Normally when I sit down to write something that I know will be published, I do my best to leave my emotions out of it. This isn’t going to be one of those times. This might not even make sense to anyone but I don't care. I just need to get some words off my chest.
It took me awhile, but I finally came to grips with it at roughly 2am central European time. The Braggin’ Rights game had just ended, my grainy internet feed that took up 4x4 inches of my laptop screen had just went out, and the emotional rollercoaster I was on had come to a stop at an Illini victory.
It was a night of emotions I’ve never felt before. It was the night that the dreaded epiphany finally came, and that I was finally in a mindset to accept it.
My evolution from Illini player to Illini fan was complete.
Maybe I should have realized it sooner, but I was in denial. The pushups I was doing last night in-between breaks of play to calm my nerves should have been a telltale sign. If not that, then definitely when I was resolved to bringing my computer outside in the below freezing temperature because I couldn’t handle the heat that was radiating from my own body.
In the span of a couple of hours, I came to grips that being an Illini fan is as good as it gets from here on out AND that I’m completely okay with it.
Here’s my night explained in the 5 stages of grief:
Denial – This feeling came as I was anxiously awaiting tip-off. This was the biggest game of the year for me. Always. The one I had circled on my calendar every year. And I was not there. I couldn’t believe I would be missing my first Braggin’ Rights game in 10 years, let alone not suiting up for it.
Anger – This came next. I’m not normally a jealous person, but that’s exactly what I felt - an overwhelming sense of jealousy as I saw everyone I knew at the game. I should be there! I should be in the locker room. I should be hearing coach Groce’s pregame speech. I was so jealous it made me not want to text one of my best friends after I saw him sitting courtside!
Bargaining – I thought that, maybe if we win, my feelings of anger would be forgiven. The anger from losing to them for four straight years would hurt a little bit less. I actually did the math in my head that if I continue my professional career for just five more years, I’d get to go to the game in 2018! That doesn’t seem too far away. At least I have my faithful Illini contingent on Twitter that I can share my feelings with during the tough times.
Depression – It feels weird to say this after we had won the game, but as I sat in my apartment, in the dark, all alone, 5,000 miles away, all I thought about were the celebrations taking place without me. I wanted to be there. Again, I should be there. I felt forgotten. The realization that I’m not a part of the team anymore had finally set in. I was now just another fan that wears his emotions on his twitter feed.
Acceptance – The craziest part of this whole thing may be that I had forgot what I had been told my entire Illini career – once you’re an Illini, you’re a part of the Illini family for life. I don’t know what made me forget that. I don’t know why. But when I woke up the next day after only a few miserable hours of sleep, a text from my former head coach made everything right in the world.
“This one was for you Griff.”
All it took was six words to make me feel included again. I wasn’t forgotten. I was a part of the family. How could I have forgotten that? Those words meant everything to me. There’s no way he could have known the type of night I was having. All of a sudden, I felt like I WAS in that locker room celebrating with the guys. I WAS in that arena last night. When I get back to Champaign this summer, that trophy sitting in Ubben WILL be held by me. I'm not just a fan, I'm family and I always will be. I'll always be in those locker rooms. I'll always be sitting courtside. I'll always be just as emotionally attached to these games now as I was when I was playing.
Because of this realization, it will be an extra special holiday season for me.
Here's to the many more Illini victories to come and a Merry Christmas to all that is Illini.
Thanks to Joe for making me feel included as well. The tweet he sent along with this photo read, "U mad bro?"