – with another significant knee injury.
I am heartbroken for Mike Dudek. And for his folks, Rick and Lynn.
This is one of the finest young men to come through any Illini sports program. For him it’s been an agonizing journey with many more months of physical rehabilitation than actual play.
Mike Dudek loves the game of football. He poured all of himself into the effort to never miss a play. There is no way in the world he would find himself suspended because football is that important to him.
So I ache for him this week that an injury has once again taken from him the thing he holds so dear. And I’m still a little ticked off that five other players didn’t properly share his resolve.
That’s an opinion I would have whether I was sitting in my old press box seat or my new seat as a fan.
Mark Tupper is the retired Executive Sports Editor of the Herald & Review. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.