Our kind of thing: the Fighting Illini family
November 15, 2015
Being a student-athlete is a tricky thing. It’s an emotional thing, it’s a mental thing and it’s a physical thing.
And as surprising as this may sound, I haven’t found many outside of college sports that are able to do justice to just how amazing an experience it is.
But balancing all of these feelings isn’t necessarily the type of “tricky” that I’m referring to.
I’m talking about the trickiness of the Illinois athletic department. The one that Chicago media loves to bash, and the one that has received an “interim only” reputation.
But to us student-athletes, those interim titles aren’t necessarily a bad thing. So far, they’ve been a great thing. Because for us, the athletic department is starting something positive: a new atmosphere — a winning, positive atmosphere.
But forget about that for a second.
Illinois athletics — if it wasn’t before this year of change — is strong. Our student-athletes are strong, our morale is strong, and our community has an unparalleled family-like atmosphere.
And what’s better than that: We’re about to get stronger.
One of my favorite memories is my first home tournament in the fall of my freshman year. I was excited for my first matches at home.
And the thing that amazed me the most was that my roommate from the soccer team and the other friends that I had made within the student-athlete body were even more excited than I was.
I still remember the week before that tournament. My friends sent me messages asking if the schedule was out, and the day that the matches finally started I remember the warmth I felt when they all showed up with signs and posters, the loudest fans in the stands.
Over the past week, I spent quite a bit of time talking to other student-athletes about the direction of the athletic department and the atmosphere that we have created for ourselves. Many of them shared experiences very similar to mine.
When I sat down with Joe Spencer on Thursday, he mentioned that the outside community — professors on campus all the way back to the DIA’s academic staff — seemed to have the team’s back and had kept the spirits of the program high. But aside from the outside support, the one thing that stuck out the most and the one story the football team’s center described that was the most similar to mine, was the support he received from the other student-athletes at his games.
“We eat three meals a day together, we hang out, go to each other’s games,” Joe said. “You can always see, it’s cool (in Block I) we have that little patch in the corner of all the athletes, so we can see everybody supporting each other. So, I think at Illinois it’s just kind of one big family.”
Other athletes agreed with Joe’s observation. Out of the 10 athletes — from 10 different teams — that I spoke to this week, six of them voluntarily used the word family to describe our community.
Brock Ervin, a sophomore on the wrestling team, was one of them.
“The student-athlete community here at Illinois is a great program and is an honor to be a part of,” Brock said. “However, I look at it more as a family than a community. The guys on my team would do anything for me and I would do the same for them.”
Softball player Ruby Rivera said that her team atmosphere this year is the best it’s been in her three years at Illinois. The softball program was one of the three that received a new head coach before the start of the school year.
Ruby said that she has always felt cared about by other student-athletes.
“The student-athletes around me have a lot of respect and I have a lot of respect for them,” she said. “I’m very grateful for the friends and student-athletes that I’m surrounded by. I know that we all work hard and that we’re all there for each other. We all support each program and support each other and that’s probably one of the big things that makes us a big family.”
Even the athletes that transfer here seem to notice our support right away. New to Illinois as of this year, swimming and diving junior Audrey Rodawig said: “I can definitely tell that the Illini are a family. And that’s been so awesome because I feel very welcomed here, and that’s all you can really ask for as a transfer.”
Even the student-athletes that didn’t use the word “family” are pleased with the group’s support system. After six years here, Jannelle Flaws spoke highly of her team atmosphere, the improvements within the athletic department and the support she received on and off the field from athletes on other teams.
“It’s probably been the best part of college for me, just being in the student-athlete community,” she said. “There’s a lot of people on other teams who I’ve become great friends with. It’s a very fun atmosphere to be in when you have had friends on other teams that come and support you.”
Joe noted the strength amongst the student-athletes and sees the athletic department’s changes as a positive way to move forward on the field and in the athletic administration.
“I think we’re all pretty strong-minded people and we’re all pretty close where you know if it’s one coach on a certain team changing or if it’s the AD changing we all reach out to each other and have each other’s back,” Joe said.
“I think you’ll keep seeing success and more success on the field.”
The outside world seems to think that a need for change means that our whole program was shot, that we were broken, when that really wasn’t the case. Change can be good, especially when you’re around good people every single day.
Our student-athlete community is a special thing. It’s an emotional, mental, physical, student-athlete kind of thing. It’s our kind of thing, that we’ve created, and that we experience with no one else.
We’re the Fighting Illini, and we’re a family.
Alexis is a junior in Media and plays for Illinois’ women’s tennis team.