Ed McGregor’s road to 285 Middle Street in Bristol, Conn. — home base of ESPN — began in Room 115 of the Assembly Hall.
“The old sports information office,” says ESPN’s content integration director. “As an undergrad in the mid-1980s — 'The ’80s Belong to the Illini!' as the slogan went — I answered an ad for a student assistant to the women’s SID.
"Soon enough, I found myself in a tiny, glass-encased office within Room 115, sitting across from a raspy-voiced bundle of energy named Tom Boeh, who was probably only a few years older than me. I had no idea how 'sports information' worked, but Tom hired me anyway. Thank you, Tom Boeh.
"For the next couple of years, I spent countless hours in that cramped, cluttered space. Along the back wall was a row of black cabinets overstuffed with files on Fighting Illini legends such as Dike Eddleman, George Halas, Red Grange and Dick Butkus.
"The office was even run by an Illini football legend, Tab Bennett. One day, he mistook me for a pizza delivery guy, but that’s another story.
"No digital files here; everything was on paper — their stats, head shots, posed action photos, athlete questionnaires, even their grades.
"Working in that department affirmed my goal to pursue a career in sports journalism. In the SID office, I learned how media works, how to write press releases and run press conferences, how to cover games, how to build relationships.
"I worked hundreds of events, from the IHSA basketball tournament to a Thanksgiving hoops tournament in Hawaii to the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Final Four. Thank you, Mary Eggers.
"All of these skills and experiences have helped me in my career, from the Chicago Cubs’ front office to Sports Illustrated to ESPN.
"It all started in Room 115. Not only did I work there, I also wrote my term papers there. It was much easier to write on a computer than a typewriter, what with all the mistakes and revisions I made. So instead of wasting bottles of Wite-Out and making a mess, I would carefully save my papers to floppy disks and come in after hours to finish them.
"Room 115 also came in handy on October 22, 1987. That was the day U2 visited Assembly Hall during the band’s epic 'Joshua Tree' tour. I was determined to get a concert shot for my photojournalism class. But I had a ticket and not a credential, which meant I couldn’t get a camera through security.
"So, during the day while in the SID office, I left my university-issued camera behind. Then when I entered Assembly Hall that night for the concert, I slipped into Room 115 and picked it up.
"Sitting in Section B19, Row 11, with my roommate and friends, almost straight on to the sparse stage, I surreptitiously snapped several photos of the band. This was well before the digital age, so I had no idea what I had until I developed the black and white film in the dark room in the bowels of Gregory Hall the next day.
"Turns out, I didn’t have much. Did I mention that I wasn’t a very good photographer back then? Literally, one photo turned out. It’s now framed with my concert ticket and hanging in my house.
"This summer, with U2 on a 30th anniversary 'Joshua Tree' tour, my old Illini roommate called and said, 'We gotta go.' I told him that if he got tickets to a show at Soldier Field, I would make the trip from Connecticut.
"He asked how much I’d like to spend. I snapped a photo of the framed ticket with my iPhone and texted him, 'Get the $15 seats.' Yes, that’s what we paid in 1987.
"We spent 15 times that for the Soldier Field show, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Not only because 'The Joshua Tree' was the soundtrack of my youth, but also because I got to share the experience with my college roommate, the same one with whom I attended the U2 show 30 years ago at Assembly Hall.
"Fighting Illini connections never die.”