Illini don't take Soldier Field opportunity for granted

Illini don't take Soldier Field opportunity for granted
September 14, 2013, 10:30 pm
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(USA TODAY Sports Images)
Vinnie Duber

Shortly after Saturday's game ended, the Illinois banners were removed from Soldier Field's walls. Nothing but the Bears logos had ever been painted on the field (most likely due to the Bears game the following day). And staff was working on the grass to remove any sign that the Fighting Illini had played there at all.

But it's something the Illini will never forget.

Sure, the game ended in a 34-24 loss to No. 19 Washington. But the opportunity to play in an NFL stadium doesn't come around too often, and the Illini couldn't have been happier to be there when it did.

"It was a pleasure playing here," coach Tim Beckman said. "It was an experience for our football players that they will always remember. I think it's a great idea for us, being here in Chicago. The fan support was excellent, and it was really getting loud there in the fourth quarter. This football team was excited about playing at Soldier Field, and it was a blessing for us to be up here and have the opportunity to play."

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The Bears and Illini go way, way back. Bears founder George Halas went to the University of Illinois, and it's why the school and the team share the colors of orange and blue. Illinois legend and Bears Hall of Famer Dick Butkus flipped the ceremonial coin before Saturday's game. And that's without mentioning the Galloping Ghost, Red Grange.

But there was plenty of reason to be ultra-excited even if you born after Halas and Butkus' glory days.

Illinois running back Josh Ferguson grew up a Bears fan in Naperville, and he called playing on the ground of his favorite NFL team "surreal."

"It was awesome," he said. "It was a great experience. First time playing, I've been here plenty of times because I'm from Illinois. But it was great.

"It's kind of surreal at first, though once the whistle blew it was time to go."

It's surely the feeling that many who have played there before him have had, be it as a high schooler, a collegian or a professional.

And Ferguson wasn't the only Chicago-area kid playing on Chicago football's grandest stage. Mount Prospect native and Illinois receiver Miles Osei got to throw a pass on a trick play, a big one that set up a touchdown. That score came on a 10-yard run from backup quarterback Aaron Bailey, a Bolingbrook native.

Beckman and offensive coordinator Bill Cubit both praised the pro-Illini crowd of 47,312 for contributing to this unique experience. The last words out of Beckman's mouth before departing the press conference podium were simple:

"Thanks, Chicago."