Bob Asmussen | Hats off to Illini super fan Tommy Rouse

Apr. 2—Not even the power of the good-luck charm cowboy hat could overcome the defending national champion UConn men's basketball team. The Huskies were that good Saturday night.

Tommy Rouse did his best to keep Illinois' season alive. The St. Matthew student traveled with his parents Amy and Patrick and brother George to Boston's TD Garden for the NCAA tournament East Regional, wearing his signature Illini orange headgear.

What started as a just-for-fun way to cheer for his favorite team has blossomed into a name, image and likeness deal for Tommy.

At the Illini NIL Store, there are T-shirts ($39.99), sweatshirts ($54.99) and hoodies ($64.99) with the phrase Cowboy Tommy Go Illini! Included is a cartoon depiction of Tommy wearing the hat and holding a sign that reads "the world needs more cowboys."

Of course it does.

Tommy earns a percentage of each sale, a fact that piqued his interest in the operation.

"Tommy wanted to know how much he was going to be getting of that action," Patrick said. "It's all him. He created this monster."

Tommy was the focus of TV cameras all season, both at home and on the road.

During Saturday's game. the TBS crew showed Tommy in the stands,

At Illinois homes inside State Farm Center, Tommy has become a local celebrity. When the fan cam shows him on the giant screens, the crowd goes wild.

Tommy helps by dancing and generally having a good time.

"That's just him," Patrick said. "He's just really a gregarious, fun-loving kid. He's passionate. He's got that infectious personality."

When the fan cam camera shows someone other than Tommy, the move is met with boos. Followed by cheers when he is shown again.

During many of the Illini games, Tommy, 13, sits with friend and fellow St. Matthew classmate Jackelynn Biggs, daughter of basketball staffer Joey.

Origin story

The cowboy hat belonged to Amy's late father, Gary Ludwig. The longtime Danville insurance agent passed away in 2015.

The Rouses were cleaning out Mr. Ludwig's office and George found the hat.

"Two or three years ago Tommy — he's a wild man — decided he want to wear the hat to the Illinois game," Patrick said. "It was a pretty organic, spur of the moment deal and it's gone absolutely crazy since then."

It is a touching way to honor Amy's dad.

"She said to me 'My dad would have loved to have seen Tommy wearing that hat.' Gary was a 50-year season-ticket holder in football and basketball and a graduate of the University of Illinois and loved it. He would have gotten a real kick out of this."

Tommy's State Farm Center screen time started during the 2022-23 season, when he was shown during Dance Cam segments.

Tommy had a dance-off with the deejay and the crowds ate it up, rooting for Tommy of course.

"It morphed into a thing," Patrick said.

There have been perks beyond money for Tommy's college fund. An Illinois fan since basically birth — he attended his first football game at age 4 days — Tommy has been able to meet many of his Illini heroes.

"They're incredible," Patrick said.

Tommy has a favorite: Luke Goode. They have the same hair color: red. Tommy wears Goode's No. 10.

"They are kindred spirits," Patrick said. "They are all so great to him, They treat him pretty good."

Marching on

The Rouses went to Omaha, Neb., for the second round on March 23, where Illinois beat Duquesne to advance to the Sweet 16. The Rouses missed Illinois' first-round win against Morehead State on March 21 because of a scheduling conflict. George Rouse, Tommy's older brother and a Champaign Central football player, was on a recruiting visit to Upper Iowa University.

No surprise, the cameras in Omaha found Tommy and his orange hat.

"I got about 7 million text messages during the game," said Patrick, a former Illinois football player and now president of Champaign's GTPS Insurance. "He was pretty prominent on the broadcast."

When Illinois beat the Dukes, the Rouses decided to make the long trip east for the regional round.

"We were driving home from Omaha on Sunday morning and we made a family decision to go ahead and keep going with them," Patrick said.

Tommy is more than a fan, he's an athlete. He plays football, basketball and baseball.

"He does it all," said Patrick, "He's a good kid and he's got a big heart."