This late in the season motivation starts to wane.While the thrill of an Alabama or Auburn game on the calendar invariably rouses the sprits, not all road trips bring the same mystique.A trip to Illinois, a perennial middling Big 10 contender in late November felt more like obligation, and a dismal and rainy weather forecast did nothing to allay the gloom.This was one of those weeks that the magnetic pull of my 47” flat screen and a fine piece of beef on the smoker were hard to resist.Nevertheless, I took to the roads early on Saturday for a day trip out to Champaign for one of the Fighting Illini’s eight, yes eight, home games this season.
After a few trips across it this season, the entire state of Illinois has quickly vaulted itself into one of the worst driving states in the country in my opinion, ranking slightly behind Connecticut.Every interstate a seemingly perpetual construction zone, the highways littered with blinking orange road barrels and grooved stretches of ripped up blacktop.The grassy medians are riddled with overzealous Illinois State Troopers, serving the all important public interest of preventing motorists from speeding across untold miles of fallow cornfields.I jot down a mental note to take the Amtrak to Northwestern next year, although contemporary rail travel is hardly any less painful.
Arriving in Champaign a few hours before kickoff and bit peckish, I naturally park myself onto a stool amidst the shimmering stainless steel of Merry Ann’s Diner on the western edge of the UI campus.A greasy, 24 hour staple of Illinois undergrads, the menu even features an offering known as the “Hangover Stack”, a mountain of hash browns, eggs, cheese and meat all smothered in sausage gravy.I opt for more classic diner fare, the house made corned beef hash with a few eggs cracked over it. Bellied up to the linoleum counter, I watch the short order cooks tag team my order, precisely scraping across the cooktop.Not more than three minutes later the piping hot plate is tossed in front of me, along with an economical seven dollar check.Refreshing to find a real diner alive and well in central Illinois.
After breakfast I shuffle around the tailgating area for a while, nosing through a few of the set ups and admiring a couple of the decked out game day rigs that I find.In every school tailgating lot you’ll inevitably find an array of unique gameday jalopies, Illinois proving no exception.I am always curious, however, what the owners do with these vehicles the other 358 days of the year when not tailgating.While it would certainly be nice to own a bright blue and orange Ford school bus solely dedicated to the art of fall football revelry, I’m not sure I’d want to look at the eyesore parked in my driveway for the rest of the year…
Wandering over to the stadium, finding tickets proves an easy task.Mobbed by scalpers and ticket holders the minute I lift a lone finger into the air, I nab a seat in the second row on the forty yard line for thirty bucks – half face value.Built in 1923, Memorial Stadium is one of the oldest stadiums in college football, originally dedicated to the Illinois men and women who died during World War 1.I stand admiring the classical architecture, each of the 200 Indiana limestone columns surrounding the red brick façade bear the names of those soldiers.This tribute, coupled with classical square lines, give the venue a monumental feel, unique within the college football landscape.
Settling into my seat, the frigid aluminum benches suck the warmth out of me.A woman in front came prepared.Cocooned so tightly in a handful of fleece snuggies, she can’t even rise to her feet during the national anthem.I’m forced to flag down the hot chocolate vendor for a warmer.Six bucks later I huddle around a grey plastic mug, admiring the student section as they dance and jump around.It’s a pretty raucous atmosphere up there, the students on their feet the entire contest leading coordinated cheers.Despite great seats, I’m surrounded by fogies and families, many of whom seem unaware a football game is occurring.
Despite the aloof crowd, the Fighting Illini come out swinging, belting the Badgers on the chin to take an early 14-0 lead in the second quarter.For a moment, embattled Illini coach Ron Zoon breathes a sigh of relief, hoping to hold onto his job for another year.Dazed, but not out, the Badgers come out of the locker room in the second half and resume their typical bulldozing ground game.Running back Montee Ball rumbles for 224 yards and a pair of touchdowns, stating his case for Heisman consideration. The Badgers cruise to a solid 28-17 win.
On the way home I take a detour, veering slightly off course to Springfield, Illinois to try another unique regional delicacy known as the “Horseshoe” sandwich.Similar to the “Hot Brown” eaten earlier this year in Louisville, the “Horseshoe” lives exclusively in the Springfield area and is traditionally comprised of thick toast piled with meat, french fries and slathered in cheese.While some variation is found between restaurants, I decide on a buffalo chicken horseshoe, the house specialty at the Irish themed D’Arcy’s Pint.The quivering mess arrives moments later, layers of tangy, salty goodness smothered with D’Arcy’s gooey white cheese sauce.The woman next to me nibbling on a salad gasps, wondering aloud if I’ll be able to finish it.I do.It’s greasy, indulgent and guilty.Perfect after a blustery fall day in Champaign.So heavy is the horseshoe, I almost consider stopping for coffee on my ride home. Fortunately, good taste prevails and I zip home in time to catch a few late west coast games on the flat screen after all…
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