Illinois football's Staples honors father with change in jersey number

Purdue quarterback Robert Marve had his first pass attempt batted down at the line of scrimmage, and fans watching the game may have had to do a double-take to realize who it was running down the field trying to tip the ball back to himself.

It was the perfect start to the game for the Illinois defense and for defensive end Justin Staples, who wore number 61 instead of his usual 54.

That number, 61, was in honor of his father, Lenson Staples Jr.

Staples approached head coach Tim Beckman at the start of Camp Rantoul about wearing his father's number on senior day.

"There was no question in my mind; he could definitely do that," said Beckman, who consistently harps on the importance of family to the Illini.

"It really means a lot to me," Staples said. "(Lenson)'s the one that taught me the game."

Lenson played football at Northwestern before transferring to Missouri in 1983 and '84, when he wore No. 61 for the Tigers. Lenson died in August 2010, just one month before Illinois played Missouri for the final time in their Arch Rivalry Series.

Staples knew his family and friends from home would likely be unable to travel for last week's Dads Weekend, so he decided to wait for Saturday when his family made the trip to Memorial Stadium. This is also the week of his grandparents 52nd wedding anniversary. Add all those factors to playing in his final home game at Memorial Stadium, and its a lot to play for.

"I wouldn't say any more motivated," Staples said. "Even though it's our senior day, we were just trying to take it like another home game, another game at Memorial Stadium, with that in the back of our minds."

Even though the Illini fell 20-17 on senior day, there would have been many smiles across the faces of the Staples family. They watched Justin with that pass breakup, a quarterback hurry and a tackle.

It's the first time since the season began that Staples has had a chance to see his family. His father's side of the family came from St. Louis, including his grandfather, who rarely got to see Lenson play because he was always working to provide for the family. His mother came from his home in Lakewood, Ohio.

Staples will return to his usual 54 next week against Northwestern, but the jersey for this game is likely to go in a special place. It'll take some lobbying with the Illinois athletic department, but Staples wants to add this jersey to his collection of framed plaques in his room that includes his high school jersey and jerseys from the Illini's bowl victories the past two seasons.