NCF Nation: Jim Grabowski
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
|Jeff Gross/Getty Images|
|Brit Miller is looking forward to playing in front of former Illini greats on Saturday.|
The 2008 Rose Bowl was still several days away, and former Illinois great Dick Butkus tried to stay calm as he talked football with a group of Fighting Illini players.
"He didn't want to get his jazz up too much in front of us," Illinois linebacker Brit Miller recalled. "It was like a Wednesday or something, so it was still a little early to get really excited."
But it didn't take long for Butkus to have a Butkus moment.
"He kind of raised his head up and stared at the guys on the team and said, 'That's when you take 'em and you break 'em,'" Miller said.
"That was giving me chills right there. When a guy like Dick Butkus says that, you know you're part of a tradition when he's talking to you and he wants the best for you."
Butkus wants to see Miller and the other Illini linebackers at their best Saturday when he watches Illinois take on Eastern Illinois at the renovated Memorial Stadium.
To celebrate the completion of a $121 million face-lift to the 85-year-old stadium, Illinois will have dozens of past players on hand as the team honors the 10 greatest players in Memorial Stadium history at each position. The team will wear throwback jerseys from the Butkus era (1962-64) in another attempt to blend past and present.
As of Thursday afternoon, Illinois expected 42 former players to attend Saturday's celebration. The list includes Butkus and his nephew, Mark, linebackers Kevin Hardy and Dana Howard, quarterbacks Jack Trudeau and Jeff George, running backs Jim Grabowski and Howard Griffith, defensive lineman Ed O'Bradovich and tight end Ken Dilger.
Who knows, maybe Red Grange will show up. He's called the Galloping Ghost for a reason.
"We seem to believe he's always around," Miller said.
The reunion holds special meaning for Miller, who grew up watching Hardy, Howard and Simeon Rice and heard about Butkus from his father. Miller has sensed similar excitement from sophomore linebacker Martez Wilson, who he describes as "a laid-back fellow" but someone who could one day hold similar legend status at Illinois.
Even players like defensive end Will Davis, who don't hail from the state, look forward to performing in front of Butkus.
"Since I've been here as a freshman, he's the main person you hear about," Davis said. "That's a name that rings far."
Illini defenders have added motivation this week after a sloppy performance in a 52-42 loss against Missouri. Miller said he missed at least four tackles in the game, three of which turned into big plays.
"We've got to represent," he said. "We let too many yards go this past weekend. These guys that are coming back, they used to run shop. They don't want to come back and see people get ran over. Those are guys I really look up to because that was Illinois football at its peak right there. We're still trying to get back to that."