The Great Berkeley Road Trip

When I lived in San Diego and still had an alma mater, my old school came out to play Cal in football.  My buddy Manscape and I decided to make the road trip.  It was the fall of 2005…

Rest In Peace, Chief Illiniwek

We hit the road Friday morning and everything was going smooth.  My mother had just been out to visit and she left her rental car a few extra days to make the drive and not put the miles on my own piece of shit car.  More than a few people had questioned our decision not to fly, and the over/under on our drive was 9 hours with a high of 11, but I confidently predicted a 7.5 hour trek.  Traffic in L.A. was light and we cruised through the uninhabited wasteland of central California with ease.

In almost exactly seven and a half hours we were in Berkeley (thank you very much).  45 minutes after that we actually found our hotel (shut up).  Now, I must confess here that I had screwed around and not made reservations in a timely manner for this trip, so the hotel where the San Diego Illini Club and many other fellow fans were staying was filled up.  Fortunately, I had been able to secure accommodations at another venue.  This place was not only cheaper, but walking distance to both the stadium and the alumni’s hotel.  The only problem was that the place was a bed & breakfast and only offered one bed per room.  Although Manscape and I are tight, we aren’t close enough to start spooning yet.  But Manscape brought an aerobed and we were good to go.

Once we checked in we decided to take a tour of the campus and get some food. Berkeley is officially the worst campus I’ve ever seen in my life.  And I’ve seen a few.  This place is a shithole.  Homeless people, hippies who look like homeless people, people living in trees, ugly chicks, fraternity houses that don’t show even a hint of a weekend party (it’s 7 o’clock on a Friday and not a single person passed out on the lawn?  WTF?!?), just all around the worst place ever.  Walking down their main drag is like going through Tijuana.  On the light poles there were signs proclaiming the area to be a “Drug Free Zone.”  I thought that was pretty funny and decided to take a picture of the sign.  Some street vendor, a 250-pound black woman wearing a red cape, a hard hat painted like the flag of Israel and her face painted like a leopard (I am NOT making this up) thought I had taken her picture, so she gets all indignant, and as we’re walking away I hear her say, “That cracker ass white boy need to get his ass kicked!”  Manscape, who’s a pretty big guy, informed me he didn’t think we could take her so we quickened our pace.

After dinner we went back to the room to get ready to go out.  Thanks to my amazing foresight we had with us a cheap styrofoam cooler loaded with a big handle of vodka and enough Red Bull to explode an elephant’s heart.  We pounded drinks while getting ready.  I donned one of my favorite shirts, the one with Che Guevara that says “Commies Aren’t Cool,” and we walked down the street to our alumni’s hotel bar.

It’s always fun to drink with old people because they know they’re going to have to go to bed by 10 so they’re really intent on getting drunk before having to call it a night.  We, of course, get really fucked up and then keep on going.  So after the old folks went to bed a few of us younger alums hit a few more bars.  I got a lot of dirty looks for my shirt.  The bar scene in Berkeley is pretty weak, probably because of the presence of so many other mind-altering substances the kids can indulge in.  But we persevered.  We did a lot of shots, I got royally drunk and started blacking out, nothing too exciting happened and I was in bed by 2:30. 

Saturday morning I was less hung over than expected.  Manscape was hurting pretty bad and wanted to start drinking immediately to rectify the situation.  He still has a hard time accepting the fact that I won’t drink during Illini games, and tried in vain once again to convince me to tailgate with him.  I told him it wasn’t negotiable, I would be drinking nothing but water until postgame.

You guys remember Elizabeth Reid, right?  We’ve stayed more or less in touch as she’s moved about four times around the western United States.  Anyways, she rolled into Berkeley around noon and we met up at the tailgate area outside the stadium.  She was with her boyfriend and a friend who went to Berkeley.  She also knew someone who worked in the Cal athletic department and had all kinds of free food and drink coupons for the tailgate.  I hydrated and got some sustenance while everyone else worked on their pre-game buzz.

Up 17-7 at half, lost 35-20.

