A Way Of Life

Oct 25, 2019

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.

Vern accepting a signed football from Lovie Smith - photo provided by his family.


neale stoner on October 25 @ 10:31 AM CDT

Beautiful work.

JimmyTheLayup on October 25 @ 10:38 AM CDT

I know that Vern's family is going to read this, and I want to write it well.


SactownIllini on October 25 @ 11:02 AM CDT

Great job Robert!! This hit home for me as my grandfather is 93, lives in Danville (by himself), and is a huge Illini fan and probably got all of his sons and most grandkids into them too. It's a shame they've had to see such misery, but I think he makes up for it as a Cardinals fan and Bears fan (at least in better decades).

I wanted to share a story about Saturday's win. I didn't get to watch the game because I got married during the game. Our first dance just finished when the Illini kicked the winning field goal. I knew Illinois was making it a game (I snuck a quick score check on a bio break after we finished the ceremony), but no idea on the game situation by the time of the first dance. Some of my Illini buddies were huddled over a phone and at an appropriate time said come here. They showed me the crowd celebrating. I yelled out to our guests we won!! And the Illini fans started yelling ILL-INI!! In my thank you speech I said my wife must be the right one for me as a miracle just happened. She went to a California school, but she appreciates the magnitude of the misery we've endured. It felt great to have a moment like we haven't had since 2007--especially on my wedding day. One of my good friends is also an avid reader of your site and we were both like "wonder what Robert's reaction will be?". You help us feel so connected to the campus even though I haven't been back since 2005. You put your soul into this and write with great emotion. I hope you continue doing this until you're at least 93 because if I'm still alive I'll probably still be reading. GO ILLINI!!

P.S. -- my first wedding was also during an Illini game. A 30-0 loss to Ohio State. My ex went there for grad school and we met in Columbus. I hope this is a much better omen for my new marriage :)

Illinimac68 on October 25 @ 02:44 PM CDT

Great story. I hate to be that guy but I need to let you know that Slidell is in Louisiana. The name of the town you want in rural Vermilion County is Sidell. It's an easy mistake to make. I'm sure Vern's family will be touched.

uilaw71 on October 25 @ 06:00 PM CDT

Pretty much every Illini stalwart in Vermilion County knew of Vern’s passion for the beloved. We appreciate this tribute, Robert, your geography challenge notwithstanding!

NC_OrangeKrush on October 25 @ 06:19 PM CDT

Just so many small towns like Sidell in that area where my family is from. These are the people that come to ball games when the kids are out of school... and where the diehards come from.... and they ALL love the Illini! Rest well Vern!

DB50 on October 26 @ 03:11 AM CDT

Captivating story Robert, this is when you are at your best!

Douglascountyillinifan on October 27 @ 07:36 AM CDT

fantastic work, sir. thank you, and i concur with the others. as long as you write it, i'll read it.

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