PMP 2023: The Proper State Of Mind
I'm continuing this series of Pick My Post requests with a topic I've written about many times over the last 14 years: Ray Eliot's "Proper State Of Mind" speech. We'll start with the full question from Fred (thanks so much for your donation to the scholarship fund, Fred).
Back in the day I had a class called History of Sport… it was basically three hours a week of trivia… I loved it… one day Ray Eliot comes in and gives his "proper state of mind speech"…. Just awesome to hear it from him… the great line in the speech is "send Ameche at me"…. The intent of course is to inspire toughness at the point of impact and deny the forward momentum of the opponent by stopping their best player….
So the question here would be if in your opinion there has been a player that lives up to the ideals coach Eliot was calling for in his speech.
First, let's do the history lesson. As I've written many times, that speech, which Eliot gave more than once, should be required listening for all Illini. I can probably use snippets from previous articles I've written to bring you up to speed.
We'll start with a snippet from an article I wrote on April 6, 2010 as part of the 19 Point Plan (this was #14, Build On Our History):
We're Illinois. Home of The Greatest College Football Player In The History Of The Game. In this day and age, there's absolutely no reason we're not a perennial bowl team. History demands it.
The public needs to know. Recruits need to know. Most importantly, our players need to know. If I were in charge, the very moment the freshmen arrive on campus, the very first day, I would put them through the following 4-step program:
Step 1: Listen to the Ray Eliot "Proper State Of Mind" speech
Wait, what? You've never heard the Proper State Of Mind speech? Seriously? It's my ringtone (not really). I can't tell you how many calls I've missed because I waited to answer until after I heard "you've got a winner - YOU'VE GOT A WINNER" (seriously, this isn't true - but it should be).
If you haven't heard the speech, carve out 27 minutes tonight and listen to the speech. By the time he says the word "courage" in the very first minute, I already have goosebumps. By the time he gets to the Alan Ameche story, I'm ready to throw on some shoulder pads.
I would teach the freshman that this, first and foremost, is what Illinois Football is about. That this is the mindset that is expected from them if they want to play for this historic - yes, historic - program.
(The full speech can be heard here if you have 27 minutes to spare.)
(Also, it's crazy that I wrote those words more than 13 years ago. I was 37 then. I'm 50 now.)
I've referenced that speech several times since 2010. The most recent was this article in 2021. For that one, I clipped part of the speech so that "send Ameche at me" could live in a permanent spot for me to reference every few years. This one isn't 27 minutes long. It's 2 minutes and 13 seconds. And you MUST listen to this one:
I then wrote out my thoughts on that moment in 1951 and how every Illini fan should be aware of it:
1951 is the season that the Boand System recognized Illinois as the national champions (as it did in 1919 and 1923). National championship claims back then were even more fuzzy than UCF claiming a title in 2017, so true national championships are hard to determine. For example, during that 1951 season, Tennessee was #1 at the end of the season. They then lost to Maryland in the Sugar Bowl... and Tennessee was still declared national champions by the AP and UPI because bowls didn't really "count" when voting on the best team.
The Boand System was a mathematical system developed to determine a national champion from 1919 to 1960. It was officially recognized by the NCAA at the time (as were the polls). So by that one metric, the 1951 Illini were the national champions.
And we were the national champions because of that goal line stand against Wisconsin. Wisconsin finished the season 7-1-1 and Illinois finished 8-0-1 (both teams tied Ohio State). So that goal line stand against Wisconsin - where they started on the one and ended the drive at the six - was the reason Illinois won the Big Ten, went to the Rose Bowl (a 40-7 win over #7 Stanford), and then were declared the national champions by Boand. There are only two retired numbers at Illinois (Grange and Butkus) and, to me, there are two epic moments in program history that stand above the rest:
October 18, 1924 - The grand opening of Memorial Stadium and Red Grange returns the opening kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown (I'd imagine that the Illinois sideline had a little juice after that). He also scores on runs of 67, 56, and 44 yards in the first quarter and ends the day with four rushing touchdowns, a touchdown pass, and a kickoff returned for a touchdown in a 39-14 win over Michigan. Consider Memorial Stadium dedicated.
October 6, 1951 - "Send Ameche at me" screams Chuck Boerio, and Wisconsin does, and Boerio stuffs him, and Illinois wins 14-10. The Illini would go on to be named the national champions by the Boand System after beating Stanford 40-7 in the Rose Bowl.
Yes, you're reading all of this correctly. An Illini linebacker called out, and then stuffed, Wisconsin star tailback (and future Heisman Trophy winner) Alan Ameche at the goal line to preserve an Illini victory during a season that would eventually lead to an Illini national championship... and many of you learned about that for the first time just now. Point #14 of The 19 Point Plan: BUILD. ON. OUR. HISTORY.
