(text and photos by Fred Zwicky) When the undefeated Wisconsin Badgers played the University of Illinois Fighting Illini Oct. 19, 2019, Illinois photographer Fred Zwicky went to the game with the idea of making some good-weather game atmosphere stock photos at what was sure to be a lopsided win for the visiting team. Things changed. By the end of the game he found himself literally in the middle of history. This is a modified version of a story Fred wrote for the University of Illinois news website.
That’s the number the Illinois football coaching staff writes on the white board for the players to see. Many of the fans filing into Memorial Stadium today know this number as well.
Thirty-one is the number of points by which pundits predict Illinois will lose to Wisconsin. That’s a tough number.
Doesn’t matter. My job as a university photographer is to tell the Illini story. There is always plenty to capture and celebrate. The weather is spectacular. It’s Homecoming. Illinois has been competitive against some tough foes. I can work with that.
Funny thing is, my beat for the university isn’t sports, though I’ve covered college, pro and prep sports in my prior life as a newspaper photojournalist. My marching orders today are to get pics of shiny, happy Illini fans for our image database. I knew that if I were going to get any shots of happy fans, I’d have to feast on pregame festivities before the predicted Wisconsin onslaught.
Shiny happy fans on a perfect day...who cares about the score?
I like to think of every game as an unfolding movie. What is the storyline of this particular game? How do we best show that visually? This approach expands the cast to more than just the players on the field. It also opens up the shooting window. How many times do we all stop shooting as soon as the play is over?
As far as action goes, my main strategy is to tell the story of the game by capturing the big plays. Unfortunately for me, those plays usually happen at alternating ends of the field. If I think the defense is going to sack the quarterback, I must hustle to that end of the field to get a good angle on a shot that may or may not happen. If I think the Illini might try a deep pass, I move to that end zone and see if my guess is right.
It’s definitely a workout.
However, just shooting play-by-play action can also be a trap. Sure, it keeps you busy. But, if our job is to tell the story of this particular game, just offering up action shots isn’t always enough.
The story is on the field and off.
In line with predictions, Wisconsin jumps out to a 10-0 lead. Illinois responds with a touchdown, but Wisconsin answers with a field goal. Halftime score: 13-7. Somehow, the Illini are still in this game.
What happens in the second half is legendary. After an Illinois fumble, Wisconsin quickly scores. I hear a collective groan from the stadium. The onslaught has likely begun. However, Illinois scores and the defense stuffs Wisconsin at the goal line. Fast-forward and the score is 23-21. With time running out, an interception by Illinois sets the table for a chance for an improbable Illinois comeback victory.
The game switches gears from 'PR photos' to 'possible historic upset.'
Another experienced photographer on the field turns to me and says, “I don’t know where to go!” I know what he means. We’re both figuring out where to be at the end of the game.
“It’s all about the kicker,” I say. “If he makes a field goal, the story is the kicker.”
I move up the sideline close to the bench. From that angle, I can catch the kick and the kicker’s reaction with his teammates. If he makes it, he’ll turn to his bench and celebrate. I need that shot.
Illinois coach Lovie Smith calls a series of plays to bring the ball to the center of the field and drain the clock. Time left: four seconds.
Kicker James McCourt walks onto the field. It feels like everyone in the stadium is holding their collective breath. The kicker had already missed a 40-yard attempt. This kick would be for 39 yards. The pressure is intense.
McCourt kicks the ball straight through the uprights. 24-23 Illinois. Victory! Upset! Bedlam! He turns to celebrate with the players on the field. Instead of running to the bench to celebrate, he stays put and the entire bench charges him.
"It might be...it could be...it's GOOOOOD!"
Actually, everyone on the field charges him.
I run in with the players, but soon hit a brick wall. These guys are huge. I’ve covered plenty of end-of-the game celebrations, but this one is out of control. I’m holding my wide-angle camera up in the air to take pictures as I try to squeeze through.
I’m getting pushed around as the players mob the kicker. They squeeze in tighter and tighter, and I begin to worry about staying upright. I brace my legs and arms to keep breathing room, stay on my feet and not get trampled.
For McCourt, that isn’t an option. All of the emotional and physical energy of the game is headed his way. The team “dog piles” with nearly 10 bodies stacked on top of him. Teammate Jake Cerny sees McCourt’s eyes roll back in his head as he starts to black out. The team grabs McCourt, pulls him out of the pile and hoists him aloft.
While firing off my shots, I look at McCourt’s washed-out face.
“He doesn’t look good,” I think. Slowly, he begins to recover, realize where he is and celebrate.
“I really thought I woke up from a dream or something,” McCourt says later. “It was really unbelievable.”
Believe it. According to ESPN, this win is the largest upset over a ranked team in Big Ten history.
Now the field is full of players, fans, cheerleaders and most anyone else who can make it. They dance, hug and, finally, sing “Hail to the Orange.”
Thirty-one points. These Illini underdogs won. And, I’ve got the pictures to prove it.