Pinch me, I must be dreaming.
After the Illinois State University (ISU) football team rallied to beat New Hampshire in the Football Championship Series semifinals—on my birthday, no less—the Redbirds punched their ticket to the national championship game for the first time.
As a proud ISU alumnus, I would be at that game, and nothing was going to stop me.
It took some time, basically the entire three weeks between the semifinals and the championship game on Jan. 10, for it to sink in that this really was happening.
The first dose of reality came while sitting on the shuttle bus at the Midway Airport parking lot. A group of fans dressed in Redbird gear joined me on the bus.
Yep, this is really happening.
The flight carried about 40 Illinois State fans, all descending on Dallas for the same reason. And like me, many could not believe we were making the trip.
Sleep was tough to come by on Friday night. It reminded me of being a youngster on Christmas Eve or of the time I had tickets to the Bears/Eagles playoff game as a 12-year-old in 1988. The Fog Bowl, as it became known, was the most memorable sporting event I attended until this past Saturday.
On Saturday morning, we made the 30-minute drive to suburban Frisco, Texas, where the game was held, about three hours before kickoff.
We parked and walked to the stadium, just as the ISU team was arriving via its police motorcade. It was yet another reminder that this was real.
We watched and cheered as every coach and player left the bus, many of them too wide-eyed to believe it was happening, too.
After the team had entered the stadium, I grabbed a photo of the large Redbirds logo on the stadium next to the championship game logo, talked with some old friends and met some new ones, and we gathered near the entrance for a pregame pep rally with the band and cheerleaders.
The waiting before kickoff seemed to last forever.
Once in the stadium, I took it all in. The red-clad ISU fans were outnumbered by many in green and yellow cheering for North Dakota State, the three-time defending national champions and an ISU foe in its conference.
It was intimidating and exciting as the same time.
ISU took an early 7-0 lead, but struggled from there, falling behind 20-7. It seemed like too great a mountain to overcome against a juggernaut that is the Bison program.
Feelings of being content to be there were creeping in my mind. It was a great season, and losing in the national championship game wouldn’t be too shabby.
But the Redbirds fought back, scoring touchdowns on their next three possessions. When junior quarterback Tre Roberson burst into the open field and raced into the end zone, it was bedlam. High fives and hugs went to friends and strangers you now felt like you knew forever just from sitting around them for three hours. It didn’t matter.
Was this really happening? I’ve watched the White Sox, Bears, Bulls and Blackhawks win championships, but here it was, my university, one of my greatest passions, less than 100 seconds away from winning a national championship. And I was in attendance to see it.
The tears of joy were starting to well up. The video recorder on my phone was cued up to catch this memorable moment.
Unfortunately, sports can be so cruel.
The Bison marched 83 yards down the field and scored the eventual winning touchdown with less than 40 seconds on the clock.
Oh so close.
The roller-coaster of emotions that is sports got the best of me. One minute ISU fans are on top of the world, and the next they feel like they got punched in the gut. That’s the only way to describe the pain from coming that close.
I wasn’t sure how I would feel as I walked out of the stadium and toward the car, but, nonetheless, the pride started to swell.
This team proved it belonged. It had arrived as a force on the national scene. Our fans were loud, and our band sounded as good as ever. The whole experience was everything I could have imagined and then some.
It’s a game, a weekend and a season I won’t soon forget.
I just look forward to capping the next one with the national championship trophy.