Training Camp 2017 VIII: An Inspiring Interview

Aug 07, 2017

I thought about this all day because I want to do it justice. I recorded something talking about this last night but it didn't come out right. But I interviewed senior cornerback Ahmari Hayes after practice and it left me inspired. I haven't been able to shake the thought all day.

I'll link the interview here, and then I'll tell you why it was so inspiring for me. It's a quick three-minute listen:

I think it comes out in the interview, but I'm not sure. Standing there talking to him - that's a man who wants to make the absolute most of his opportunity here. To the point where he's the last guy on the field, with no coaches around, working on one thing he didn't think he did very well at practice.

But it's not just the extra work. Has anyone watched Last Chance U on Netflix? It chronicles East Mississippi Community College (a junior college) and the players last chance to try to earn that Division I scholarship. Hayes went though that at College of San Mateo in California, just hoping for that one shot at high major college football. As I recall he had two offers - Illinois and Texas State - and picked Illinois.

Talking to him last night I realized that I can get so dismissive with my depth charts and "90 players ranked" lists. I'll watch a player at practice and decide that he's never going to be much more than a backup player and start immediately looking for his replacement. It's an especially quick trigger with a Juco cornerback entering his senior year while two exciting freshmen are arriving on campus. I'm always looking to the horizon.

But talking to him, I was reminded of how much effort goes into this. And how much that effort can sometimes determine playing time. Football is an effort game - a mental challenge to stay focused and ready - and it's so refreshing to talk to someone with Ahmari's focus. A kid from Sacramento with a dream who admits to taking it easy a bit last year with all the comforts of a full-ride scholarship and is now completely focused on having a big senior season.

That's so inspiring to me. It makes me look at what I'm doing with my life. This man is out here working on a specific thing he felt he failed to do during the practice and I can't even fold the laundry when I hear the dryer buzz. Sure, he might have only had two offers because there are other players who are bigger/stronger/faster at his position, but he's giving it every ounce of effort he possesses. What more can you ask from any player?

So put me down as the biggest Ahmari Hayes fan on earth. I noticed him going so hard at practice and I asked to interview him afterwards... and he did not disappoint. My favorite interview in a long time. You could see in his eyes how much he cares about this school and this opportunity.

That's why I do this. That's the story I want to tell. I walked across campus the other night and I still get the same feeling every time - tremendous pride in holding a degree from such an amazing place. It's hard to put into words. I was walking along Sixth Street (between the band building and the grad library) and all these emotions came rushing back from when I was a student. Walking the campus is like getting a chance to go back to my childhood bedroom - it's a time machine.

So when someone treats his scholarship to play football at my university with such pride and dedication, man, I'm in your corner. He had a college football dream, and he gets to live it out wearing orange and blue, and I'm forever his fan. I just need one moment in one game this fall so I can interview him again and talk through that play. I'm excited sitting here thinking about it.

At the core, that's why I write. Yes, I want wins, but I'm a big fan of moments as well. Dillan Cazley's interception last year? So glad he had that moment. Reilly O'Toole pushing us to a bowl game in 2014 - so awesome. Tim Clary never getting that touchdown? Still bothers me.

Maybe I'm weird, but college sports are still pure to me. There's this connection to the players that doesn't exist in professional sports. They play for my school, and I'm forever in their corner. When we get back to the top - and we will - it's going to be so satisfying to think back on all the hard work from the Ahmari Hayes of the world who helped get us there.

And if he could just get one interception to help us beat Indiana this fall......


1970 John on August 07 @ 03:56 AM CDT

Picking just one thing--and not central to the discussion--is the "we." I've always thought it odd to say re pro sports for fans to refer to their relationship in the first person plural. "We won!" No you didn't. They won.

College sports, has the element of players being members of the student body. So yes, there's a we. We are all Illini. And it makes sense in more ways than one to say, #wewillwin

mcarlen2 on August 07 @ 07:18 AM CDT

Last three paragraphs got me. Right in the feels

Bear8287 on August 07 @ 12:05 PM CDT

he's giving it every ounce of effort he possesses. What more can you ask from any player?

A wise Guruji once told me, "Full attention. Best effort." Indeed, what more can be asked of anyone?

We all fall down. Rejoice in the realization and reset your intention and focus. Without that attitude, none of us would have even learned how to walk.

Douglascountyillinifan on August 09 @ 08:19 AM CDT

Awesome perspective as always, Robert. My family laughs at me, but I cry every time I'm at a game and hear the Illinois Loyalty and Three in One. My dad took me to my first game 40 odd years ago, and it somehow feels like he's there with me in those moments. "We're loyal to you", indeed. Thanks for so clearly articulating the way that a lot of us feel. Mr. Hayes was so respectful during that interview. Count me as another huge fan of someone who is such a worthy representative of our institution.

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