CHAMPAIGN — Trulon Henry has known Nate Bussey since he was 9 years old and living in the same neighborhood of Washington, D.C.
So the unique fashion statement expressed on a daily basis by Bussey is nothing new to Henry.
“He has always dressed that way,” Henry said Tuesday of his fellow University of Illinois football defender. “I’m used to it. His fashion sense is something he got from his older brother.”
While most members of the Illini football team wear either casual jeans, shorts or some type of sweats or athletic-issue gear, Bussey intentionally turns it up a notch.
On Tuesday, he looked preppy in his pressed, cuffed jeans, his tri-color athletic shoes, his navy cardigan sweater trimmed in maroon, his orange dress shirt, tan textured neck tie, long flowing dreads, diamond earrings and designer eye glasses.
Bussey’s outfit changes from day to day, but what remains a standard feature are the neckties (he has more than 100, including an assortment of bow ties) and ever-changing designer eye glasses. He has 10 pairs of glasses, none of which have corrective lenses.
“I have 20-20 vision,” Bussey said. “I wear them strictly as a fashion statement. They’re called personality glasses, and I’ve been wearing them since the seventh grade. It’s like I can’t leave home without my glasses.”
Bussey has quietly been making fashion headlines within the Illini team since he arrived on campus in 2007 after starring as former Illini Arrelious Benn’s high school quarterback at Dunbar High School. And there’s no question he stands out on the Illinois campus as an athlete who marches to his own drumbeat.
This past Saturday, Bussey stood out for another reason. He made the play of the game in Illinois’ 33-13 victory at Penn State when he blitzed in from his linebacker position, leaped to deflect a screen pass then caught the ball and ran it into the end zone for an Illinois touchdown.
The play was so dramatic it would make sense if Bussey was still watching it over and over again. But on Tuesday, he just laughed and said otherwise.
“Nope. Time to move on,” he said. “Time to make another play.”
He’ll get that chance Saturday when Illinois travels to play 13th-ranked Michigan State.
Bussey started his Illini career as a 202-pound backup safety but has found a home as a 6-foot-2, 226-pound outside linebacker.
“He has always been a guy who has played extremely well,” coach Ron Zook said. “When we practice, he’s always the first one out there and the last to leave. He’s kind of a gym rat.
“We started him out at safety, but he gets a little nosey and gets where he shouldn’t be. But he gives us big plays. He is playing with confidence.”
Bussey said the entire defense is gaining confidence, especially the trio of linebackers that includes Martez Wilson and Ian Thomas.
Wilson leads the team in tackles with 46. Bussey and Thomas are tied for second with 34 tackles each, and the three linebackers have combined to make 12½ tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
Of course, tackle numbers aren’t the only thing that makes Bussey stand out on game day.
Long before the opening kickoff, he is often the first player on the field, his long dreads flopping from beneath his helmet. Except for his flowing hair, on the field he looks like every other Illini player. Identical uniforms keep players looking alike.
But after the game, it doesn’t take long for Bussey to slip into his distinctive outfit, complete with necktie and designer glasses.
“Guys on the team call me, ‘Pastor,’ ” Bussey said. “I’ve always liked to be a little different. I try to bring a spark to the team this way, too.”