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Illini football

Joe Spencer’s Madison nightmare

Joe Spencer is a good guy, a person who cares. He works hard on behalf of himself and others. He’s a leader, the kind of guy you’d want to emulate, even if you’re twice his age.

On a beautiful autumn afternoon, in a great college town thronging with excitable undergrads & a Homecoming swarm of excitable overgrads; Joe Spencer might have had the day of his life.

Joe Spencer (71) leads his team on to the Camp Randall gridiron.

Unfortunately for Joe, his current definition of happiness is determined by the final score of a sporting contest. Sun shining on fall foliage won’t do it. The smell of grilling bratwurst won’t do it. Ten-thousand co-eds in yoga pants won’t do it.

Joe didn’t walk around the Wisconsin campus just before the game, because he was busy getting ready for the game.

He didn’t see a happily inebriated posse of dudes on a balcony attempting to play catch with every passerby. He didn’t see the bearded passerby who played along despite not previously having touched a football, throwing like a girl, speaking English as a second language.

Joe Spencer, Nick Allegretti (53) & Christian DiLauro pass block for QB Wes Lunt at Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium

Joe didn’t get to see the American kid who came along to show the bearded kid how to throw a football, or the support post that hilariously blocked the American kid’s own toss. (Eventually, the drunks on the balcony did get their ball back.)

Joe didn’t walk down State Street. He joined none of the small, medium, large or GIGANTIC celebrations of On, Wisconsin! or Hooray For Our Side or even We Don’t Give a Shit About Sports But Oh My God Do We Like Beer gatherings which, no matter how hard they may have tried, failed to conceal themselves to anyone in their respective vicinities. Madison swarmed around a football game in a way which Champaign may have done in my lifetime. I wan’t old enough to see it.

Joe Spencer & Christian DiLauro (67) block for Kendrick Foster (22) at Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium

It’s the third of those groups, the ones who didn’t necessarily care about football,  that I especially admired. I’m not a nihilist in general, and I’m trying super-duper hard to not be a nihilist about Illini sports in particular, despite the temptation.

But when I see Joe Spencer crying after spending three and three-quarters years trying to make you happy; I’m reminded that sports is a great way to make great people feel like worthless people.

If you’re not invested in the outcome of a zero-sum game, you’re more likely to feel good about the time you spend on an unarguably wonderful afternoon.

Former Illini Mike Davis cried when his college career ended in Tulsa, in March 2011

Joe Spencer couldn’t control his tears. He apologized because he was unable to respond to post-game questions. He apologized.

I get it. Joe’s smart enough to recognize the business aspect of college football. He knows that responding to an incessant wave of boring questions feeds a media monster that, as far as you’ve been told, is crucial to keeping the general public interested in sportsing.

It’s not Joe’s fault that every single Badger is faster, taller and stronger than his Illini counterpart.*  But because major college sports doesn’t award participation ribbons, Joe spent Saturday night contemplating a bleak future (no bowl).

To his great credit, Joe took a moment to compose himself, and then came back to satisfy his media obligations, unembarrassed to reveal his raw emotions to the outside world.

Like any number of student-athletes from days gone by, Joe will recognize, at some point, that his life is not over. He’ll probably even recognize that he’s young, smart, motivated, kind … even inspirational.

Vashoune Russell captured pictures of the game. This first one shows Justin Hardee charging toward the field, while Jeff George approaches the gridiron with a steely determination. Joe Spencer’s expression is less visible, and therefore less telling, but probably somewhere in-between.

*It’s Ron Guenther’s fault**

 

**Allowing Lou Tepper to fire Greg Landry was the death blow from which the program never recovered, despite  blips in 2001 and 2007.