Illini fans witnessing greatness in Delgado

By Alex Roux

Just when fans begin to take greatness for granted, it can vanish in the blink of an eye.

Before you know it, Joe Montana plays for the Chiefs, Barry Sanders retires and Michael Jordan is wearing a Wizards jersey.

Even fans of Illinois sports can attest to this phenomenon. After Illini fans nearly reached the mountaintop in 2005 with the best men’s basketball season in school history, it was assumed that Illini hoops would remain nationally relevant for years to come. Ten seasons down the road, the Illini basketball program hasn’t seen similar success. Same goes for the football program after the 2008 Rose Bowl appearance. 

The Illini revenue sports seem to have the same pattern of success, generation after generation. An extraordinary season pops up every 10 years or so, just to get our hopes up, just to keep us interested. Greatness will flicker in front of our eyes, then fade out again.

Greatness has surfaced once again in Illini athletics, this time in the form of Illinois wrestling’s Jesse Delgado. His excellence, however, is becoming sustained. 

Delgado won his second consecutive national title on March 22 in Oklahoma City, defeating Cornell’s Nahshon Garrett. The 125-pound Delgado jumped out to a 3-0 lead and held on for a 3-2 victory.

When Delgado won his first national title last year as a sophomore, he was the first Illini to do so since 2003. He became the first Illini wrestler in 56 years to win back-to-back national titles with his victory this year, meaning Illinois hasn’t seen wrestling at such an elite level in its modern history. He is the only 125-pounder to ever win a national title at Illinois, and he has a mere five losses combined in his last two seasons. 

If there was a reason for Illini fans to appreciate Delgado’s excellence even more, it’s because his very presence on this campus was due to good fortune. 

Delgado wasn’t recruited by Illinois originally. He committed to wrestle at Cal Poly, but followed Illinois assistant head coach Mark Perry from Cal Poly when he was hired by the Illini. It’s crazy to think our two-time national champion almost slipped through the cracks. Perry deserves his share of credit for recognizing Delgado’s potential. 

Delgado has certainly established his place as one of the best Illini wrestlers of all time, and will look to do more damage next year in his senior season. He carried the Illini through a season that was marred by injuries (and a lower-than-expected team finish at the NCAA championships, if you ask Perry).

Delgado didn’t let himself be cursed by the patented sporadic success that plagues Illinois athletics. Ten years after the Illini’s last national champion wrestler, Delgado won his first title. In 2014, he made sure Illinois wouldn’t have to wait 10 more years for another title.

Athletic greatness comes and goes at all levels of every sport. Some fans are luckier than others, and are treated to greater amounts of success. Delgado is at the top of his sport, and Illinois fans should be proud. If there’s one lesson Illini fans should have learned over the years, it’s to appreciate greatness when it’s in front of them. We never know when it will come around again.

Alex is a sophomore in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] and @aroux94.