I’ll try not to get too lengthy with my game analysis, but to make a long story short, Illinois football sucked pretty bad back in ’05.  They played better than expected, made it competitive for three quarters, but in the end they were no match for a legitimate Division I program.  It wasn’t as bad as it could have been, and we certainly didn’t expect much out of this season, so we didn’t take it too hard.  In other words, it was time to forget about football and let the drinking commence!

After the game we all went back to our lovely bed & breakfast.  The place has a sweet rooftop patio that has a view of San Francisco Bay and Alcatraz way off in the distance.  There were five of us and we started working on the vodka.  Five mere mortals would normally have trouble killing a handle of vodka, but there were three alcoholics in the group (Manscape, Elizabeth and myself), so we knocked it out in just a couple hours.  We had a riot up on the roof, shootin’ the shit, enjoying a rare nice day in the Bay Area, and generally being drunken idiots.  After we’d killed it we decided to hit the bars.

We were going down the stairs to street level when Manscape, just stupid drunk, took a fall and tumbled down the last flight of stairs, nearly taking me with him and sprawling out in the middle of the lobby with a busted ankle.  He was alternating laughing and moaning in pain.  The girl working the front desk was mortified.  I tried to help him up but he just stayed down right in front of the desk, groaning about his ankle.  I told him to suck it up and pulled him to his feet and we started off for the bars, Manscape limping like a cripple.

The first bar we came to had a patio area that was clearly marked exit only, but since Manscape was hammered and in pain he determined he was going to get in that way no matter what.  Bad idea.  The bouncer stopped him, then radioed to the bouncers at the front to be on the lookout for a belligerent limping idiot.  We got to the front and they informed us Manscape was too intoxicated to enter the bar.  Manscape was seconds away from erupting into an Incredible Hulk-like rage.  I did my best to calm him down, rounded everyone up, and we all headed for another bar.

At the next bar we settled in to drink heavily and wash away the pain of Illinois’ loss and Manscape’s busted ankle. Elizabeth was completely ignoring her boyfriend while she talked to her friend from Cal, and I could see the boyfriend getting angrier and angrier as the night wore on.  Manscape, meanwhile, was trying to drink the pain out of his ankle with vodka on the rocks and bitching non-stop about being denied access to the last bar.  Two angry drunk people, things were bound to get ugly sooner or later.

The three of us were talking football while Elizabeth was talking to the other guy, and this toolbox started lecturing me and Manscape on how little we knew about football.  It all started when I said Denny Green was one of the worst coaches in football.  The jackass actually asked me if I knew anything about football.   I calmly pointed out Denny’s losing record at Northwestern, his losing record at Stanford, and his perennial 8-8 teams at Minnesota before acquiring Randy Moss.  The boyfriend tried to go into a dissertation about how college and pro football have nothing to do with each other, and Denny Green was a masterful coach who had developed Daunte Culpepper into one of the finest QBs in the NFL.  (For the record, see Daunte’s career stats with and without Moss: 18,598 yards, 129 TDs, 74 INTs in five years with Moss; 5,555 yards, 20 TDs, 32 INTs in five years without Moss.  I rest my case.)

At some point Manscape got into the argument and the guy called him a “condescending asshole.”  Manscape just shrugged and said, “Well, I may only have one leg right now, but I’m pretty sure I can still snap you in half.”  He had a quiet, fiery intensity that told me he could explode at any point.  Knowing I had no chance of holding him back once he snapped (like I said, he’s a big dude), and not wanting to spend the night in a Berkeley jail, I did my best to diffuse the situation and was rewarded with the boyfriend not talking to anyone for the rest of the night.  He just sat and sulked.  Which freed Manscape and I to set about drinking even heavier.

The rest of our time at the bar is somewhat of a blur.  Manscape and I were drinking with reckless abandon.  I vaguely remember the lead singer of Counting Crows coming into the bar, walking by our table and acknowledging the Cal guy Elizabeth was with.  And I remember Manscape and I having an in-depth discussion on the relative merits of vodka versus gin.  (A foolish argument, I love them both!)

