Fifth-year Seniors Work to Return Illini to Winning Ways

Travon Bellamy is one of 10 fifth-year seniors making the most of his final season.
Travon Bellamy is one of 10 fifth-year seniors making the most of his final season.

Sept. 26, 2010

By Nicole Mechling, Illinois Sports Information
This story appeared in Sept. 18 Illinois Football Gameday Program

As they enter their final season, Illinois' fifth-year seniors look to lead the Fighting Illini to an unforgettable year. Some have overcome injuries, while others have transferred from another school. But each fifth-year senior has endured a season of waiting on the sidelines, watching from the bench as their team battled on the field. Although each of their stories is unique, the fifth-year seniors have one goal in mind: finishing their careers with a winning season.

Illini punter Anthony Santella transferred to Illinois after one semester at the University of Utah. He quickly became the starting punter and, after three seasons, has stepped into the role of team leader.

"They say kickers and punters just hide in the shadows," Santella explained. "But with our group, when we perform with the team, we have to show that we are doing everything everybody else does."

As a transfer student, Santella is no stranger to proving himself to his teammates. "I was a newbie when I first came here during spring practice, so it took awhile for me to establish myself as a hard worker on and off the field," Santella said. "But after a couple years of people seeing me do things, they knew I came here to play and respected me."

Over time, the Wauconda, Ill., native gained respect for his efforts both on the field and in the classroom. After graduating this past summer, the fifth-year senior began pursuing a master's degree.

"I'm trying to better myself on and off the field," Santella said. "Coach Zook always says, `How you live your life off the field is how you're going to do on it.' I'm just always covering all my options. Football isn't going to last forever."

Fellow fifth-year senior and quarterback-turned-wide receiver Eddie McGee also has taken on a leadership role. After redshirting in 2006, the Washington, D.C., native became the back-up quarterback for the Fighting Illini. Last season, he moved to receiver during the season but still worked extensively as a quarterback. This year, he has completed his transition to wide receiver but may be called upon as a part-time quarterback on occasion. Shuffling from position to position may seem stressful to some, but McGee handles change well.

"I've just stepped up into my role and have shown everybody that I'm working hard even though I'm playing a new position," McGee explained.

Through his maturity, McGee sets an example for the rest of his teammates and encourages them to keep going, even when facing obstacles.

"I'm just basically trying to get everybody out there to work hard and teach them that, when adversity comes, just roll with it and look at it positively," McGee said. The Illini have experienced adversity in recent years, posting back-to-back losing records in 2008 and 2009. Despite the team's struggles, fifth-year senior and offensive lineman Ryan Palmer encourages his teammates to concentrate on the current season.

"We have to come out each day, keep looking forward and forget about the past," Palmer said.

The Canton, Ohio, native knows how to overcome adversity. As a sophomore, Palmer suffered a broken leg, which forced him to miss six games.

"What doesn't kill you makes you stronger," Palmer commented. "Having that injury just made me work hard in the offseason, going to rehab every day. You need to have a good work ethic to get better, so the challenges just make you stronger, and it made me a better person overall."

Fifth-year senior and defensive lineman Clay Nurse also is familiar with injuries. Nurse played in the first three games of his freshman season in 2006 before one of his shoulders was injured, forcing him to miss the rest of the year. He was granted a medical hardship waiver and, like Palmer, Nurse viewed his injury as an opportunity to improve.

"When you go through tough times and adversity like that, it helps you understand how to deal with the other nuances of football and off-the-field life," Nurse said. "So it just helped me learn how to deal with adversity."

In addition to injuries, as a teenager, Nurse dealt with a major change of scenery. When he was 15 years old, Nurse moved to the United States from Georgetown, Guyana, where he played cricket, soccer and basketball. Although he only played football for two years before coming to Illinois, Nurse quickly adapted and became a vocal leader on the team.

"I focus on just getting the young guys right and making sure they know how we do things around here, speaking up when the coaches aren't around and it's just us players," Nurse explained.

Throughout the past four years, the Fighting Illini have gone through many ups and downs - from playing in the Rose Bowl to dealing with personal injuries and on-field struggles. But with the help of the recent newcomers to the coaching staff, the Illini are ready to win in 2010.

"Everybody was kind of down after last season," Santella explained. "We didn't fulfill our expectations, but the coaches came in - (Paul) Petrino and (Vic) Koenning - and brought a new swagger to the team. Everybody was bouncing around at camp and, now, at practice. The tempo is really upbeat."

"I think the team has responded well to the new coaches," Nurse added. "We've adapted to everything and have made the corrections we had to make."

Despite the obstacles and disappointments their team has faced, the fifth-year seniors have enjoyed their time at Illinois and are optimistic about their final season.

"Illinois is the best experience of my life," Santella said. "Coming here and going right to the Rose Bowl - I couldn't have asked for anything better than that. The last two years haven't been what we wanted them to be, so hopefully we'll end my time here on a good note."

Like Santella, Palmer is glad he came to Illinois and hopes to end his career in winning fashion.

"I've had a lot of great memories here," Palmer said. "I've met some great friends and I'm glad I came here out of high school. I only have a few more games left, so I have to make them count."

As they approach the end of their time at Illinois, the fifth-year seniors hope to leave a lasting impression on their teammates and plan to hold nothing back on the field this season.

"The biggest thing I hope to instill in my teammates is to never give up," McGee said. "Fight every play and just approach every play like it's your last because you never know. It may be your last play, so you may as well just give every play your all."