Anyway, that brings you up to speed. When Fred asked about the Proper State Of Mind speech, that's what he's referencing. So now we can get to his actual question. Has there been a player who lives up to the ideals Coach Eliot was describing in his speech?
In one way, there have been dozens. I've talked about The Proper State Of Mind a lot when writing about linebackers. Some guys have it - the ability to play right on the edge of the knife - and some do not. The best way to describe training camp (any training camp) is a coaching staff figuring out who plays with The Proper State Of Mind and who does not.
But there have also been exceptional examples, and I think that's what Fred is going for here. Players who would absolutely scream "send Ameche at me" in a similar moment. Players who bring an extra level of intensity to every moment. And if I had to pick one from my years covering the team from inside the ropes, my answer is easy: Ben Mathis.
There's a Ben Mathis jersey hanging on my wall. He sent it to me with a really great note addressed to "my one fan" after the 2013 season. He graduated 10 years ago, but he's the first player who comes to mind when I read this question. Many of you don't even know his name, so here goes:
Ben Mathis was a walkon from Springfield. He walked on (and redshirted) in 2009 and then stuck around for five years, his final game being the Northwestern game in 2013. More on that in a minute.
I wrote about Mathis a lot back then. He's the reason I write about walkons a lot. Like, my podcast with Tailon Leitzsey last year sourced all the way back to my observations of Ben Mathis in the early 2010's. Mathis is how I started noticing exceptional walkons.
Let me take you through a few tweets from back then to add some more background.
I was overjoyed when he got in a game in 2011:
Add Henry Dickinson to the burnt redshirt list. And my boy Ben Mathis on the field!— Robert Rosenthal (@ALionEye) September 10, 2011
And I'd tweet about him a lot while watching practice:
Big third and two for the Blue and who comes up to make the tackle? Ben Mathis. #thatsmywalkon— Robert Rosenthal (@ALionEye) April 14, 2012
When he'd get in a game, I'd nearly lose my mind:
My boy Ben Mathis in the game at safety. If he gets a pick or something, I might burst.— Robert Rosenthal (@ALionEye) September 15, 2012
And when he got in the Northwestern game in 2013 - his senior day - and made a big play, I nearly melted down in the pressbox:
I'm shaking right now. Ben Mathis comes forward and makes that tackle. I'm bursting. I've never been more excited for 1 play from 1 player.— Robert Rosenthal (@ALionEye) November 30, 2013
Even years later, I'd continue to answer questions with "Ben Mathis."
This one is easy: walkon safety Ben Mathis. Going that hard every practice even though he only got a few snaps here and there was so inspiring to me.— Robert Rosenthal (@ALionEye) December 26, 2019
Mathis barely played. But he was notable to me in the same way that the school crossing guard who shows up every day for 35 years no matter the weather is notable to me. Extreme consistency is rare.
Every time I watched Ben Mathis at practice, he was, well, extremely consistent. He was that walkon going harder than the scholarship players practice after practice. After four years as a walkon, he was finally put on scholarship for his senior season. And that spring (of 2013), he was running with the ones at safety. Finally the world was going to get to see what I saw at practice: a player who plays with The Proper State Of Mind.
And then right at the end of summer workouts, he gets injured. I was ready to watch him start that fall and now he misses all of fall camp. I can't remember exactly when he returned to the field that year, but I don't think it was until late in the season.
In that Northwestern game, though, the coaches finally put him in for meaningful snaps. I can still remember it like it was yesterday. On one series, he makes a big third down tackle to force a field goal attempt. On another series, he made this heads-up re-route of a receiver nearly leading to an Earnest Thomas interception. We nearly came back and won that game (lost 37-34), and had we won because of a Ben Mathis tackle + re-route, I'd still be writing about it today.
Instead, we lost, and I just have the interview below. This was after that game, and I hope everyone will take three minutes to listen to it. It's not some big inspirational speech or anything. You might even listen and just say "sounds like a normal interview with a player." I'm asking that you listen because this is what comes to mind when asked about players with the "proper state of mind."
Ben Mathis was very matter-of-fact about everything. I think he wondered why I cared because he was just a walkon football player who would go out and do what he was told, every practice, every play. The ones who wonder why they're exceptional for doing their job play-in, play-out are the ones who are exceptional. They're the ones who understand The Proper State Of Mind. Give me 85 of them.
So that's my answer. Ben Mathis. And here's my interview with him from November of 2013. Go Illini.