Column: Hallowed ground

By Darren Bailey

I’m excited about Saturday. A college football fan from birth, there are a number of stadiums that I’ve always dreamed about visiting.

Some of those include the gargantuan “Big House” of Michigan, “The Swamp” at Florida, “Touchdown Jesus” overlooking Notre Dame Stadium, the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, the Cheesehead-crazy Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium and down in Death Valley, LSU’s Tiger Stadium.

So far I’ve only been able to see a couple of those, sneaking into Ben Hill-Griffin Stadium in Gainesville when I was nine-years-old and having my picture taken in front of the Rose Bowl when visiting my brother last summer. But Saturday affords me the opportunity to slash another notch in my “stadium” belt, when the Illini travel to Columbus to take on the Buckeyes in “The Horseshoe.”

Ohio Stadium was built in 1922 and dedicated on Oct. 21,1922 during a game against Buckeye arch-rival Michigan. The original seating capacity was 66,210, but that was before major renovations at the turn of the new century. Now 101,568 fans of THE Ohio State University can cheer on their beloved at every home game. In fact, the “new” Horseshoe is now considered to be one of the most magnificent temples of college football worship in the country.

In those hallowed grounds have roamed stars like Archie Griffin, the only player to ever win two Heisman Trophies. Before him there were other Heisman winners: Les Horvath, Vic Janowicz and Howard “Hopalong” Cassidy. On the defensive side of the ball is ferocious linebacker Chris Speilman, now an ESPN football commentator. And don’t forget the most recent Heisman winner, Eddie George, the back who tormented my dreams and Illini defenses, which, yeah, may be the same.

Oh, and then there’s Woody. Woody Hayes, that is – THE Ohio State University’s most famous coach of all time. Under 28 years of Hayes, the Buckeye’s experienced unequaled success. However, what Hayes might be most remembered for is the punch he landed on the face of Clemson nose guard Charlie Bauman, while Bauman was streaking down the Buckeye sideline following an interception. Woody lost his temper during the bad times – then he lost his job.

Yeah, I’ll admit it. My trip to Columbus has me excited. But nothing could ever get me as excited as Illinois football.

I remember pleading to my fellow Anna-Jonesboro Wildcat football players as a junior. Pleading for them to play with unheard of passion and execution. Why? To win a state title, of course. But also to get me to Champaign.

I’ll never forget the feeling I had the first time I stepped foot on Zuppke Field. (That’s the name of the playing surface inside our own stadium, in case you didn’t know.) I was standing in the same place that the “Galloping Ghost,” Red Grange, had once stood, well, floated. Where Dick Butkus terrorized opponents. Where JC Caroline made magic happen. Where Jim Grabowski pounded his way through defenses. Where Jack Trudeau and “Champaign Tony” Eason let it fly. Where the real Linebacker U played – Butkus, Ray Nitschke, Dana Howard, Jon Holecek, Kevin Hardy and Simeon Rice. I had goosebumps for days.

And just wait until the renovations are completed. Some people think it’s going to be the nicest stadium in the nation. We’ll see what others say when it’s done – but I don’t really care about their opinions. It will always be beautiful to me.

But it’s not just the past that gets me excited about Illinois. Get a load of the future.

Coach Zook has assembled an amazing group of recruiters which have been doing, honestly, an astounding job of stirring up interest (and commitments) in Illinois football.

The headliner of the class so far is, yes, Chicago Vocational quarterback Isiah Williams, who can claim the strongest arm of any prep in the nation. He’s big, he’s got the rocket arm, he’s got wheels, he’s got confidence, and he’s got the future of the program in his 18-year-old hand – well, he will have the future someday.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Two top receivers are also part of a recruiting class that currently ranks in the top-25 in the nation at this point by Rivals.com. Chris James from Morgan Park and another local boy (remember Kyle Hudson and Brit Miller), Marques Wilkins, from Decatur MacArthur combine with Williams, another receiver and a few offensive linemen to make the offensive future quite bright. Oh, and don’t forget the soon-to-be fan favorite at tight end – the Hoo-man, Bloomington Catholic’s Michael Hoomanawanui. (Does that fit on a jersey?)

So, yeah, I’m excited. Going to “The Horseshoe,” Memorial Stadium renovations and top notch recruits committed, with more coming…

Life is good.

Darren Bailey is a junior in LAS. He can be reached at [email protected]