Memorial Stadium Holiday Road Trip I

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By Paul M. Banks

I still have my first ever media credential to a sporting event. My mom and sisters have a passion for scrap-booking like Ron Zook has for recruiting. It’s in favorite scrapbook and reads October 16, 1999, and on that day I saw a 37-7 Homecoming loss to Minnesota. My first media-credentialed game in the newly renovated stadium occurred with an eerie similarity on October 11, 2008 and was another Homecoming loss (27-20) to Minnesota.  Illinois needs to stop scheduling Minnesota for homecoming (but hey, at least we’ve beat them an unbelievable 19 in a row in basketball) because I’ve now been more annoyed by gophers than Carl Spackler in “Caddyshack.”

I’ve worked in this field since college, where I was a sports columnist for the student daily at the University of Illinois, just a two hour drive from Chicago. This university brought the world tailgating, Homecoming and the Babe Ruth of football, Red Grange. Since those formative years I’ve done guest appearances on ESPN Radio and Sporting News Radio in different markets all across the United States and gone on to write for NBC Chicago.com and the Washington Times online.


Time Immemorial

Memorial Stadium, yes we know there are a million other schools (Nebraska, Indiana, and California just to name a few) using this name, but hey “this is my rifle. There are many others like it, but this one is mine.” It was built in 1923 as a memorial to Illinois men and women who gave their lives for their country during World War I. Their names appear on 200 columns that support the east and west sides of the stadium. Donations of approximately $1.7 million by more than 200,000 students, alumni and other friends of the University made the construction possible.

All campus freshmen must learn and memorize the story of the day the stadium was dedicated officially: Oct. 18, 1924. On this day Illinois defeated Michigan, 39-14, for a Homecoming victory, but Harold “Red” Grange accounted for six touchdowns in what remains as the single greatest performance in Memorial Stadium history. (Although Juice Williams has broken the stadium’s record for single passing yards and total offense TWICE this season) In the first 12 minutes of that game, Grange ran for a total of 265 yards and scored four times. He had his hands on the ball only six times and left the field before the end of the first quarter.

In the third quarter, Grange returned and ran 13 yards for his fifth touchdown, and in the final period he passed to Marion Leonard for his sixth score of the day. In 42 minutes of playing time, Grange, nicknamed both the “Galloping Ghost” and “Wheaton Iceman,” gained a total of 402 yards, carried the ball 21 times and also completed six passes for 64 yards. “That rival hands may never touch” indeed. Legendary coach Amos Alonzo Stagg (the namesake of my high school with blue and orange colors) called it “the most spectacular single-handed performance ever delivered in a major game.”

The 1994 season represented the 70th anniversary of Memorial Stadium’s dedication and the historic Illinois-Michigan game. To celebrate the event, Red Grange’s wife, Mrs. Margaret Grange, attended the Fighting Illini’s Oct. 22 game against Michigan. She helped dedicate The Grange Rock which sits at the north end of Zuppke Field as a tribute to her husband. The rock came from the same Indiana Stone quarry that produced the granite columns of the stadium. Zuppke Field is the official name of the playing surface, named after the legendary early century coach.

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Memory Stadium

As I document my travels all around this great nation of ours, it seems very natural to journal about whom and what I encounter in other cities and states. But at home it feels a little weird, because I’m so accustomed to it. It’s almost impossible to limit the number and scope of all the stadium stories I’ve acquired here over the years, so here’s a short list of the some of the most memorable. Because here, Memorial Stadium, the University of Illinois is where…

…I used to sneak in with my friends and kick field goals instead of going to class. Most of the time the door was wide open, but occasionally we would jump fence.

…I’m reminded of how close Illinois football really is to me and my family. There’s a reason my eldest sister Lisa hosted a Rose Bowl party with an “Illini Tree” on New Year’s Day this past year. She once got a motorcycle ride home from a party with Jeff George, the only Illini #1 overall NFL draft pick.

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…I’ve discussed parties and getting ridiculously piss-drunk with the school’s leading passer and current radio analyst Kurt Kittner. And talked about the philosophical ideologies at play while pumping iron at the weight room with current Bears and former Illinois wide out Brandon Lloyd.

…we saw the 20 game losing streak (yes, really) end my junior year with Rausell “Rocky” Harvey rushing for 225 yards in his college debut against Middle Tennessee St. It was less impressive than it sounds as then coach Ron Turner had him run left all day because MTSU’s defensive line on that side were literally about 195 pounds.

…we stormed the field to celebrate that day and I watched some people climb the goalposts, but we were unable to bring them down.

…another one of my siblings, my sister Rachel, got hit on by QB Scott Weaver, who misconnected on that pass, just like he usually did on the field. I remember her freshman year when she took me to my first game in 1991, a 20-0 loss to Michigan.

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…I rode my bike down the ramp, across the field and end-zones on the way to freshman orientation.

…where my friends visiting from other campuses and I discussed how far we were getting sexually with the girls in our lives at the time using the Zuppke field yard lines as a progress chart. (Because “getting to second base” or “reaching third base” is just too overused and unoriginal.)

…I saw Jason Verduzco, a poor-man’s Doug Flutie, play and become the Illini’s third leading passer in school history; and I thought “Wow! I’m actually taller than that guy; he’s my new favorite player.”

…I got my first job writing for a newspaper, and even an all-expenses paid trip to Miami to cover the bowl game and hang out in South Beach for the millennium. My favorite memory that semester however was when I called one of my friends about 5 minutes before I knew Verduzco was going to call me for a story I was doing on the Illini’s greatest games of the millennium. This was on purpose, so I could tell my friend “sorry buddy, I have to let you go now, I have Jason Veruduzco on line two.”

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…the Gophers beat writer for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune yelled at me and my tag-team partner at the Daily Illini because as the late, great Jerome Holtzman said, “no cheering in the press box.”

…you the reader will understand now why I shout out expletives when the Illinois football team does something stupid and ruins themselves like they did this week versus Western Michigan. And why my eyes will water with joy after completing this list of anecdotes from the Banks family happy place.

Today, everything back on the University of Illinois campus and affiliated with my alma mater is upgraded big time since I last visited. It’s like seeing your high school girlfriend, but now she has breast implants. The football stadium is no different. Even the paper Memorial Stadium credential pass (now with hologram pictures) is a hundred times cooler than in my day.

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Comments

  1. I heard the chief is back. Is it true?

  2. A group rented out Assembly Hall to have him dance after the home opner. I’m begininng to think that people on both sides of this debate REALLY NEED TO GET A LIFE! Its like they’re desprate for a cause to cling to…Have hty ever heard of the climate crisis, Iraq, health care, poverty, AIDS, corrupted government, cancer, malnourished or ill-stricken children, PETA,…I mean there are plenty of causes out there with actual importance to go rally around people!

  3. EIU Cheerleader/SICA Chick says

    Go Illinettes!

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