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CHAMPAIGN — Thanksgiving was fast approaching in the fall of 2001, and as Dave Clark’s mother was planning Thursday dinner, she checked with her son to make sure he and his family would be back in his hometown of Cuba, Ill., for the holiday.
In Clark’s mind, though, there was no question that he would be 120 miles away. After all, the University of Illinois football team was playing.
“I said, ‘No, Mom, we’re going to the football game,’” he said. “The next thing I know, my sister and all of her family and my mom and my dad were coming (to the game), and we’ve got my aunt coming and her kids. And we were cooking turkey out there by Assembly Hall.”
Those who know Clark and his wife, Jeanette, don’t have to ask where they’ll be on Illini game days. For the last 45 seasons, Dave hasn’t missed a home game, and Jeanette has missed only a few.
“It’s a family rule in our house,” Jeanette said. “You don’t die, you don’t get married and you don’t have a baby from the end of August to the end of March. Football season and basketball season, nothing goes on, because we’re not missing games.”
That streak has taken complete commitment.
For instance, a few years ago, a close friend and member of their weekly tailgating party, which routinely draws at least 30 friends and family members, approached them with an excited smile and told them he’d proposed to his girlfriend.
“That’s great,” Jeanette said. “When are you getting married? He said, ‘(A date) next October.’”
“I’m looking it up on my phone,” Dave said, “and I said, ‘Nope, we won’t be at that.’”
“You know the rules,” Jeanette remembers telling the friend. “It’s Illinois football season and there’s a home game.”
Next week, the friend came back with good news. They’d changed the wedding date to a day in May.
During Dave’s 45-year streak, which started the year after he graduated from the UI, the Clarks have experienced some high points, including three Big Ten championships, but they’ve experienced more lows. During that time, Illinois football has won 222 games and lost 296. In 27 of those 45 seasons, they lost more than they won.
The Clarks’ fandom, though, is about more than the outcome of games. Memories from those fall Saturdays at Memorial Stadium mark the passage of time.
For Dave, those memories go back to when he was a 10-year-old son of an assistant football coach at Cuba High School. Each year, the team would attend an Illinois game, and Clark would tag along. He can’t recall the specific games, but he remembers the yearly tradition of going out to eat at a local fast-food restaurant and heading to a nearby mini-golf establishment to play a round before heading to the stadium and taking a seat behind the south end zone. Jeannette joined in when she was a cheerleader in high school.
When Dave was a student at the UI from 1975-77, he and a group of Hendrick House residents who played on the same intramural football team bought tickets together and sat in the east balcony.
Bob Blackmon and Gary Moeller’s Illini didn’t produce any winning seasons during Clark’s college years, but he still smiles when he talks about sitting with his friends.
“It was pretty cool,” he said. “It was part of being a student.”
When the Clarks graduated from college in 1977 and moved to Dunlap as a young married couple, they made their excursions to Champaign alone, for the most part. Then, their traveling party grew when their children, Danielle and TD, were born in 1982 and 1984.
Luckily, neither birth conflicted with football games. Nor did youth sports or any other activities.
At first, their cargo was limited to a cooler in the back of the car for a simple tailgate. Then they bought a pickup truck with a tent. Eventually, their tailgating supplies were piled so high that they couldn’t see out of the back window, so 15 years ago, as their tailgate grew to a regular crew of 30 members, they bought a 14-foot trailer for all of their items.
The Clarks went from sitting in the northeast corner of the stadium to the 35-yard line. When the Colonnades Club was completed in 2012, they moved to box seats, where they can sit inside on cold days if they want. They don’t, of course.
“You’ve got to sit outside to be a part of the game,” Dave said. “You’re coming to a football game. You’re not coming to sit back and watch on TV. I can do that at home. Here, I want to be a part of it.”
The Clarks’ personal connection to the program has also grown. Dave became a board member of the Quarterback Club, the team’s booster club, in 2012, and this year, Jeanette became its president.
With the advent of players’ ability to receive money for the use of their name, image and likeness, the Clarks also decided to sponsor offensive lineman Magnus Moller last year. They spoke with the Danish freshman last year and learned that he wouldn’t be able to afford a plane ticket home to see his family during the school year. He also couldn’t participate in most NIL opportunities because his student visa didn’t allow him to earn money in the United States.
The Clarks decided to pay him to perform community service in Denmark, covering the ticket and then some. Now, their gameday attire always includes No. 56 jerseys with “Moller” printed on the back.
While they’re looking forward to watching Moller play his redshirt freshman season and beyond, the Clarks are expecting to long outlast his time on the team. They just renewed their season tickets for the next seven years. Despite their past experiences over the last three decades, in which the Illini have only made bowl games in back-to-back years once, they’re optimistic about the future of the program.
Even if the Illini disappoint, though, the Clarks won’t stop scheduling their fall around game days at Memorial Stadium.
“You can’t miss one now,” Dave says. “I’ve said — jokingly — that you’re (eventually) going to have to bring me in an urn or a box to keep my streak going.”