CHAMPAIGN (WCIA) — Every year since 1985, John Birdsell has watched all the Illinois Football games from the same spot.
“Being as short as I am, and the big boys in front of me, I have to really push them out of my way,” says Birdsell as he reflects on the time he spent on the sidelines at Memorial Stadium. Admirably know as ‘Johnny B’, he’s no stranger at Illinois baseball practice either, where he makes sure to get in the players ears about getting dirty.
“I just like to razz them a little bit about sliding, keeps them on their toes,” says Birdsell.
The longtime assistant equipment manager also works with wrestling, track and field, gymnastics, and has impacted about every sport at the University. At the end of the month, Johnny B is shutting down his sewing machine after 38 years.
“I’ve done just about anything and everything I can to keep busy,” says Birdsell. “It’s a lot of fun, I keep saying it’s a lot of fun but it is.”
“John’s been a key part to this entire athletic department he’s done so many things with football and baseball and a number of other sports,” says Illinois baseball coach Dan Hartleb. “When good people leave, it’s something where you’re very happy for them, at the same time it leaves a little bit of a void from some things you’re used to and some of the great memories you had.”
The baseball team showed their support Sunday by surprising Birdsell on Senior Day — honoring him with the other graduates. Through all the laundry cycles, torn pants, and helmet stripe-ings, getting to know the thousands of players that have come through since the ’80s has been Birdsell’s favorite part.
“We’ve had a lot, a lot of outstanding athletes,” says Birdsell. “Going out and talking to them, going to practice, hanging out with those guys. It sounds silly but just go out there and be around them.”
“It’s always fun to walk into the ballpark and see John, regardless of the situation, says Hartleb. “Hopefully we have the opportunity to work together in some capacity.”
And they may have the chance. ‘Johnny B’ is done with the daily grind, but he hopes the equipment staff will take him back in the Fall, this time as a volunteer extra hand.