Lou Stefanovic smiled. Honest … a real ear-to-ear job, and more than once.
There was no time for that in the mid-1980s, when a steely eyed Stefanovic was helping Illinois State’s basketball team to three straight NCAA Tournaments. He was all business back then, all about winning.
Saturday was his day.
Jenny Schmidt, the hometown girl made good, was still smiling, just as we remembered. She still looked like she could pull up and hit a 3 or dart past you down the lane.
We watched her do it from the time she was a wide-eyed freshman at Normal Community High School until her final game as a dazzling ISU guard.
Saturday was her day.
Wendy Smith gave a face to Title IX. In on the ground floor of athletic opportunities for females, she had high school sports only late in her career, and even then no softball.
So at 12 years old she played on a women’s travel team. She took her lumps, experienced failure, worked tirelessly to get better. She wound up better than most.
Saturday belonged to her, too.
Metria (Bell) Nesbitt celebrated a track and field career that almost never happened. As a junior in high school, she finally relented to a friend’s pleas to give track a chance. Seems the friend wanted to shed pounds and saw track as a weight-loss plan.
It proved to be a life-changer for Nesbitt, who became the gold standard for ISU women’s 800-meter runners, excelled in the classroom, earned her degree.
Saturday was her day.
Chris Bailey didn’t get up and run 10,000 meters. He just looked like he still could. He relived the night as an ISU freshman that he became ill and then-track coach John Coughlan picked him up at his dorm, drove him to his house, smothered him in blankets and filled him with warm soup.
By daybreak, Bailey was on the mend, and on his way to a stellar career capped by All-America honors in his final race as a Redbird.
Saturday wrapped its arms around him.
It embraced Marta Eynatten as well. A volunteer spanning four decades, she’s given many a day to Redbird athletic functions and initiatives. It was time she got a day in return.
Saturday was an emotional group hug for ISU Athletics Percy Family Hall of Fame inductees Stefanovic, Schmidt, Smith, Nesbitt and Bailey, and for Eynatten, winner of the Campbell “Stretch” Miller Award.
Attending the annual induction breakfast/banquet is a terrific way to start a day. Voices crack, eyes become pools and memories flood ISU’s Brown Ballroom. It makes you appreciate what goes into being a student, an athlete and, especially, a star student-athlete.
None of it is easy. It takes focus, fire, toughness.
Stefanovic had them all. Circa 1983, a young Pantagraph reporter was boarding a team charter flight for an ISU road game. Stefanovic sat on the aisle and was reading that day’s Pantagraph.
“Don’t believe everything you read in there,” the reporter joked.
Stefanovic raised his eyes and glared at the young scribe. The temperature on the plane dropped 20 degrees. The vibe was unmistakable: Don’t mess with Lou on game day. Or the next day, either.
Saturday was different.
Stefanovic was softer in the midsection and certainly around the edges. He shared his day with his family … two tables strong. He spoke fondly of his time at ISU.
So did everyone else.