Nobody understands our experience. We cheer for a team that doesn't win, and because we don't win, we're a little different. There aren't wins to cheer for, or bowl games, so we're left to cheer for the players. They're wearing orange and blue, so they're family.
Just walk around the field during one of these autograph sessions (like after the spring game) and you'll understand what I mean by "family". At Ohio State, when the players sit down for autographs, there's a long line of people lined up to get selfies and signatures from their heroes. "Can't wait to see you beat Michigan again", they tell them.
At Illinois, it's different. No tables, no lines - just the fans invited on the field to get autographs from the players. There aren't many fans, so there aren't any tables (well, besides the one line and table for Lovie to sign your Bears jersey). It's just... a bunch of people mingling. There's not much "can't wait so see you beat Michigan" because, well, you know...
I've watched this happen after Rantoul scrimmages and I've watched this happen after the spring games. I've probably stood around watching a similar scene 15 times, thinking how unique it must be. You can't do that at Wisconsin - there'd be 18,000 fans on the field. The only place where the players and fans could interact this much would be, say, a program that only has two winning Big Ten seasons in the last 25 years.
Maybe Kansas football fans have the same experience - I don't really know - but from my interactions with other Big Ten fans, our fandom is certainly unique. Mostly because we lose at the time and have no hope, which means we follow the players differently. Michigan fans cheer for Icarus to not fly too close to the sun; Illini fans know they're cheering for Sisyphus to push the stone up the hill. Michigan fans get angry at Icarus; Illinois fans feel compassion for Sisyphus.
Because of this construct, tragedy is personal. When Mikey Dudek went down with his fourth injury in four years, there weren't any "do we have enough WR depth to still reach 10 wins?" discussions. It was personal. Please no. Not Mikey.
Which is why I'm at "please no - not Bobby" today. If you don't know what I'm referring to, Bobby Roundtree was severely injured in a swimming accident this weekend and is in the hospital in critical condition. My heart aches just typing those words. Not Bobby. Not Superman.
We don't know much at this point. Just that this was a "severe spinal injury" which required surgery last night and that he is in critical yet stable condition. My first thought is that this is way beyond football. I'm not concerned about him returning to play football - I'm concerned that he recover and can live a normal life.
I'm a liar. That's not true. My very first thought was that this would mark the fifth consecutive year where the player who would be #1 on my "90 Illini" list was injured. The first thought is always selfish. The first thought is always "we're cursed". We're selfish beings to the core, so the first thought is always "woe is me".
But that thought is easy to shake away. Just go search for the words "Bobby Roundtree" on Twitter. Watch how his teammates (and our fans) are reacting. For us fans, it may sound harsh, but we already care less about wins and losses than just about any fanbase - I mean, we're Illinois fans. So we've developed this strange fandom where we care more about individual players reaching their dreams than perhaps any other college fanbase.
Don't believe me? Go look at Illini fans on Twitter Saturday night and their absolute glee at the way Meyers Leonard was playing in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals. Or just do this - go look up Justin Hardee tweets when he makes a big special teams play for the Saints this fall. Yes, other fanbases do this, but not to this degree. When Malik Turner caught his first pass in a Seahawks game one of my group texts erupted like the Illini had just beaten Wisconsin.
Is it sad? Sure. I'm sure some Michigan State fan would look down at me with "poor guy doesn't get to cheer for any wins so he's reduced to cheering for special teams tackles in meaningless NFL games" scorn. Yeah, it's fairly lame. But I'm telling you, when the AAF rosters came out and I saw that Chunky Clements was on one of the teams, I was crazy excited.
And when I saw that Bobby Roundtree was in a severe accident, I was crazy gutted. This is a man with an NFL future. At our training camp last summer is when I started writing "will he be the first Illini player to leave early for the NFL since 2011?" articles. There would be so many text chain celebrations for big NFL moments over the next 10 years.
Hopefully, there still are. I guess we don't really know the full severity of the injury, so perhaps "severe spinal injury" stops short of some form of paralysis. I've been assuming he's done with football, but maybe there's an ending to this that includes "he's lucky to have avoided serious injury and fully recovered". That's what I'll be praying for. That he can still reach his dreams.
But it doesn't feel like that right now. This appears to be a very serious medical issue, and the words "critical condition" are involved, so right now, we should probably echo his teammates prayers: pull through, Bobby. We can worry about the rest later - right now we want you with us.
Maybe I'm wrong and this isn't unique. Maybe all fanbases would eventually land on "this player had such a bright future in the NFL and I couldn't wait to cheer for him in the playoffs" instead of "this player had such a bright future and I couldn't wait to see him lead us to the playoff". But from 10 years of observing this up close, I think I'm right. I think Illini fans are fairly unique in how we follow our individual players.
And I also think that Illini players are unique in how they rally around a guy like Bobby. Not that they don't all have team goals to reach a bowl game, but I've noticed the last few years how the players that do make it to the NFL are the conquering heroes. This wasn't so much the case in the early 2010's when the Zook teams were seeing four players drafted each year. But in the last five years, with so many coaching changes and so much upheaval, these teammates really rally around a guy like Nick Allegretti getting drafted in the 7th round. Maybe it's the small town thing where everyone rallies around the guy who made it big or something. Whatever it is, our roster is unique.
Which means that the support behind Bobby Roundtree is overwhelming for such a small and insignificant football program. I really believe that. It sounds strange to say, but you'd have to lose like we lose to fully understand it. We're very player-centric, and when one of our players goes down, we feel it. I know I'm one of many who is absolutely sick to their stomach today.
Look, I'm not saying "if a Penn State player had a severe spinal injury their fanbase wouldn't care - they'd all run to the depth chart to see who the Next Man Up would be". We're all humans, and tragedy is gut-wrenching. I'm just pointing out that this fanbase - this tortured, butt-of-all-jokes fanbase - is extremely player-driven. If the team isn't going to succeed, we want to see individual players succeed. And when the one with the brightest NFL future is injured this way, it's absolutely devastating. Bobby was destined for NFL stardom and all that comes with it.
Perhaps he still is. I'm still hoping and praying that "severe" doesn't mean "severe". That's all we can really do right now.
So we're praying for something miraculous, Big Bob. All of us.