There is an undeniably different dynamic between the East side and West side of Rockford.
Now that I live in Madison, Wisconsin, I am naturally often asked by people where I come from. When I say Rockford, Illinois I am often greeted with a look likened to when someone takes a bite into a lime after taking down their 5th tequila shot in an hour. If you’re not a tequila fan, simply google a sour face and now we’re on the same page. It seems that people outside of Rockford have a certain negative ideology of what the city is like and that has always been frustrating to me. In order to explain in children’s terms of what Rockford is actually like I’ve frequently used my favorite Disney movie, “The Lion King” as a reference. With the pride land where Simba and Mufasa lived being the East Side and Elephant Graveyard where Scar and the Hyenas lived being the small part of the west side of Rockford everyone seems to only hear about.
I had an hour bus ride to school everyday…
I grew up on the east side of Rockford and in 8th grade moved even farther east. Unfortunately since I went to high school on the far west side of Rockford, I had almost an hour bus ride to school everyday. On my bus rides I would look out the window and see the bus travel from the constantly growing east side to the tough run down west side. As soon as we crossed the river it was as if we had traveled to a different city. The beautiful neighborhoods soon turned into old houses with boarded up doors and windows. New restaurants turned into your local liquor stores. A side of town full of promise vs a side of town who feels like the step child left behind. This shouldn’t be. I loved going to school on the west side. My father grew up on that side of town. The Waterfront festival used to be on that side of town. The Rockford Lightning were on that side of town. The last two used to be highlights of the city but have since come and gone. Leaving the west side and Rockford searching for the next big thing to believe in.
“Insert Fred Van Vleet”
Fred and I went to Auburn High School. I graduated in 2007 and Van Vleet in 2012. Though we walked the same hallways our Auburn Knights sports teams during our tenures there couldn’t have been more different. My football teams were consistently in the bottom of the conference. Our state championship was always the annual Auburn vs East showdown of 0-9 teams fighting for the title of “not the worst in the conference”. My basketball teams were always competitive and full of talent and arguably the best coach in the conference but couldn’t quite get over the hump. My baseball team finished 6th in conference my senior year and was told that was the best finish for a Knights baseball team in decades. Then Fred walked through those front double doors facing Auburn St and with his help, the culture of Auburn athletics slowly began to change. The 2007 basketball team led by Kwan Waller, Darryl Watkins and DeAuntae Tatum finished with a 17-11 record and a heartbreaking loss in the regional finals. That team opened the door for something greater. I talked with Coach Bryan Ott last week and he told me that team started the transition, and the Vanvleet/Danforth family grabbed the torch to finish what the ’07 team started. Fred’s brothers Darnell Van Vleet and JD Danforth continued to lay the foundation for a state championship run through their excellence on the basketball court. When both of them graduated and moved on, it was Fred’s turn to take them over the hump. I’ll never forget the super sectional game in 2012 at Northern Illinois University against Warren. No starter on that Knights team was over six feet tall yet faced a Warren team with only one player under 6’4”. Though I have much pride in my alma mater I figured even this was too much of a test for these scrappy Knights. Fred and Company didn’t share my same thoughts. The Knights were down late in the second half and when all hope seemed lost, Fred Van Vleet gave us something to believe in. Everyone in the arena knew where the ball was going in every late game possession, and Warren still couldn’t stop him. He willed that Auburn team to victory that day, a game that serves as a metaphor for his athletic career. Since that game Auburn has become a perennial powerhouse in basketball and football. The baseball team is still improving but has since won a regional title. Coach Ott told me since Fred was a freshman the basketball team has won at least 24 games a year. Winning has become an expectation at Auburn, and Fred was one the pioneers of that.
A new hope…
Van Vleet eventually went on to Wichita State University and unless you’ve been living under a rock the past four and a half years, know that story already. As a freshman he played meaningful minutes on a team who made a Cinderella trip to the final four. Though everyone outside of Wichita, Kansas and Rockford, Illinois was shocked by the Wheat Shockers magical run to the final four, anyone who had seen Fred touch a basketball, was not surprised. His aura of winning not only translated to victories at Wichita State which included a perfect regular season, but a new sense of hope in Rockford.
Van Vleet, now in the NBA with the Toronto Raptors (also makes appearances with the Raptors 905 D-League team) has now given Rockford, Illinois something to look forward to and a sense of pride in their city. All over social media I’ve never seen so much city pride the virtual beating of their chest about the 815. Endless tweets and statuses on twitter and Facebook, all about how we believe in him. Groups of people of all demographics gathered to watch his games. It in a sense has started to bring the city together.
He made an appearance in Hoffman Estates last week with the D-League team as they played the Windy City Bulls, the Chicago Bulls D-League affiliate. Though it was technically a home game for the Bulls, it was more of home game for Van Vleet. The Sears Center was flooded with fans, including my parents and I, wearing his jersey t-shirt and Raptors jersey. It wasn’t just Auburn alumni or people from the west side of Rockford there to support, it was ALL of Rockford there to support. Every time he touched the ball, everyone stopped and watched. Every time he took a shot, everyone held their breath. The Windy City Bulls hit a 3 pointer to tie the game with 10 seconds left. Again, here comes Fred Van Vleet. Everyone in that arena and everyone watching on TV knew the last possession was going through Van Vleet. Just like he did much of the game and throughout his basketball career, attacked the rim without fear of defenders bigger than him and drew a foul with a second remaining. Calm and collected like he’s been all his life, knocked down both free throws and the Raptors went home with a 102-100 victory. I checked Facebook and twitter after the game was done and throughout my timeline was statuses and tweets about Fred and how Rockford is back on the map.
But it’s always been on the map….
I use Fred Van Vleet and his family as an example here in this blog because they are a example of a family that has always done things the right way and a family everyone needs to root for, because knowing them, they already root for you whether you know them personally or not. But Rockford isn’t just him and his family. Rockford has so many beautiful layers no one talks about. We have famous musicians like Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child and The Hall of Fame music group Cheap Trick. We consistently have athletes dominating their respective college sports and now have an athlete in the NBA, MLB and the NFL. We have Corey Anderson who is making waves in the UFC, the fastest growing televised sport in America. The downtown area is forever growing with new bars and restaurants. We have the Rockford Ice Hogs, the Chicago Blackhawks affiliate in town. We’ve had many of our own featured on national TV shows, “The Bachelor”, “Shark Tank”, “America’s best dance crew”, “American Idol” and others. There is much to be proud of in this city and there is much to believe in. I love where I came from. I’m excited to see the 815 continue to thrive and become a destination spot where people want to be. And whenever I tell people in Madison where I come from, instead of a sour look, I’ll receive a look of interest and want to know about my hometown.