At last call we all parted ways.  The boyfriend was still sulking like a bitch and not speaking to anyone, so I gave Elizabeth an entirely inappropriate hug as a final parting shot, and Manscape and I stumbled off towards our bed & breakfast.

We took a couple wrong turns but eventually found our way, and we were stumbling up the stairs when we ran into this girl talking on her phone.  She stopped us and made some rude comment about our Illini shirts.  I was about to start some serious shit when Manscape somehow got hold of the girl’s phone and started talking to her friend, leaving me alone with the girl.  (He’s a clever bastard and a great wingman.)  She was in search of a lighter and we of course didn’t have one, so she left to walk down to a coffeehouse to find one.  But before she disappeared Manscape told her to stop by our room later.  She similarly invited us to join her in room 303.  She was not particularly attractive, but at 2 in the morning she seemed acceptable.

Up in our room Manscape was all over me to pay her a visit.  His logic was impeccable.  (“A hole is a hole… Pussy has no face… You’re not going to remember it anyway… I’ll never tell anyone…”)  Eventually I succumbed to his badgering and went down the hall.  Mostly I was just hoping she had some alcohol, since we had killed our handle of vodka earlier.  Alas, she wasn’t there.  I went back to our room.  But then he came up with the ingenious idea of leaving a note on her door.  We had a good laugh about it, I didn’t really think he was serious, but Manscape was once again using his ultra-persuasive arguments, and my will power was too inebriated to fight back.  I grabbed a sheet of paper and started jotting down my phone number.  It seemed like an asinine thing to do, but then Manscape had a brainstorm.  “Hey!” he slurred, “Put ‘For a good time call’ !!”

So I took the note down the hall to her room and left it there.  Went back to the room, crawled onto the inflatable bed and was just about passed out with when she called.  Manscape jerked awake and seemed more sober than he’d been in a day and a half.  “Holy shit!!  Is that her?!?”

It was indeed her.  She was out in the hallway and having trouble getting her key to work.  By this point I was so exhausted from the weekend that I wasn’t even interested, but I figured I had to play it out, so I went back down the hall to her room.  Just as I got there she got her door open and then turned to me and said, “Thanks, have a good night.”  And shut the door in my drunken face.  Guess she didn’t think the note was as funny as we did.  Bitch didn’t even have the courtesy to give me a drink for the road.  So I went back to bed and passed out.

Sunday morning we were both hung over as fuck.  We got on the road right after breakfast, stopped to fill up with gas, got some water to combat the hangover, found an ESPNRadio station for NFL updates, and we were on our way.

And that’s when it all started to fall apart.  About an hour out of Berkeley we got a flat tire.  So much for a 7.5 hour trip back.  We pulled over to the side of the road and assessed the situation.  We were officially in the middle of fucking nowhere, in the three hundred or so mile stretch of road between L.A. and the Bay Area that doesn’t have a town of any significance anywhere along it.  We popped the trunk and found that the spare was one of those worthless donuts.  So I dug out the rental information and called their roadside assistance number.  Of course, we had no idea where we actually were, so as I was calling Manscape started limping down the highway to find a mile marker.  Someone actually stopped to see if he was alright; they thought we had had an accident and he was injured and delusional, limping down the road in search of help!  Yeah, that’s how bad we looked from the weekend.

Roadside assistance was no help.  There wasn’t another rental place for at least 100 miles, so we were going to have to drive all that way on the donut.  She offered to call a tow truck to come change our tire, but it was going to take at least an hour and all they could do was put on the spare that we were more than capable of changing ourselves.  I decided to go to the absolute nearest location, even though it was well out of our way, because I didn’t want to drive 55 mph any longer than absolutely necessary.  We changed the tire and got on the road, set the cruise in the low 60’s (I would rather die in a car wreck than get passed by semi trucks).

We had to get off the interstate and drive through the end of civilization, and almost three hours later we were in Fresno.  Got a new car, hopped on the road, plugged in Manscape’s radar detector, and I started flying well in excess of 90 mph down a busy road that was most definitely not an interstate.  My hangover made me care a whole lot less about my personal safety.

