URBANA — Most players on the Illinois football team weren't entirely sure what they were in for on Sunday.
On Saturday night, head coach Lovie Smith announced a 4:30 p.m. team meeting on Sunday. The players braced for the worst. Running back Reggie Corbin and offensive lineman Alex Palczewski assumed they'd be running after a Saturday night practice.
The meeting room, though, is a place were no players or coaches generally have their cell phones, but a phone started ringing. Palczewski initially thought it was one of his teammate's phones and started to fake cough in an attempt to mask the sound of the phone.
It turns out, it was Smith's phone ringing. After he answered, most of the players knew something was going on. That's when Smith announced it was time for the players to get their first look at the 107,650-square-foot, $79.2 million Henry Dale and Betty Smith Football Center.
“First I was happy that we weren’t running, then I was happy to get over there," Corbin said.
Said Palczewski: “It went from ‘Oh no,’ to happiest I’ve ever been."
The Illinois football social media pages were full of player reactions to the facility, which includes a state-of-the-art sports medicine suite, nutrition center, strength and conditioning complex, recruiting lounge, NFL alumni locker room, a rooftop terrace with an outdoor kitchen, mini golf course, bowling alley, massive locker room, game room, barber shop, revamped position rooms and the Levenick Autidorium with a view over the practice field, Memorial Stadium and the State Farm Center.
“It seems so unreal, man," Corbin said. "We could go bowling right now. How crazy is that? Do you realize that? We could just go in there, go bowling, watch a movie. It’s insane, man. I can’t believe it. It is beautiful. I can’t wait to get back."
Smith wouldn't reveal too much about his plans to show the team the facility, but said he felt good about how everything played out. The coaching staff and other staffers moved into the center on Aug. 1 while the finishing touches were being put on the building.
Smith is 61 years old and has been a part of a lot of big moments, but Sunday's reveal was right up near the top. He got a first look at authentic reactions from the players.
“Special day," Smith said. "Coaching-wise we’ve been in it for a while and know how nice it is. I had a feeling the guys would really like it, but that was beyond any of our expectations. It’s hard to hide natural reaction, natural emotions you have. It’s a different day for Illinois football."
One of the highlights of the reveal was the players' reaction to seeing their new locker room. The video crews were on the inside, waiting for the players to burst through the door to see their new digs. Outside of the closed door, the voices and elation got louder and louder. At first, some players thought they'd move in when camp opened Aug. 2, then they thought maybe it would be after the first week of camp. Their excitement for the facility had been mounting.
“Once they had their hand on the door, we knew it was time and we just got loud," Corbin said. "We couldn’t contain it anymore. We’ve tried to contain it for so many weeks. I think that was one of the best feelings."
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The doors opened, and the players yelled, ran and took photos and videos of their new locker room. They went to their lockers to see their space. In one video, 5-foot-10 receiver Dominic Stampley emerged from the inside of his locker.
Inside the locker room is a space for defensive end Bobby Roundtree, with his helmet and shoulder pads prominently displayed. Roundtree suffered a severe spinal injury in May, and the locker resonated with his teammates.
“The coolest part about the entire locker room was they had the locker for Bobby," Palczewski said. "It always reminds us he’s there."
The meaning of the building isn't lost on the players. They know they've had lean years recently, but have maintained a sense of the tide turning. To see people stand with them to give money towards a new facility was powerful.
“It’s gorgeous," Palczewski said. "All the people who helped put it together, we can’t thank them enough. We’ve got to do something special for them."
Said Corbin: “It’s a blessing to be able to see that they believe in us, so many people believe in us that much, man, to give us something that special. Illinois football, man. It’s a new day. It’s a brand new day."
Beason out for season
Illinois freshman Marquez Beason has had his right knee in a brace and has gotten around on crutches since being carted off the practice field at Illinois football training camp last Tuesday.
On Monday, Illinois head coach Lovie Smith announced Beason, a four-star freshman from Duncanville, Texas, will have season-ending knee surgery in the future.
“Unfortunate," Smith said. "He was really one of the highlights of the fall practices early on. He eventually will play four years for us and he’s going to be a great player."
Beason was the No. 91 recruit in the nation by ESPN, No. 108 by 247Sports and No. 108 by Rivals when he signed with Illinois in December 2018. The 2019 Under Armor All-American led Duncanville to the 2018 6A Division 1 state title runner-up finish at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas and a 14-1 record.
“He’s handling it about as well as you can," Smith said. "First off, disappointed. This is reality. This is life. He had an opportunity to see. You’re a freshman coming in, ‘Do I belong?’ Of course he knows he belongs. He has stayed into the game, just like he will be coming back out (Tuesday). Again, surgery will come back and he’ll come back as strong as ever."
Beason was a key piece of depth for the cornerbacks and figured to play a big role as a freshman behind starters Nate Hobbs and Quan Martin. Without Beason, the Illini will lean on players like Nick Walker and freshman Devon Witherspoon, who was a late addition and arrived during training camp.