Tim Clary was in fifth grade, maybe sixth, the first time he entered an NFL stadium.
It was Lambeau Field, home of the hated Green Bay Packers.
“He was so disappointed,” said Berne Clary, Tim’s grandfather, who was part of the family’s wintertime trip to northern Wisconsin. “I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ He said, ‘I’ve always wanted to go to an NFL field, and the first one I wanted to go to, I wanted it to be the Bears.’ ”
It’s funny how things work out.
Today, not only will Clary visit Soldier Field, but the fullback and tight end from Richmond-Burton will play at the stadium along with the rest of his Illinois teammates. That group includes Jake Howe, a McHenry East grad and starting nose tackle for the Illini.
Illinois (2-0) will try to remain unbeaten against Washington (1-0), which is ranked No. 19 in this week’s Associated Press poll and No. 23 in the USA Today Coaches Poll. The Illini have a chance to improve to 3-0 for only the second time in the past 12 seasons.
Howe could think of no better place to do so than on the shores of Lake Michigan.
“It’s definitely a real cool opportunity,” said Howe, 21, a junior with 18 games under his belt. “I’ve had the opportunity to play in the ‘Big House,’ Camp Randall and all of those places, but playing in Soldier Field is something I’ve always wanted to do since I was little.”
Like Clary, Howe grew up as a big fan of the Bears. His favorite player was Brian Urlacher, but as a defensive lineman, he also paid close attention to Tommie Harris. Howe saw his heroes in person a couple of times during games at Soldier Field, but he guessed that he had not been to the stadium since he was in third or fourth grade.
Meanwhile, a young Clary was able to visit Soldier Field not long after his depressing visit to Green Bay. He was a big fan of Urlacher, too, and remembers wearing Bears camouflage pajamas, Bears socks, an Urlacher jersey, face paint and a Bears hat to his first game.
“It was everything Bears,” Clary said. “I was just in awe.”
Clary is smiling again these days, but it is because of a different team in orange and blue. After a tougher than expected opening win against Southern Illinois, the Illini responded with a 45-17 win against the Cincinnati Bearcats that surprised many outside observers.
In the season opener, Clary caught a pass for 33 yards to set up a touchdown by teammate Aaron Bailey. Clary, a walk-on who first played at the University of Dubuque, said he and his teammates were having fun and were eager to make an impression on the NCAA.
“It’s hard not to feel good,” Clary said. “But then again, we’re still extremely focused. We know we can improve. We did not play our best game against Cincinnati. We definitely didn’t play our best game against SIU. We’re just here to shock the world.”
Howe said the team had tight chemistry and high confidence compared with a year ago.
“Our team togetherness, I feel like we’re more one as a team,” Howe said. “I think that helps a lot when you have to deal with the adversity that goes on during a game. In the past, we would kind of crumble, and now we’re kind of embracing it.”
The same goes for the Illini’s long-awaited trip to Soldier Field.
“When the time comes when we’re walking up to that tunnel, it will be jitters and butterflies,” Clary said. “I probably won’t be able to stop smiling.”
• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @tcmusick.