We made good time due to my insanely reckless driving, and we were just hitting the northern edge of L.A. around 5, planning on being home by 7 (a little over 9 hours).  Then Manscape’s phone rang.  It was his girlfriend (the Iowa alum, Squawkeye, as I call her).  She had gone up to L.A. for the weekend, and she had just gotten into an accident as she was leaving for home.

Jesus, what else can go wrong?

We pulled out the map and quickly figured out where she was, changed course and weaved a swath through about four different L.A. highways, all the way to the other side of the valley and to the scene of the accident.

The poor girl had been rear-ended, and the mini-jeep thing she had been driving had been rammed good by an SUV.  The impact had completely shattered her rear window and shaken her up pretty good, but thankfully she was okay.  The cop was wrapping up when we arrived, so we stuck around to lend emotional support.  After half an hour or so Manscape threw his bags into her wreck and told me to take off.  Seeing there was nothing more I could do, I hit the road again, this time alone and without the radar detector.  Just my hangover to keep me company.

I finally got home around 9pm, 11-plus hours after hitting the road.  I watched the last couple minutes of the Sunday Night NFL game and passed out.

If there’s a moral to this story it would be this:


The Legend of Elizabeth Reid, Part I

I can’t tell you this story all at once.  It’s not just that it’s so long, but it’s also painfully pathetic.  Hopefully if I wedge it in between some other good stories, maybe an occasional sexual conquest, I won’t seem like such a sad pathetic loser.  But it’s a truly epic story, covering over a decade of my evolution from shy loser teenager to the drunken reprobate you all know and love.


Late Summer/Early Fall, 1994

The University of Chief Illiniwek

I was 18 years old, an incoming freshman with a bad haircut and the beginnings of a pudgy gut brought on by the end of a not-so-illustrious high school football career.  It was the first day of class, my very first collegiate class in fact.  It was a math class, and so insanely easy that to this day I still wonder how I managed not to get an A.  Shy slacker that I was, I sat in the back of the classroom.  Before long, a very attractive young girl came and sat next to me.  She was extremely friendly and introduced herself as Elizabeth.

Elizabeth was gorgeous.  About 5’8”, she was tall and thin with an athlete’s body, and long straight brown hair that flowed down her back or fit perfectly into a ponytail in the back of her Chief Illiniwek ball cap.  A cute face with a freckled nose and vibrant eyes that smiled every bit as much as her mouth, so that her face seemed to be perpetually lit up with joy.

I was instantly smitten.  So much so that I barely even noticed that she talked nearly non-stop, and so fast that it seemed she couldn’t have time to even catch her breath, let alone allow someone else to get a word in.

We hit it off immediately.  We talked all through class everyday, had lunch together after class on a regular basis.  We shared a passion for sports, both our own school and the Chicago Bears (and, I would later find out, our beloved Chief Illiniwek).  It was Elizabeth who first introduced me to the wonders of skipping class for absolutely no reason at all, a skill that would come in very handy (although somewhat costly to my GPA) over the next four years.

It was like destiny.  High school had been rough for me.  I won’t bore you with my long sad story, but I didn’t have a lot of friends, never had a girlfriend and generally didn’t have much of a life.  But I had dreamed that college would be better.  A fresh start, a chance to reinvent myself.  And who could have scripted it better than to meet a smokin’ hot chick on the very first day, in my very first class, who was clearly into me?

It didn’t take long for my naïve mind to start plotting and scheming.  I managed to swing it so that we had to work on an out-of-class project together.  We went to the library to do research (who ever heard of researching math???), where we spent more time talking and laughing than studying.  One day, after mustering up all my young, pathetic courage, I decided it was time to ask Elizabeth out.  After a research session at the library, walking her back to her dorm, I prepared to make my move.  As she talked on and on about some such thing, my heart pounded in my chest as only a sad, lonely young boy’s can.

I paused to catch my breath.  My heart was racing so hard I could feel it throbbing in my temples.  I felt like I was having a heart attack.  Sweat was breaking out on my brown.  Could she hear my heart pounding?

She’s still talking.

