Last Friday, there was “unscheduled maintenance” on our plane out of Detroit to Champaign. Originally scheduled to leave at 3:45 p.m., the plane didn’t actually leave the gate until about 5:15 p.m. – a 90 minute delay. As air travel goes it wasn’t a horrible delay, but it did involve changing gates at Detroit twice, and it was one of those situations where announcements of delays were made in ten-minute increments. So you couldn’t leave the gate because at any moment the plane could be boarded or another gate change would be announced.
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There’s a natural inclination in these circumstances for strangers to start talking to each other. Not much else to do, and it eliminates the boredom of waiting for the flight. Since there was a big game in Champaign involving Penn State and Illinois, it was easy to identify which passengers were going to the game by the clothing they were wearing.
Thus we talked with a couple from the Harrisburg area – avid Penn State fans and season ticket holders who had chosen Illinois for an away game trip this year. They were a retired school principal and a speech therapist. Their reason for going to the game at Illinois? Their cousins live in Champaign and they were going to enjoy this match-up with family who were Illinois fans. They were going to sit in the Illinois section.
Then there was the fraternity brother – a 2001 graduate from Penn State – who was anxious to join his frat friends in Champaign for their annual football reunion. This fraternity group chooses one away game to attend each year. This year’s reunion was the Illinois-Penn State game.
He was kicking himself for not skipping a work meeting late afternoon on Thursday, causing him to leave Philadelphia on Friday morning. His frat friends were already doing the rounds of bars in downtown Champaign while he was stuck waiting for this connection. He was afraid he would miss most of the partying. He kept texting his friends to find out where they were.
A young woman who was a grad student at Penn State was wearing Illinois clothes. She completed her undergrad work at Illinois, and she was looking forward to a reunion with her Illinois classmates. She told me she had been an Illinois football fan since she was five years old. Despite current affiliations with Penn State, her Illinois sentiments understandably dominated. She too was excited about getting there to start the partying with her friends.
Terry and I weren’t connecting with anyone in Champaign. We were just going to the game as we always do, and it just happened to be my 100th game in a row and Terry’s 236th. People are always fascinated by how we manage to do that. So we told our story again and again to these folks, and I passed out cards that announced my blog to anyone who seemed interested.
As we engaged in conversation about the prospects for Saturday’s game, a gentleman wearing an Eastern Illinois sweatshirt approached us. His name is Happy Leman, and he was travelling home to Champaign with his wife Dianne. Happy Leman is the Senior Pastor of the Vineyard Church in Urbana, Illinois.
“Don’t beat up on us too badly next Saturday,” Happy said. “My son plays for Eastern Illinois.” We asked if Happy was coming to Happy Valley next weekend. “Would love to, but we’re a bit tied up on Sundays,” he stated. He’s a preacher, of course, and Sundays are a workday for him. So he can’t travel to watch his son play. “Watch out for Cory for us - #8 – he’s a linebacker.” He wrote his son’s name down on a business card and gave it to us.
“But my other son – J –is going to the game. He’s in Philadelphia now, playing on the practice squad for the Philadelphia Eagles. He was an outstanding linebacker for Illinois. All Big Ten, just like Paul Posluzny.” J’s name and #47 were also on the business card.
Happy then went on to discuss J’s accomplishments as a football player at Illinois. “Look him up – he was good. Sports bloggers were especially impressed with him.” I promised Happy I would write about J this week.
Terry and I didn’t have to look him up. We remembered his name. Leman was a key contributor to the Penn State 27-20 loss in 2007. He took away any momentum Penn State could muster.
According to the University of Illinois website, J. Leman “ Led Illinois with 10 tackles, including four solos, an interception, a PBU (pass broken up) and 0.5 TFLs (tackles for loss) against No. 21 Penn State ... His PBU and INT vs. PSU came on first and third downs, respectively, of the same drive, with Leman breaking up a would-be TD pass on first down and intercepting the third-down pass at the Illinois 3.” At the time of that interception by Leman, the score was 24-20 Illinois. Because of J, our touchdown drive stalled. We weren’t too happy!
J was a true leader on an Illinois team that achieved a Rose Bowl bid that year. He was a 2008 Consensus All-American, First Team All-America (by numerous sources), First Team All-Big Ten (by coaches and media), a Semifinalist for numerous awards including Butkus, Danny Weurffel, Chuck Bednarik, etc., a 2007 National Football Foundation Scholar-Athlete, and a Draddy Award Finalist.
And now we were talking to his proud father. Who was thrilled that J was able to do so well at Illinois – and that Cory is now at Eastern Illinois on a team that is ranked nationally. Once again, a son was playing close enough to Champaign that they could attend the home games, and they were looking forward to an Ohio Valley Conference battle – probably for the championship - on Saturday against Eastern Kentucky. Unfortunately for the Lemans, Eastern Illinois lost that game 36-31. But Eastern Illinois is still ranked nationally at #25 in their division, and there are still plenty of games to be played in the season.
So this Saturday, we should see Cory Leman, #8, a sophomore, starting at linebacker, and also as a starter on special teams. In 2008, he appeared in all 12 games. He ranked third on the team with 61 tackles. He should be a significant contributor at Beaver Stadium on Saturday for Eastern Illinois.
In any case, this chance encounter with a preacher at Detroit airport has sparked our interest in Saturday’s game!
We hope that Eastern Illinois plays a good game against us and that they walk away from Beaver Stadium with their heads held high for a strong and valiant effort against a Penn State team with much more talent. Of course, we don’t wish them too much luck – Penn State definitely needs to win this game! But we do hope – for Cory’s sake and his parents – that it’s an injury-free game for Eastern Illinois.