Bob Asmussen | Hardworking dad rewarded with a season's worth of seats

Aug. 29—Joey Tatar was driving with his daughter Grace earlier in the month when his cellphone rang.

It was a number he didn't recognize.

At the other end was Erin Gibson, University of Illinois assistant athletic director. She had good news for the longtime Illinois fan: Tatar was the recipient of two 2023 football season tickets,

"I literally thought it was a joke," Tatar said. "I almost hung up."

Gibson assured Tatar it was legit.

Tatar's reaction?

"I had no words," he said. "I was speechless.

"I was trying to keep my focus on the road. I was blown away. I literally talked about it the entire trip, saying 'You've got to pinch me. What is going on? This is not happening.'"

But it is.

Good timing

During the summer, Illinois coach Bret Bielema and wife Jen announced plans to give away 133 tickets for each of the seven home games in 2023. Some for single games. Some for the entire season.

Why 133? Well, that is how long Illinois has been playing football.

The giveaway is part of the Bielemas' FamILLy First campaign.

Tatar didn't apply to be considered. But his brother Jake nominated him.

"This devoted single dad has been a HUGE Illini fan for more than 40 years," Jake Tatar wrote about Joey in his nomination form.

"He's too proud to ask for extra tickets, and feels embarrassed when people offer him free tickets, as he would rather pay them for them. So, from his 'Illini Room' in his small house, he watches on TV when he can afford to have cable and listens on the radio when he can't."

Joey Tatar wasn't aware of the Bielema ticket program. Or that Jake had applied in his honor.

Joey Tatar has never met Bielema. He hopes to be able to thank the coach in person.

"That would be a cool thing," Tatar said.

'Nobody more deserving'

Tatar has two grown kids (Clory and Jennifer) and two more still in college. Grace, 21, is a junior-to-be in early education at Charleston's Eastern Illinois University. Andrew, 19, is a sophomore in exercise science at Illinois State University in Normal.

Born and raised in Rantoul and now living in nearby Gifford, Tatar works three jobs. He is an electrician for Rantoul's Waters Electric, handles maintenance at St. Malachy School and does handyman work on the side.

"I'm wrapped up in a pretty good-sized project at (Champaign's) First United Methodist Church right now," Tatar said.

Because of tuition and housing costs for Grace and Andrew, Tatar's paychecks are spread pretty thin. There is no "ticket fund" in the budget.

"To get to an Illini football game is a luxury," Tatar said. "It was never in my wheelhouse to even think about buying season tickets. Just can't do it."

Tatar, 51, has been an Illinois fan as long as he can remember.

"We always got together for holidays and watched games," he said. "Every now and again, my uncle would have a ticket available and he would take one of us. That's how I really got into it."

Tatar figures he has been to about 100 Illinois games total, counting football, basketball, baseball and volleyball.

Each year, he tries to get Andrew tickets for at least one football game. This year, he picked Nebraska. But now they both can go to more.

Grace is a volleyball fan (she played at Rantoul High School), so Tatar buys tickets to Huff Hall, too.

"I love volleyball," Tatar said. "I am hooked on it. It is fast-paced and so fun to watch."

Grace and Andrew are thrilled their dad will be at every football game.

"There's nobody more deserving than him," Grace said. "He is the hardest-working man you will ever meet. Ask anybody."

"Every trait I have comes from him," Andrew said. "Everything I know, especially when it comes to sports and Illini sports, he's taught me."

Can't hardly wait

Tatar's seats are in the West Main stands at Memorial Stadium: Section 130, Row 21.

Tatar came to the stadium Saturday morning with Grace and Andrew for a News-Gazette photo shoot. On a sun-baked day, he tried out his seats, smiling from ear to ear.

Tatar plans to be there early Saturday night for the Illinois opener against Toledo. And for the remaining six home games this season.

Even though he is working long hours each day, he will find the time for the Illini.

"I will work around that," he said. "A lot of them are night games. I would go in at 6 a.m. Saturday and still work a full day."

Does he have an all-time favorite Illini football player?

"I really liked John Wright Jr. at wide receiver," Tatar said.

He likes defense, too. When given a choice of statues to pose by Saturday, he went with linebacker legend Dick Butkus. No offense, "Galloping Ghost" Red Grange.