I took another deep breath, attempting to collect myself.  Alright, kid, time to step up to the plate and take a swing like a man.

She’s still talking.

This won’t be that hard.  You know she’s into you.  Just dive on in.

She’s still talking.

Like shootin’ fish in a barrel, bud.  Fish in a barrel.

She’s STILL talking.

Time to make your move.  Let’s go!!

Somewhere in the back of my mind, the tiny one percent of my brain that had actually been listening to her incessant talking, alarms started going off.  “…yeah, my boyfriend is coming down to visit this weekend.  I’m, like, SO excited….”

My heart dropped, nearly tripping me as it splattered on the pavement in a big red messy splatter.  I couldn’t breathe.  It felt like the time that 240-pound fullback had run me over in high school football.  I stopped in my tracks, trying to regain some semblance of composure.  I fought the urge to dive into oncoming traffic.  Elizabeth started to turn back to see why I was slowing.

With a poise I never knew I possessed, I picked up the tattered remnants of my heart.  Stuffed it back in my chest, took a deep breath, flashed her a disarming smile, and finished escorting her back to her dorm.  Then went off by myself to sulk in self-pity.

Spring, 1998

Three and a half years passed.  I was a senior now, sporting a buzz cut that would soon begin showing the unmistakable signs of male pattern baldness.  Basketball had just won their first Big Ten championship in 14 years, and our football team seemed sure to break their nation-leading 17-game losing streak next season.  And personally I was finally coming into my own.

I still don’t remember where it happened.  It might have been a bar, possibly Kam’s, and that’s a pretty good bet since I spent most every weekend there (even though I still wasn’t much of a drinker).  Others have said it was on the Quad, between classes, and that’s a possibility, though it doesn’t make for as good of a story.  But whatever, one day in the spring of ’98, I ran into Elizabeth.  I, of course, recognized her immediately.  If anything, the years had made her even more beautiful.  But amazingly, Elizabeth remembered me too.  Even my name, which she cried out with true joy as she embraced me and then broke into a long dissertation on the good old days of freshman math, and what she had been doing since then, and how life in the sorority was, and how tough this last semester was for her, and on and on and on.  The girl still knew how to talk.

After catching up on old times for awhile we both agreed that we should get together again, and soon.  We exchanged numbers  –some have insinuated that this was the first time I ever actually got a girl’s number, but those reports are exaggerated— and vowed to call each other.  But over the next week we played phone tag (this was before cell phones), then Elizabeth had a busy schedule that prevented us from getting together.  Days turned into two weeks before we finally managed to set a lunch date.

It was Friday.  I arrived at the little deli a good five minutes early, as only a lonely, lovesick young man can, waiting around impatiently for her arrival.  She showed up a good five minutes late, as only a hungover sorority girl can.  Her hair was a mess, her clothes were a mess, she was pale and sweating from a night of binge drinking.  But she still looked good to me.  She refused to eat, saying she would throw up if she did.  This put me in the unenviable position of eating in front of her while she watched.

But it actually worked out for the best, because it allowed me a mild diversion while she rattled on and on and on about God knows what.  When I finished eating, I calmly leaned back in my chair on the patio of the deli and eyed my prey.

You see, in the three-plus years since I’d first met Elizabeth I had grown not only balder, but older and wiser too.  Mind you, I still hadn’t actually had a girlfriend, hadn’t really gone on anything resembling a date.  But I had spent enough time around girls that I was no longer a shy and terrified little boy.  My heart no longer pounded, my brow no longer broke out in sweat.  I was cool and collected.

She’s still talking.

And as far as I was concerned, this one would be a cakewalk.  She had been into me three years ago, and if not for the high school sweetheart I was certain she would have been mine.  And the fact that she remembered me –even my name—all this time later was only further proof.

She’s STILL talking.

There was no need for that initial panic this time, because first contact had already been made.  It wasn’t like three years ago, when I was going to have to make the first move.  This lunch right here essentially was a first date, right?  So it was just a matter of laying back and playing my cards right.

Holy Jesus, she’s still fucking talking!

