After 81 years of performing and 2 decades of controversy, February 21, 2007 Chief Illiniwek performed his last dance.
After the pressure of a recent NCAA ruling, the decision was made to retire the long-standing University of Illinois mascot. A sea of fans dressed in orange packed the sold out Assembly Hall to bid their final farewell and witness this historic event.
Whether you are an avid Illini fan or have never heard of the Chief, this halftime was unbelievable. I have watched playoff games, championship moments and big performances. But, Wednesday night, an enormous collective spirit resonated the relatively small town of Champaign in the hearts and cheers of fans supporting the end of a tradition.
After the halftime buzzer sounded, a video montage of past Chief performances played on the giant screens as names of students who danced as Chief Illiniwek since 1926 scrolled below. As the band began to play, fans rose and clapped in unison to the rhythm. As the Chief entered, the crowd cheered shouted a collective “CHIEF!” When he began dancing, camera flashes lit the Hall. During the school anthem (which always plays mid-performance), the Chief stood in the middle as students lined the court with arms around each others shoulders to sway and sing along for one last time. The Chief resumed his dance to even louder cheering and clapping.
As the dance ended, he began to exit past cheerleaders lining a traditional path. Midway through his exit, the Chief abruptly turned and marched back to the middle of the court. I have never heard such a loud, emotional collective cheer in my life. He opened and lowered his arms in gratitude to the four corners of the Hall- his way of saluting the end of the tradition, thanking fans, and saying goodbye. He stomped his foot and made his final exit. Usually a time punctuated by silence, fans cheered and shouted “CHIEF!” as their farewell before turning their attention to another deviation from tradition. The giant screens showed a lone camera following the Chief as he walked down the hall to the locker room, turned and stood fighting back tears as fans continued to cheer. Students took their orange shirts off to reveal their black shirts underneath in a silent protest. That was it. The majority of fans remained standing for the remaining 8 minutes of halftime. I’m not sure if it was out of respect or just because they didn’t know what else to do.
To many, the Chief wasn’t about halftime entertainment or politics or media. He represented different things to different people. When I saw the tears in my usually stoic father’s eyes, I knew it was about the end of a long fight supporting the Chief, remembering old college days, and most of all memories of family bonding moments. He still reminisces about putting my brother or me on his shoulders so we could share in the excitement of the halftime show. To the people raised in Champaign (like me), it was a piece of our childhood memories that had ended. To those holding their young kids, it was a tradition that their kids would never get to see. To students, it was a symbol of their school’s spirit that they held close and didn’t want to let go. To others, it was the end of a long battle that had finally ended.
And no matter what ties or feelings anyone had toward the Chief, I know that no one at the Assembly Hall on Wednesday will ever forget the Chief’s last dance.