Smile Politely

It’s ‘Toul Time

How do you get to Camp Rantoul?


Or, you can just take Pennsylvania Avenue east to Vine Street . Turn left and drive until you hear the sound of the Go-Gos.

Twelve miles north of Urbana — past the O’Brien Auto Park, the endless rows of cash crops and the Flatville Road — Camp Rantoul springs like a circus from the flat fields of the former Chanute Air Force Base. The carnival mood is set by the first thing you see from Route 45 as you near the camp: the twisty slides and neon-bright colors of the nearby water park. The sound of eighties music rolls through open windows. Then the whizz-bang orange and yellow of the players’ helmets, the candy-striped tents scattered generously about and the tall towers surveying the field make it all seem from a distance like some sort of fried-dough paradise.

But then you hear insistent whistles. And an air horn. And the sound of coach Curt Mallory, who really wants a defensive back in his drill to go left instead of right.

“To the left, to the left,” he insists, with the aid of his hands.

Welcome to Camp Rantoul, young man. Don’t you ever for a second get to thinking you’re irreplaceable.

Central Illinois has an abundance of level land, but very little of it is unoccupied this time of year. So the playing fields on Chanute are perfect. There is enough room for each player to have an acre to himself, or for a unit to get lost on the back forty. That’s why there’s an air horn. It has a dinner bell effect, calling all the parts back home for calisthenics or scrimmage.

There were both of these on Tuesday and neither seemed executed with much urgency. The calisthenics — a hundred giants in rows doing high kicks, or rolling around on the ground like the wounded from Gettysburg — were more entertaining than the scrimmages. These seemed designed mostly to show new players how to run on and off the field under duress. But since this is still the shakedown phase of camp, we can’t expect anything like the awful crack! when large men running fast hit each other. So there were passes thrown and dummies tackled, there were field goals kicked and lineman stood up. But no one got really popped.

There are a remarkable number of returners with high profile names. Already Juice Williams, Arrelious Benn and Jon Asamoah have been nominated to “watch lists” for national awards in their respective positions. The very idea of all these returning stars injects the camp with a positive vibe. As does the fact that the general manager of the Chicago Bears was wandering around, scouting this talent pool.

The weather has been about as nice as could be expected and the players at Camp Rantoul seem in good spirits. That’s because the coaches seem in good spirits. This will change. They start two-a-days on Wednesday and have a real scrimmage on Saturday. A week later they break camp, ready for the season. That’s a short time to do a lot and the coaches know it.

Still, with Missouri, Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State comprising four of the first five games, practicing good cheer might be the smartest move yet.

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