If you’ve read this far, then you surely know what’s coming next.  So I don’t need to go over the part about the small sliver of my brain that was actually listening to her endless blabbering about some such trivial bullshit.  I don’t need to go over the part about the sirens going off at the key phrase, almost a direct quote from three and half years ago: “My boyfriend’s coming to visit tomorrow.  I can’t wait….”

My heart held up this time.  Although disappointed, I took it well.  Besides, it wasn’t over yet.  A little prying told me that it wasn’t the same boyfriend as before, so that was a good sign.  I’d just have to wait out the storm, be ready to spring my trap when the moment came.  Use my charm to drive a wedge between her and the absentee boyfriend.

We figured out that we would both be at Kam’s the next night, so we went on our separate ways.  Saturday night came, and after six-plus hours of partying (again, I wasn’t the alcoholic you all know and love yet, so “partying” is a relative term) I found myself in the basement of Kam’s, not even thinking of Elizabeth when she appeared before me with an entire crew of friends.  She introduced me to everyone, including the boyfriend, who was so unspectacular and insignificant that to this day I can’t remember a single detail about him.

My confidence raised, I played it cool and spent most of the night partying with my own friends.  But at the end of the night we met up on the street outside Kam’s and we both assured each other that we would call and get together again.  She gave me a big hug in front of the irrelevant boyfriend and we parted ways.

For reasons that are still not altogether clear, we never did get together again.  I honestly don’t remember, but I never saw her again the rest of college.  One night during the winter of  ’98-99, in the midst of our basketball team’s spectacular 11th place finish in the Big Ten, I thought I saw her at a game.  I pushed my way through the hoards of students only to discover it wasn’t her.  The dream was dead.


Summer, 2001

Over The Line weekend in San Diego.

For those of you who don’t know, Over The Line is a bizarre form of 3-on-3 beach softball.  It’s played on the sand in a long, narrow strip (not a diamond), with ghost runners and all kinds of other crazy rules.  The Over The Line Tournament on Fiesta Island draws over 1500 teams annually, men and women, from all over the world for its two weekend tourney.  But the real reason to go isn’t the game, it’s the drunken beach party that goes along with it.  Over The Line might be the last place on earth where sexual harassment is not only tolerated but actively encouraged.  Men walk around with stickers to stick on the hot, scantly clad women; the really clever ones get stickers from a grocery store that say “USDA Prime Cut” of “Ripe- Ready to Eat.”  Mardi Gras-style beads are also in abundance, which the girls will flash for (or sometimes they’ll flash you just for asking nicely).  Cameras are an absolute must.

In just two years in San Diego I had become a grizzled veteran of OTL.  I knew all the tricks: where to park for the shuttle bus (just school busses rented for the weekend), how big a cooler to bring and what to stock it with, etc.  I had even learned just how much sunscreen I needed to protect my now completely bald head.  So Sunday morning I loaded up the cooler, picked up my boy Tripod and headed for the shuttle pick-up.  Tripod, all 4’4″ and 220 pounds of him, was my best friend and the ultimate wingman.  Girls are just drawn to him, and he has the engaging personality to make them cut loose and get wild in a hurry.  As we loaded onto the school bus for the ride over I saw someone in the seat directly behind me.

I knew instantly.

But I was too shocked to say anything.  With my bald head and a goatee I felt confident she wouldn’t recognize me, so I was glad my sunglasses hid the fact that I was openly staring at her in disbelief.

Now, the shuttle bus to OTL is an extremely friendly, outgoing place.  People are in such a great mood, looking forward to a day of drunken debauchery out in the San Diego sun.  Everyone likes everyone, kind of like the way all the kids at Disney World share the same eager anticipation.  So eventually people started passing around beers to their newfound friends.  I accepted a Dos Equis from someone and made my move.

“You’re Elizabeth, right?”

Across the aisle of the school bus, Tripod was looking at me with skepticism.  Tripod is the popular one in San Diego.  He’s one of those people that knows someone everywhere he goes, especially ladies.  And, of course, how can anyone ever forget a man like Tripod?  I’m just a run-of-the-mill Midwestern white boy livin’ in Tripod’s world.  I never know anyone, especially not a chick this hot.

