Bittersweet goodbye for senior players

J Leman and Justin Harrison embrace after the Rose Bowl, their final game as Illini, in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 1. Illinois lost to the USC Trojans 49-17. Erica Magda

J Leman and Justin Harrison embrace after the Rose Bowl, their final game as Illini, in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 1. Illinois lost to the USC Trojans 49-17. Erica Magda

By Jason Grodsky

It’s been a long and winding road for the senior members of the Illinois football team since they first set foot on campus in 2003 and 2004, and it all came to an end when the final whistle blew at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1.

The final score read USC 49, Illinois 17, and the emotion that had been building inside of senior linebacker J Leman came pouring out.

With tears in his eyes, Leman found himself in the arms of fellow senior Justin Harrison, telling his teammate he loved him and celebrating one final moment on the field together wearing orange and blue.

“I’ve played against Justin all through high school and four years at Illinois and we’ve been through a lot, and he’s a great man and I love the guy,” Leman said. “I wanted to make sure I told him that before we left the field.”

For Leman, Harrison and the 20 other seniors on the team, it was the last time they would don an Illini uniform in a game.

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The heartbreaking loss also marked the end of a remarkable turnaround, led by a class that had only won seven games in the past three seasons.

“We gave it our all for this program and that’s why it’s so hard to lose because if you’re a competitor, you don’t want to lose,” senior Kevin Mitchell said. “But when you look at the overall picture, I’m proud of just being out here.”

It was not just the seniors who took the loss hard. Sophomore quarterback Juice Williams felt the seniors deserved a better send-off in their final game.

“I hate to go out this way and have the seniors see that score in their last game,” Williams said. “All in all we had a successful season coming off a 2-10 year last year, and it’s a great accomplishment to get to the Rose Bowl. My hat goes off to every guy who contributed to this team this year.”

When Illinois started the season, the group of seniors knew they would finish their careers playing in a bowl game, no matter what the media or college football experts predicted.

But, they did not expect they would end their playing days at Illinois in the “Granddaddy of Them All,” and finish with a No. 20 ranking in the final Associated Press Poll.

“I’m proud of proving everybody wrong, week in and week out, because for the most part I know a lot of people said we’d only win three games,” Mitchell said. “It was up to the seniors this year to not listen to the media and fans and just go out and play and that’s what we did. Hopefully we’re the catalyst and I believe we’ve been the catalyst to start this program on the up and up.”

Now that they have launched Illinois football back onto the national stage and the program is on the rise, the seniors will pass the torch to the underclassmen that came to Illinois believing they could turn things around.

It will be up to those players coming back next season to take the next step and continue building on the hard work and dedication that the Illini seniors were well-known for.

“The sky is the limit for these guys,” Harrison said. “They have so much talent coming back and so much coaching and playing potential. They have the world in front of them.”