Wrigley the setting for another rivalry

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Some time in the past few years, Northwestern senior defensive tackle Corbin Bryant received a notification that Illinois senior wide receiver Chris James sought permission to be one of his followers on Twitter.

Bryant allowed it.

Soon, he could regret it.

Bryant and James may have been Morgan Park High School basketball and football teammates, graduated together in 2006 and still remain friends, but none of that will matter when their teams meet at Wrigley Field on Saturday.

James, in particular, is on a mission to get in his old friend’s head however he can -- even if it’s through Twitter.

“I’m on Twitter with him, so I’ll probably get on there and talk trash to him before the game,” James said. “I’m going to get him good before the game. I’m going to give my center some ammunition to say to him, too. Something nobody knows and get up under his skin.”

Bryant wasn’t too concerned when he heard of James’ threats.

“Please,” Bryant said, laughing. “It’s been like that every year we’ve played each other. He’s just like the guy who likes to talk trash, but it does nothing to me. It’s fine. He’s tried it before.”

James is looking to pull out all the stops this season. In his previous four years at Illinois, the redshirt senior has beaten Bryant and the Wildcats just once.

He’s sick of it.

“It’s a big deal,” James said. “I can’t say how much mean it means to come back to Chicago and play Northwestern our rival, too. I love playing Northwestern. Every play is a big deal. This game we’re going to see who is Chicago’s team. We’re going to see who’s the state’s champ. I just want to beat Northwestern.

“It’s in me. As a Chicago kid, I want to beat Northwestern.”

At first, Bryant downplayed the rivalry, but he ultimately couldn’t hold back.

“It’s not really a big deal; it’s just bragging rights for our team,” said Bryant, who has 5.5 tackles for a loss this season. “It’s just fighting for the state of Illinois, the Land of Lincoln Trophy. It’s our biggest rivalry, and we just got to go take it. It’s something that we have to do for the respect of Northwestern.”

Bryant and James first met on the basketball court in high school. Of the two, Bryant was the more talented hoopster. He was the team’s center, and he was a skilled 6-foot-4, nearly 300-pound big man. James was a 6-foot guard, and his strength lied in his ability to drive to the basket.

“He was that do-everything guy,” James said of Bryant. “If you needed a bucket, he’d get you a bucket. If you needed a rebound, he’d get you a rebound. If you needed a stop, he’d get you a stop.”

James’ talent was in football. He wasn’t as fast as some of the Public League’s top wide receivers, but no one could catch a pass like him. He had 51 receptions for 977 yards and 19 touchdowns his senior season.

“He had really good hands,” Bryant said. “He never dropped a pass, ever. He was [Morgan Park quarterback] Demetrius Jones’ No. 1 receiver. He did a lot of great things for that program.”

One of those notable achievements was helping convince Bryant to play football. Bryant’s love was basketball, and it was all he played his first three years of high school. James and his classmates saw Bryant’s size and athleticism, and they knew he would excel on the defensive line.

Finally as a senior, Bryant relented and joined the Mustangs’ football team. New to the game, Bryant needed someone to guide him, and James stepped into that role.

“He taught me a lot about the game," Bryant said. "He was a good teacher. I thank him for that.”

Bryant and James will have some family members making the trip from Chicago’s South Side to Wrigley Field on Saturday. While both are excited to play at Wrigley Field, neither are Chicago Cubs’ fans or have attended the stadium much.

“I’m a Sox fan,” James said. “It’s only right for me being from the South Side. Us Sox fans don’t get up there. It gives me great joy to see the Cubs lose. It’ll be like a game at Gately [Stadium] for me.”

Bryant had been telling people he was a baseball fan whenever they asked about Wrigley Field, but he finally spilled the truth about it after practice on Tuesday.

“I’m not a baseball fan at all,” Bryant said. “I’m not going to keep lying to people. I don’t really like baseball.

For years down the road, I can say I played on one of the most prestigious fields in the world. That’s just a good feeling.”

Of course, Bryant will feel a lot better if Northwestern can defeat James and his Illini.

“It’s our last game playing against each other,” Bryant said. “It’ll be a little bittersweet moment. We both came a long way in our college careers. We just got to finish it.”