Thursday, April 21, 2005

Speaking for the symbol (Part 2/3)

The Daily Illini

This is the second in a three-part series that profiles those who portray Chief Illiniwek and the deep significance they attach to the symbol amidst the controversy.

See "comments" or web-link for full story


Blogger illininet said...

The Daily Illini - Sports
Issue: 4/21/05

Speaking for the symbol
By Courtney Linehan

Editor's note: This is the second in a three-part series that profiles those who portray Chief Illiniwek and the deep significance they attach to the symbol amidst the controversy.

Walking down the Quad, Kyle Cline looks like any other college kid wearing a Final Four T-shirt, carrying a JanSport backpack. As he walks by, Deron Williams is about the only person who recognizes Cline as anything but a senior in engineering.

When Cline is double-stepping across the court at Assembly Hall or encouraging students at a local grade school to study American-Indian history, people see Chief Illiniwek, not a 22-year-old Eagle Scout from Decatur, Ill.

"It's kind of a side benefit with the position," Cline said. "We look so radically different when we're in the regalia than when we're out of it - there's a separation."

But as the most visible representative of the University's symbol, Cline is in a curious position. This Chief, like all the others before him, has to decide every day what he can and can't say to endorse a tradition he loves enough to bear the responsibility of perpetuating.

"The part about doing the dance was very easy," said Matt Veronie, Chief in 2001-'04. "The hard part was the public relations role."

The Department of Intercollegiate Athletics has strict regulations about what a Chief can and cannot do during his tenure. The DIA forbids most interviews and screens requests for public appearances.

For this series, Cline and assistant Chief Dan Maloney agreed to rare, in-depth interviews about thier connection to the University's 79-year-old symbol.

"The thing that

catches their interest

is Chief Illiniwek"

Cline's passion for his role puts him on the road, talking to grade schools, Boy Scout troops and rotary clubs across Central Illinois. Cline and Maloney traveled one to three times a week this semester, visiting nearly every area grade school.

In their presentation, they tell audiences about student Lester Leutwiler and assistant band director Ray Dvorak, who created the Chief for a halftime performance in 1926. They tell them about Sioux Chief Frank Fools Crow, who flew to Champaign in 1983 with the beaded buckskin regalia the Chief wears to this day. And when they go, they leave behind a list of educational resources on American-Indian history.

Cline had an interest in American-Indian culture and history long before he considered portraying the Chief. But studying it on his own drives his enthusiasm to educate others while in the Chief role. He says he encourages students to research American-Indian history, traditions and culture, but never presumes to speak for that group.

"Chief Illiniwek provides an incredible vehicle with which to bring about interest and learning in Native-American culture," Cline said. "When I speak to grade school groups, the thing that catches their interest is Chief Illiniwek, but you channel that positive interest into learning about a culture they may never have been exposed to."

"Everybody's got a right to disagree"

Cline and Maloney, a senior in LAS and an Illini Media Company employee, must constantly be ready to answer questions about Illiniwek. Friends-of-friends inevitably ask about portraying the Chief and it occasionally comes up in classes.

The Chief's performance has changed significantly over the past eight decades, but the other aspects of the position have basically remained the same.

"In terms of day-to-day, it's something that never really leaves you," said Tom Livingston, Chief in 1987-'89. "You always have it when you're walking around campus as a student, somebody asks a question about it, and you always have to be on."

Cline and Maloney are often asked how they were chosen for the position. They answer questions about the costume, dance and Chief history.

But not all the questions are about tryouts or the role. On occasion, Veronie said he encountered people who opposed the symbol he is so proud to be part of.

Veronie said confrontations were rare. He said he always tried to make them discussions. He listened to critics and carefully tried to fix anything he thought was a misconception.

"As far as I'm concerned, everybody's got a right to disagree as long as you've got the right information," Veronie said. "And I found that a lot of people didn't have the right info."

Students actively portraying the Chief do not publicly discuss the controversy. They don't speak on camera. They don't seek out attention.

Cline and Maloney say embodying the University symbol means embodying the qualities Illinois wants to promote. They watch everything they say, intensely aware of the attention their public commentary could draw.

"That's what you have to remember; that you're representing the University," Cline said. "You're not just representing the views of Kyle Cline or Dan Maloney. When we make statements, everyone takes them as, 'Here's what Chief Illiniwek says,' rather than 'Here's what Kyle and Dan say.'"

"You have to work to get to that next level"

Portraying Chief Illiniwek requires the ability to do the dance, but Veronie says capably representing the University is just as important.

"(You need) perseverance, determination and an indefinable drive," Veronie said. "It's a lot of work in the physical preparation, the time commitment and the ability to keep on going. Every college kid knows about picking up the video games and not doing homework. It would be really easy to put it off to tomorrow."

Cline's drive and demeanor, Veronie says, make him right for the job.

Portraying Illiniwek requires countless hours of training, means working with DIA officials and event organizers, and demands diplomacy.

Then there are the responsibilities of being a student.

Cline said his love for the tradition and enthusiasm in day-to-day life make the difference between handling the role and excelling in it.

"You can work yourself to very good, and it's easy to sit at very good, but, if you want to work yourself harder, you have to work to get to that next level," Cline said. "That's what we've set as a goal ever since August - to be excellent."

Portraying the Chief is not without its perks. At one of his first football games as assistant Chief in 2003, Cline met men's basketball coach Bruce Weber - and was in awe. He and Maloney got to talk with former basketball coach Lou Henson at the Illinois Basketball Centennial in January, and, as Cline points out, they get "floor seats" to every game.

Suddenly being thrust into a role where you work with everyone from politicians to security guards can be a daunting yet thrilling opportunity.

"I was just a little farm kid; I was socially inept," said Ben Forsyth, Chief in 1960-'63. He met Dwight Eisenhower and had dinner with Red Grange during his tenure. "I represented Illinois on several very important occasions. When you think of a scared little kid from Southern Illinois, it's kind of funny."

"It was an easy choice to make"

While Cline and Maloney split the role - Cline performs at football and men's basketball games while Maloney handles volleyball and women's basketball - both students were at almost all 61 Chief performances this year.

"For me the biggest thing is being able to find the balance in everything," Maloney said. "Being able to get the work that you need to do done, being able to physically train yourself, and on top of that still being able to find time to have some recreation."

Making room for Chief commitments can mean sacrificing other interests. Cline had to cut down on his involvement with the Engineering Council and admits he has little free time.

Maloney played saxophone in the Marching Illini and guitar in the Basketball Band during his first three years on campus. He gave up those pursuits. He is still heavily involved with his fraternity but has narrowed his role there.

"I've made sacrifices," Maloney said. "But I stack the two of them up, what I've sacrificed versus what I'm doing now, and it was an easy choice to make."

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