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The frequent Barnes family parties started Aug. 31, 2019. That’s when Tom and Kris Barnes pulled into Lot 31 near Memorial Stadium for son Bryce’s first game as a University of Illinois football player.
They have been hosting the festivities ever since, not missing one of his home games in five seasons, except when COVID-19 kept everybody away.
“Every time we could tailgate and it was allowed, we were there,” Kris said.
The Barnes family arrives early for what has become an elaborate operation. Tom and his brother Tim do most of the setting up.
There is a truck and trailer, with four tents nearby. There are burgers and hot dogs on the grill. Sometimes kabobs or ribs. TVs showing games. And plenty of beer — “Busch Light,” Tom clarified.
Bryce visits the tailgate after the games, often bringing roommate Ryan Meed, a standout on special teams.
“They don’t always talk. It depends how the game goes,” Kris said.
So after Saturday’s overtime win against Indiana, the players were likely chatty.
The crowds at the Barneses’ tailgates range from 50 to 100 people each week.
“We’ve had so much fun.” Kris said.
Inside the stadium, the Barnes contingent sits behind the visiting teams’ bench with other parents. There are lots of No. 48 jerseys with “BARNES” on the back.
“We both wear them; our kids wear them,” Kris said.
What has been their favorite moment during Bryce’s career?
“I still remember the very first game (against Akron). He was on special teams, so he was out there for the very first play,” Kris said.
“He’s played in every game except one in five years,” Tom said.
Another highlight was the 2019 Illinois home win against then-No. 6 Wisconsin. James McCourt nailed a field goal at the buzzer that led to the celebrating fans storming the field, Tom included.
“I rushed the field and soon realized those guys are way bigger out there than they look from the stands.” Tom said. “I made my way back out of there as fast as I could.”
A star at Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley High School (he was The News-Gazette Male Athlete of the Year in 2018-19) Bryce came to Illinois originally as a walk-on tight end for then-coach Lovie Smith.
Bryce was determined to play in Division I, but didn’t have any scholarship offers. He had several good Division II offers.
“He was conflicted,” Kris said. “My husband and I just kept telling him ‘You’ve always wanted DI. Don’t worry about the money and what school costs. Have that experience and have fun. It’s something you won’t regret.’ “
Mom and Dad know best.
The Barnes family appreciates Smith’s role in their son’s career.
“Lovie came to the school in Gibson and offered him the walk-on ability,” Tom said.
They are both “super proud” of what their son has accomplished.
“Honestly, it’s unreal that he is actually playing in DI, seeing him on ‘SportsCenter.’ It’s crazy,” Kris said.
Eventually, Bryce found a positional home on the defensive line and literally grew into the job, gaining weight to handle the new duties.
Bryce is a celebrity in his hometown, getting pats on the back and words of encouragement when he is there.
Bryce, a fifth-year senior, is finishing up the most productive season of his career. He has 18 tackles, including two for loss, in 10 games. He played a vital role when defensive tackle Keith Randolph was out with a leg injury and when Johnny Newton missed the first half at Minnesota because of a targeting call.
Bryce’s final home game is Nov. 25 against Northwestern.
East Central Illinois roots
Kris and Tom have been married 28 years.They were both born and raised in Gibson City. They currently live about 4 1/2 miles outside of town.
Kris works for State Farm Insurance in Bloomington and has been there for 30 years. Tom spent two decades as a union bricklayer in Champaign.
They are longtime Illinois fans. Having Bryce on the team sealed the deal.
“It went full bore,” Kris said.
All four of their sons went to GCMS. Jake, 27, is married to Kylie. They have a 6-month-old son, Colton.
Bryce is next in line at 23 and twins Seth and Zach are 18.
Jake and his family are currently living with his mom and dad while their new home is being built. Seth and Zach are also home.
It is a full house, with seven dogs, too.
Why all the dogs? There is a good reason. Kris and Tom had four and took in her parent’s dog when her father passed away. Jake and Kylie brought their two dogs, too, they will be moving when their home is done.
All seven are labs.
Bryce has two more regular-season games at Illinois and a good chance for a bowl game. So, hopefully the now good-natured big guy (he is listed at 6-foot-2, 285 pounds) doesn’t mind his parents sharing details about his childhood.
Turns out, Bryce had a bit of a temper. Fueled by competition, which has obviously served him well in his sports career.
“He wanted to win at everything he did,” Kris said. “He was very competitive and honestly we weren’t quite sure how to deal with it.”
“Go Fish, Uno … he had to win or he was mad,” Tom said.
Eventually, Bryce figured it out. So the Monopoly board wasn’t flipped over when he landed on Boardwalk with hotels.
“He learned how to channel that better,” Krish said.
Tom and Kris were quick to add “they were all good kids” about their sons.
They were all athletes in high school, playing football, basketball and soccer. Bryce played for highly successful GCMS teams, winning two state titles in football with coach Mike Allen and taking third in the state basketball tournament.
“I was pretty thankful when they all got their license,” Kris said, “because we did a lot of running around.”