“Yeah!  I thought you looked really familiar.  You’re… wait a minute… I want to say… xxxxx?”

***You didn’t really think I was going to give away my secret identity did you??***

Turns out Elizabeth had just moved to San Diego, where she was starting grad school at the same school I happened to be working at in the athletic department.  She was positively thrilled to find a familiar face this far from home, and working for the athletic department where she hoped to find an internship no less.

The two of us and all of our assorted friends spent the day at OTL drinking and having a rousing good time.  (It’s important to note here that Elizabeth is now drop-dead gorgeous.  And in a bikini, well, words can’t describe it.  Just amazing.  She had dyed her long hair blond and was now almost beyond comprehension.  In-fucking-credible.)  Beers flowed, shots flowed, sunscreen flowed.  Stories of the old days made Tripod laugh at what a goober I used to be.  (That little fucker still takes credit for turning me into the Single White Alcoholic you know and love today.)  I tried to make up for these unflattering stories by showing off my beer bong skills, which are quite good, and my shotgunning skills, which are quite bad.

Elizabeth got my number and promised to call later in the week so I could take her around campus and see if I could help her out with an internship.  As we parted ways she gave me several drunken hugs and kisses on the cheek, still rambling on and on about how amazing it was that we ran into each other 2000 miles from home.

It seemed Destiny had given me another chance.

To Be Continued…


Coming in Part II: The First Time We Slept Together

Rest In Peace, Chief

4 years ago today my alma mater caved to the political pressure of the NCAA and radical students and killed the greatest symbol in all of sports, Chief Illiniwek.

I grew up on Illinois sports.  Some of my earliest memories are of going to Illini football games at Memorial Stadium and basketball games at the Assembly Hall with my family.  I’ve been to bowl games and Final Fours.  I’ve roadtripped damn near all over the country.  I bled orange and blue.

Then in the blink of an eye He was gone.  An 80-year tradition wiped out just like that.  I cried like a baby at His last performance.  And then I walked out of the Assembly Hall and never looked back.

Rest in Peace, Chief.


Devastating Losses

Going into yesterday’s game, I thought the prospect of my beloved Bears losing to the dreaded Packers in the NFC Championship game would be the most demoralizing of all possible scenarios in my entire life.  I mean, the evil Packers, hoisting Papa Bear Halas’ own trophy in our own stadium?  Unthinkable.  Suicide-inducing.

And I’m not gonna lie, the loss hit me like a heavyweight’s body blows.  Every big 3rd down conversion by Aaron Rodgers; every blown opportunity by not one, not two, but three different Bears quarterbacks, they were all like daggers.  Every shitty, second-rate high school play call by the so-called genius Mike Martz; every punt by the Pack downed inside the 10 yard line. (Who the hell is that punter anyway?  I’ve never seen a punter dominate a game so thoroughly.)

But after sitting in my darkened apartment for a couple hours, iPod blaring the angriest music I could find, I realized that this loss really wasn’t as bad as some I’ve experienced in my life.  Not nearly as gut wrenching as some, not by a long shot.

So now, for your reading pleasure, I present the five most devastating losses in my life:

#5- February 14, 1998.  West Lafayette, IN.  College Basketball.  #8 Purdue 75, Illinois 72

 Although the Illini would later back their way into a share of the Big Ten title, at the time this loss seemingly cost them their first conference crown in 14 years.  Worst of all, the loss was caused almost entirely by bad officiating.  Purdue outshot the Illini 37-7 at the foul line (37-9 actually, but I’m not counting the two foul shots on Gene Keady’s technical foul, which he intentionally drew to fire up the home crowd).  And yet the gritty Illini still clawed back from a double digit deficit to tie the game at 70 before finally falling.

And I have a more personal reason for the game causing me such pain.  This was back before I was the veteran alcoholic you see before you.  At that point in my life I might have been drunk twice.  Ever.  And a friend of mine took advantage of my moment of weakness and got me the drunkest I have ever been in my life.  In all honesty, I’m pretty sure I had alcohol poisoning.  Threw up for an entire day and I think I was still drunk 16 hours later.  I had a hangover for about two and half days.  I probably should have died.

