Apr 28, 2023

I'm in Colorado right now on vacation. I probably won't publish anything else until Monday or Tuesday. But I have an hour here, and I want to talk about Spoon and his teammates. It's all I was thinking about last night while watching videos of Spoon getting drafted and it's all I'm thinking about this morning.

That screencap above is from the video inside this tweet. The NFL put the players at the draft in front of a screen and then surprised them with who would show up on the screen. Here's what Spoon saw:

I get that they did stuff like this for other draft picks. I'm guessing some of those draft picks got a surprise from their own teams gathered in locker rooms (although I haven't seen any others). This is not "Illinois teammates are so close that they surprised him on draft night from the locker room and no one else would even consider doing the same." I just want to talk about what I've observed from this team.

Back in January, I rode on a bus from Champaign to Chicago with 10 football players. I was the chaperone of sorts, escorting the players to the Illini Guardians/Chicago Illini Club gamewatch for the Wisconsin game. I wrote about it here. I mostly stayed to myself - I was just there in case something went wrong - and I made a promise when I boarded the bus that I wasn't there to report "I heard someone say a bad word" or anything like that.

Some may remember that I tweeted this one video (after receiving permission from the player in the center of the video):

As I wrote in that article, this team is very close. Over the years I've written about the dynamic I've observed while covering several Illini teams, discussing the players who self-identified as the "Zook Boys" when Tim Beckman took over, or talking about the team dynamic in 2017 when 22 true freshmen played (and 15 started at least one game).

Winning obviously cures a lot, but what I've observed from this team is different than the others. They are very, very close. Maybe I'm just wrapped up in the whole #famILLy thing myself, but the coaches have made "family" a focus and it is so incredibly evident when you're around these players. The video of the team celebrating with Spoon is just the latest example.

And I want to tell two more stories from that January trip (don't worry - neither will break my pinkie promise) to make my point. I wrote mostly about the ride back in that article linked above, but these two stories are from the trip up.

Go Calvin

A bus like that (arranged like a "party bus", with 10 players, a driver, and me) is obviously going to lead to several conversations going on at the same time. So I don't want you to get the idea that there was a two-hour, full-trip focus on what I'm going to mention. I took a blurry selfie on the way back, so this was the layout:

OK, to my first story.

January 28th was the day of the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, one of the many "bowl games" for players to showcase themselves in front of scouts (like the East-West Shrine game or the Senior Bowl). For the NFLPA game, Calvin Avery was on the roster.

I had the thought to watch the game on my phone on the way up to Chicago (I didn't think I'd be talking to the players very much), but I forgot. You know who didn't forget? The players. Caleb Griffin pulled up the game on his phone and the players gathered around to watch. That was their guy out there, and they were going to watch him on a 4" screen.

It's not like they gathered around the phone the entire time. Like I said, party bus, and there are many different conversations going on. But Caleb would be watching the game (with three others), yell when Calvin did something, and they'd all gather around for the replay.

I can't tell you how much I love that. Their guy is on TV, and they're gonna watch.

Just like last night. (And today.)


The conversation at one point turned to the NFL draft. Someone (can't remember who) mentioned that Spoon was starting to show up on a lot of first round mock drafts. Someone mentioned how much money he was going to be making soon.

My brain clicked into gear. Every year, when an Illini player is drafted, I go to Sportrac and look up his projected salary slot so I can tweet it out. I had just seen a mock draft that day which had Spoon going 6th (the first one that put him in the top-10 - back in January, many had him as a second rounder). I knew how quickly the top ten contracts rise, uh, exponentially, so I wanted to find the numbers.

I looked it up, waited for a break in their conversation, cleared my throat, and joined in the conversation for the first time.

"I saw a mock draft yesterday which had Spoon going 6th. Know how much money that contract would be?"

Now I had their attention.

"$28 million contract with a signing bonus of $17.4 million."

Their reaction is the reason I'm writing this today. It wasn't jealousy. There were no "if he goes that high, I need to see if he can get me a car" jokes. They were genuinely happy for their guy. Beyond excited that there was a chance he'd make $30 million in late April, not the $10 million they had been discussing (end of the first round/start of the second round gets around $10 million with a $4 million signing bonus). They were, to steal a term my sons use, hype.

He ended up not going 6th. He went 5th. Which gives him these numbers:

It's with that perspective that I watched the video the NFL put out. Spoon, just picked 5th moments before, is genuinely happy to see his guys. His guys, gathered in the locker room to watch him get picked 5th, are overjoyed for him. True famILLy doesn't get jealous - they're beyond happy for you. Your dreams just came true, and they can't contain their excitement.

Let's see 3 more dreams come true today. And then maybe two more tomorrow.

And then 4 or 5 more next season.

Comments on April 28, 2023 @ 12:34 PM

Love this, Robert---MANY thanks for sharing a perspective we readers never are lucky enough to have.....what a wonderful night for Spoon and Illini Football!!

22 on April 28, 2023 @ 09:59 PM

so great, and so glad you of all people were on that bus

Efremwinters84 on April 30, 2023 @ 05:05 AM

Very cool. Thanks for sharing Robert!

I realize there are many ingredients which have gone into building what we now have in the Illini football locker room, dating back to the recruitment of this past year's roster. I know that Josh Whitman realizes it, BUT, let's continue doing everything possible to keep our current coach and his staff content.

Things are really humming right now, and working like a well-oiled machine. Assistant coaches are being rewarded with salary increases and bigger jobs (in Champaign, or elsewhere) and our players are being prominently recognized in the NFL draft.

It's a little bit like the story of Pinocchio --- "We're a real program now."

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