Illini gridders pitch in at home supply drive


Owen Straub, 4, of Champaign, gets an autograph signed by Jeff Cumberland at the “Kickoff for Cunningham” on Wednesday afternoon at the Bielfeldt Athletic Administration Building. Wes Anderson

By Daniel Johnson

Though Wednesday began as a less-than-ideal day for collecting items for the third-annual Cunningham Children’s Home Supply Drive, senior linebacker Brit Miller considered this year’s event the best the team has hosted by the time players collected the last items donated for the day.

“We decided a couple years ago to have a supply drive, and this year we kind of stepped up our game a little bit, as they say in our business,” said Miller, whom teammates credited with spearheading the event. “We brought Meijer in, I think that was a great idea and we had them on-site with items for people to buy.

“The items are starting to stack up and in the building, and when we start to count up all of it, I think we’re going to find that we did a really great job today.”

Wednesday’s drive, which ran 12 hours from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., was held to benefit the Cunningham Children’s Home of Urbana, a support group that offers “emotional, social, educational and spiritual support to children, youth and families by providing a safe, nurturing, therapeutic environment in which individuals may experience personal growth and healing,” according to its Web site. The goal of the joint effort was to collect 100 yards of needed items for the children of the Home.

And given the team’s success last season, it was hopeful that even given the inclement weather early their goal of raising $20,000 in supplies, a $7,000 increase over last year’s total, was in reach.

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“We’ve definitely got a lot more numbers out here, a lot more children want to be around the team,” junior quarterback Juice Williams said. “A lot of children just come out here to look up to us, and we’re obviously out here to have fun with those guys.”

“Having fun,” included the team setting up drills for the children to partake in with the team. Players and head coach Ron Zook were at the drive to sign autographs for the community and scrimmage with everyone.

“Things were getting pretty heated in some of those drills, especially the tackling ones,” Miller said. “They’re all in good fun, but the kids like to take them seriously, especially with us around.”

Miller said he’s hopeful the drive’s success could be a harbinger of things to come for the football season.

“Coach (Zook) talked to us about stepping up as leaders, and with these young guys on the team, it’s good to see everyone out there,” Miller said. “I think there are a lot of things that are questionable when you have a young team and in certain areas, we do have a young team. But all of our guys showed up on time and when they were supposed to be where. It shows that we don’t have a selfish team, one that might be divided. When guys show up and do their job everyday, that’s when you win ball games.”

The supply drive was a welcome break, according to center Ryan McDonald, from the rigors of summer. The team may not be visible to the public during the summer, as far as working and visible progression. But the Holland, Mich., native noted making gains now is crucial to benefiting the team come August 30 when it will have its highly anticipated rematch against Missouri.

“The summer is a time, at least as a line, that we have to make, and have made, a lot of gains as far as getting stronger,” McDonald said. “I know myself, I’ve had some pretty good strength gains that I wasn’t expecting, but everybody else around me keeps growing faster than I do. I think that shows how we’re working.

” … But seeing things like that, it’s a good sign for the season, especially the way that (Missouri) finished their season, we know that they’re a very talented group that will be ready week one. They’re going to bring the same thing, a lot of talent, with more of that mature youth … as well as the summer is going now, we’re making the progress needed to be ready for them.”