#4- June 19, 1999.  NHL Hockey.  Buffalo, NY.  Dallas Stars 2, Buffalo Sabres 1 (3OT)

Yes, I’m a hockey fan.  I won’t apologize.  And a Buffalo Sabres fan.  I know most of you don’t care, but this was one of the greatest robberies in sports history.  With the Stanley Cup on the line, Dallas leading the series 3-2, game 6 was an absolute classic.  It was well into the 3rd overtime, almost six hours of edge-of-your-seat drama, when Brett Hull finally put the Stanley Cup-clinching goal in the back of the net.

But here’s the problem: the goal shouldn’t have counted.  I’ll try to keep this simple for you non-hockey fans, but basically in 1999 it was ILLEGAL for a player to be in the crease (that’s the blue ice around the goal) unless the puck was also already in the blue paint.   As you can see in the picture above, the puck was clearly not in the blue paint.  And Hull’s skate clearly was in the crease.

The NHL reviewed literally every single goal in the 1999 season.  Roughly 1300 games throughout the entire regular season and playoffs.  And yet, with the Stanley Cup on the line, the most important goal of the season was not reviewed and the Dallas Stars were awarded a Stanley Cup they didn’t earn.

#3- September 23, 2000.  Champaign, IL. #10 Michigan 35, #19 Illinois 31

Another game stolen by the officials.  (I think that’s a trend.  Losing fair and square hurts, but you can live with it.  Getting screwed just leaves a sickening feeling inside you that never goes away.)  This was the game that brought instant replay to college football.  The officials blew three fumble calls (all in Michigan’s favor) in the final 6 minutes to hand the game to the Wolverines.  The next year the Big Ten instituted the first instant replay.  Within another year or two it had become the rule all across Division I-A.  Too bad it took the Big Ten blatantly stealing a game from Illinois for it to come to fruition.

#2- April 4, 2005.  St. Louis, MO.  College Basketball.  #2 North Carolina 75, #1 Illinois 70

The National Championship.  The culmination of the greatest season in Illinois sports history.  A team of unbelievable will and character.  Dee Brown, Deron Williams, Luther Head, James Augustine, Roger Powell, Jack Ingram.  Even today just their names make me smile.

I could blame this one on the refs too.  James Augustine, who didn’t foul out of a game all year, played just 9 minutes and drew 5 fouls.  But although the officiating was pretty shitty, the reality is the Illini played probably their worst game of the year at the wrong time.  Just 12 of 40 from the 3-point line (and it was a lot worse than that before they made a furious run in the last couple minutes).

I’ll go to my grave believing that if this had been a best-of-7 series like the NBA, Carolina would have been lucky to get to game 6.  The Illini would have run them out of the building on almost any other night.  But unfortunately all that matters is that one night in April.

The worst moment of all came right after the game.  Walking out of the dome in St. Louis, I walked by a warehouse that had, no shit, at least 30,000 “Illinois National Champs” T-shirts ready to sell.  I almost started crying right there.

#1- February 21, 2007.  Champaign, IL.  College Basketball.  Illinois 54, Michigan 42

What, an Illinois victory is the most devastating loss ever?  Well, yes.  Because 2/21/07 will always go down as the last time Chief Illiniwek ever represented the University of Illinois as its honored symbol.

It would take me days to finish my rant on the political correct bullshit that led to the death of the most honored and revered mascot in all of sports.  So I’ll just say this: I cried like a baby during that last dance.  And after the game, I walked out of the Assembly Hall and haven’t been to a university event since.  I didn’t lose a ballgame that day, I lost my alma mater, the school I had cheered for since before I could walk.

I’m fairly fortunate in that I haven’t had a great deal of tragedy in my life, I haven’t had any truly close family or friends die yet.  But I can still say without a doubt that Feb 21st, 2007 was the worst day of my life.

RIP, Chief.