Let’s play too: Women get chance to “try out” with Illini football

Offensive line coach Eric Wolford tried to teach me the tricks to success as an offensive lineman, said Courtney Linehan. Then, for my first test, I went up against former Florida center Mike Degory, who started a record 50 games for the Gators. Yeah, Steve Contorno

“Offensive line coach Eric Wolford tried to teach me the tricks to success as an offensive lineman,” said Courtney Linehan. “Then, for my first test, I went up against former Florida center Mike Degory, who started a record 50 games for the Gators. Yeah, Steve Contorno

By Courtney Linehan

I’ve got an embarrassing secret: I don’t know how to throw a football.

My job is covering college sports, and I have a particular pride in my unusually thorough understanding of football, one of the definitively masculine pastimes. I’ve been to hundreds of Illini practices, dozens of games and more press conferences with Coach Ron Zook than I can count. In my four years at Illinois, I’ve gone from not knowing the difference between a running back and a linebacker to answering some of the male media members’ questions about the intricacies of how you punt a football or what Sam, Mike and Will really mean. Yet there are some things about a game you just can’t pick up from the sidelines.

So a few weeks shy of leaving Champaign, I decided to do something about it. On Saturday, when I had a few dozen other things I should have been doing, I attended the third annual Illinois Football Women’s Clinic in hopes of filling in some of the holes in my football knowledge.

The clinic is a Zook tradition that gives Illinois’ female fans a chance to do just what I wanted: receive organized instruction on how the game is played. I didn’t know what I’d be in for, but I figured this was as good a time as any to brush up on my football knowledge. So I dug through my closet for some Illini gear, pulled on my running shoes and headed for the Irwin Indoor Practice Facility.

I felt a little better when I saw Kevin “Juice” Mitchell, one of my favorite people of all time and a senior safety for the Illini, lounging on a golf cart eating pizza and waiting for his turn at the mic. Juice told me there would be two presentations featuring athletes that afternoon, and that he’d been asked, along with linebacker Brit Miller and a few other guys, to participate in a Q&A; session. Well if Brit and Juice were talking, I figured I’d for sure want to listen.

The program was broken into two parts. The first half included an introduction to football rules, presentations on athletic training and Illinois’ strength program, and panels featuring players and coaches’ wives. If you ever have the chance to hear Brit Miller speak in front of an audience, don’t pass it up.

To me, though, the second half was when the excitement started. The 100 or so participants got a rare look at some parts of Memorial Stadium that few people besides players and staff have ever toured, and then tried a few football drills. I walked into the locker room with Denise Zook, coach Zook’s wife, and even she said she’s only been in there two or three times before.

Someone must have told the guys to clean up before they left Saturday morning, because I was shocked at how empty many of the lockers looked. Juice Williams had several pairs of shoes in his locker. C.J. Jackson, a forward on the basketball team who’s trying his hand at playing tight end, left a pair of basketball shoes in his. And sophomore tight end Michael Hoomanawanui had a Hawaiian print cloth draped over the top shelf of his with a straw hat that I saw one woman try on.

It’s an interesting coincidence that the clinic was held on the 35th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark legislation passed largely in hopes of providing more athletic opportunities for women. Football is still a male-oriented sport, but it was good to see just how many women were interested in learning more about the game.

And while I never got that chance to learn to throw one, I did pick up a few ideas even I did not know.