A Way Of Life
It's almost been a full week and I'm still buzzing from last Saturday. I'm sure you are, too. A last-second FG in a homecoming win over a border rival (a rival ranked #6 in the country). What an incredible game. On Tuesday, a reader reached out with a story. I'd like to share it with you.
Vern Ingalsbe was born in Slidell, Illinois in 1926. Fought for his country in World War II in the Pacific (Okinawa, to be exact). Graduated from the University of Illinois in 1950 after playing on the 150 lb. football team (yes, that was a thing back then). Lived in the state his whole life, settling in the Danville area. Loved his Illini, attended nearly every game, and didn't move out of his east balcony tickets until he turned 90 (he moved to the Collonades Club to finally escape the cold and wind). Vern watched the Wisconsin game in his hospital room in Danville on Saturday and spent the evening celebrating just like the rest of us. On Sunday morning, Vern passed away at the age of 93.
I hope that's not too blunt. I know that Vern's family is going to read this, and I want to write it well. I didn't know Vern, but his grandson reached out to me this week to tell me his story, and I knew I had to write about him. An Illini fan (not just a fan, a player) who rode the highs and lows (mostly lows) since 1950, and his final moments are celebrating his team's biggest win in more than a decade. And I'm not just imagining this - it's what his grandson told me. His exact words:
He went to every football and basketball game possible and then some. Illinois was a way of life for him. It wasn't just a game here or there - he was locked in every game. He got to spend his last 24 hours or so watching his alma mater knock off #6 and the rest of the time reveling in how awesome it is. Sports-wise, I don't think he'd have it any other way. He will be dearly missed by me and my family but he surely won't be missing his Illini as he will be watching every step of the way from above.
"A way of life". I feel that. I think a lot of us identify with that. For whatever reason, these teams chose us and we have no option other than to be "locked in every game". I write about that a lot, but I'm only 46. Vern had ninety three years of living that way. I've been thinking about this the last few days since I got his grandson's email.
And I've been focused on the "final game". It's a concept I pondered a lot after my dad died in 1993. I know it's silly to think that way. It should be "was he surrounded by friends and family?" or something important. But for a sports fan - for people who make it a way of life - I always think about the last sports experience.
There were news stories about this when the Cubs won the World Series. Fans who had lived just long enough (or not long enough) to see the Cubs win it all. That's the ultimate version - a championship. But I also think about fans waiting for programs to turn around.
For example, my father died in late November of 1993, six days after the final Illini game that season. Illinois had lost to Wisconsin, meaning Illinois didn't get to six wins, meaning Illinois was going to miss a bowl game for the first time in six years. I remember our conversation after the Oregon game that year. He had come up to go to the game, we went to that restaurant on Neil between Green and Springfield in a strip mall (I think it was called Pickles?), and we sat and talked about the 0-3 Illini. Was it over? Was everything that White and Mackovic built no longer there?
I thought about that conversation after he died. Again, seems silly to think about sports at a time like that, but it's a way of life for me because it was a way of life for him. He built my fandom, was so excited that I chose to go to Illinois, and loved asking me questions of what campus was like after, say, the 1993 Michigan win. So I remember thinking about the Wisconsin loss and the 5-6 season being the final Illini football game he watched.
Which makes me think of Vern. Can you imagine your final game being this game? Again, I know I'm taking a risk in writing this story this way. There's a family grieving the loss of their father/grandfather and I'm focused on the final Illini game he got to watch. But in his email his grandson said, "I don't think he'd have it any other way", and I know I'd be the same, and so I'm writing this with the assumption that Vern is like me - navigating life through the channel markers of Illini football and basketball.
That makes me think of the corner we might turn. Was this the moment for the football team? Does is start to climb from here? Is this basketball season the point where Illini basketball returns? Will we go to the Tournament and never look back? We've all been waiting and waiting - drive after drive to Champaign - hoping that the next moment is the moment.
And if it is, I can't think of a better life than Vern's. First off, he was born in the correct state. Served his country in World War II. Chose the best school in the nation. Got married the year after he graduated and was married for 66 years. Raised a family, built a career, retired and followed his Illini.
And then passed away at the age of 93 the day after his team's biggest win in more than a decade. We don't get to chose when we go, but it sounds like his grandson was correct - Vern left us "the way he would have wanted it". I know that's how I would want it.
Rest in peace, Vern. I wish I would have met you. I would have bent your ear for hours asking about stories from the decades I missed like the 50's, 60's and 70's. When these programs turn around - and they're GOING to turn around - I'm going to think of your story. The final game you got to watch and the kick that sailed through the uprights. Sometimes I think I'm crazy to follow these teams like I do, but your story helps me remember.
For some of us, it's just a way of life.
Vern accepting a signed football from Lovie Smith - photo provided by his family.