As a child of the 1950s, I was always fascinated by the image of Chief Illiniwek, from the first time I became aware of him while watching the halftime show of the Illinois/Stanford Rose Bowl game in 1952.
Where did he come from? How did he somehow magically show up from somewhere amid the 100-member Illinois marching band and dance onto the middle of the football field?
And when the band finished playing the alma mater and Chief Illiniwek began his dance in front of the Illini students, slowly, then more quickly, then more quickly still, then ending with a frantic leap that brought everybody in Orange and Blue into a frenzied cheer.
Well, you had to be there to appreciate and understand it.
Oops, I forgot. You couldn't appreciate it or understand it because Chief Illiniwek hasn't performed at Illinois football or basketball games since Feb. 21, 2007, thanks to a weak-kneed and jelly-brained Board of Trustees that bowed to the complaints of a few in the face of the majority and a tradition that dated to 1926.
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But that might all change. Halftimes at Illinois football games might become exciting again. Remember when students and alumni chose to remain in their seats to watch Chief Illiniwek instead of going to the hot dog concession? Halftime was a happening.
I remember when I was a freshman in 1958, my first year on campus, a resident of Forbes Hall, which was opening for the first time, a fledgling sports reporter for the Daily Illini.
When I went to the Armory to register for classes, one of the first things I did was to be sure I bought my football tickets -- and to be sure that my seat was in the top row of the East balcony. I wanted to be sure I could see how Chief Illiniwek sneaked through the band and appeared so magically in the middle of the football field.
Game day for a Saturday home football game was a ritual. A 9 o'clock social studies class, pick up the mail, lunch at the residence hall, then walk to Memorial Stadium. By noon, I was seated and ready for the kickoff -- and eager to witness the halftime show. In those days, the only time the Chief appeared was at the Homecoming pep rally, at halftime of home football games and the Rose Bowl.
It was 1958. Coach Ray Eliot was nearing the end of his long and distinguished career. The Brown brothers, Bill and Jim, were standouts. Bill Burrell was an All-America linebacker in the making, the forerunner to Dick Butkus. John Easterbrook was a 5-foot-8, 156-pound quarterback. An African American, Mel Meyers, also played quarterback. The Illini finished 4-5, losing their first three games by a total of 12 points.
Nothing to write home about. But I never forgot the image of Chief Illiniwek. He was unique. No other college had anything like him. Illinois had the Chief and nobody else did. He wasn't a mascot, he was a tradition, part of the fabric of the university, bigger than the statue of Alma Mater at the corner of Green and Wright. Who couldn't love the Chief?
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Let's not get into the politics. All I know is that in all my 10 years as a student and resident in Champaign-Urbana, I never, ever heard anyone complain about the Chief. The subject of his dance or his attire or his whatever never came up. No controversy, no issues, no protests.
But the Chief has been a center of controversy for more than two decades. Several American Indian groups said the Chief was a misappropriation of indigenous cultural figures and rituals and that the symbol perpetuated stereotypes about American Indian peoples.
Typically, the no-backbone NCAA found a willing scapegoat in Illinois--remember the Deon Thomas affair?--and declared that Chief Illiniwek was "hostile or abusive." in August 2005, the NCAA banned the University from hosting any postseason activities as long as it continued to use the symbol.
Of course, while punishing an Illinois tradition that began after Red Grange put the University on the map, the NCAA never took up the issue of Chief Oseola, the horse-riding, spear-throwing mascot at Florida State. To anyone's knowledge, the Seminoles didn't ride horses in the Florida swamps. But don't tell the NCAA.
Well, the NCAA has proven to be as insignificant as the United Nations. And, ain't it wonderful, a whole lot of students at the University of Illinois who never saw Chief Illiniwek dance across the turf at Memorial Stadium are making their voices heard loud and clear: bring back the Chief.
Lo and behold, a recent referendum revealed that a majority of students that voted reaffirmed their support of the Chief.
When asked if students "support Chief Illiniwek as the official symbol" of the University of Illinois, a total of 9,003 students were in favor while 2,517 were opposed.
The students' view hasn't changed. In 2008, of 23 percent of the student body that cast ballots, 79 percent (7,718) voted to support the Chief while 21 percent (2,052) were non-supportive.
"As an alum, I would be thoroughly pleased to see the Chief return," said Chris Czurylo Craven of Evergreen Park, a 1963 graduate and a former colleague at the Daily Illini. "The cries of 'Chief' at home basketball and football games indicate his continued presence among students and alums."
Craven pointed out that a Chicago Sun-Times conducted a poll when the University was deciding whether or not to retain the Chief tradition. Statewide, the vote was 90 percent in favor of retaining the Chief.
"As the Sun-Times editorial which accompanied that poll concluded: 'Who benefits if the Chief disappears? No one,'" Craven concluded.
You had to be there to understand how it felt, what it meant. If you weren't there, you don't.