CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — No 24-hour span embodies Caleb Griffin’s country-traversing ways like a day he experienced in early March.
On March 5, Griffin was on the floor in Fort Collins (Colo.) hoisting his longtime close friend and former Colorado State guard Kendle Moore in the air after Moore posted 19 points on Senior Night. The next morning, Griffin, a kicker at the University of Illinois, boarded a flight back to Illinois. He landed in time to head to the State Farm Center to watch the Illinois men’s basketball team win a share of the Big Ten Championship in a home win against Iowa, which prompted an arena-sized court storm to celebrate.
None of this trip existed in a vacuum. Griffin finds his way here or there. He’s seemingly almost always somehow at a sporting event in whatever state he needs to be in that day. It became so many events that during winter break he was bored and began digging through his photo memories to compile a list. From Florida to Pennsylvania, Colorado and Georgia, Griffin has been a little bit of everywhere. He’s been to 14 different states — including his own games on the Illini football team — since the beginning of the fall.
First, it’s important to recognize that Griffin both enjoys sports — he was a four-sport standout at Danville (Ill.) High School — and enjoys travel. That simplicity is enough to explain part of the rationale behind hitting as many sporting events as possible, including a bulk of them on the University of Illinois campus and various high schools nearby. But that reality only accounts for maybe 30 percent of why Griffin makes it a priority to attend these games.
The more important part of this experience is that Griffin wants to see his childhood friends in their natural element. He likes having a support system at his games and understands the work necessary to make the games a reality, thus wanting to be a part of another support system — plus free tickets on his friends’ guest list surely don’t hurt.
“That’s just something that’s always been cool to me is just seeing my friends, my people playing the sport they love,” Griffin told Illini Inquirer. “All the work they put in, all the work that we’ve put in, just seeing them out there performing. I know I enjoy people supporting me so I like to be there to support others. I don’t know. I thought about it that when I’m older in life I’m not going to have these opportunities. I’ll go to my kids’ games, obviously, but I’m not just going to show up to a random high school game or a random college game. I really enjoy seeing people that I know play. I know a lot of people in college athletics and high school sports right now so this is the perfect time for me to go see people and go support people.”
By this point, you’re probably asking: shouldn’t he be kicking a football? Fair enough question as Griffin stands on the cusp of his best opportunity to be the starting kicker for the Illini entering his fifth season. He kicked well during the 2020 season (1-for-1 on field goals, 5-for-5 on point after attempts and five touchbacks in eight kickoffs) when former kicker James McCourt was caught up in a COVID-19 contact tracing web, but he was a bit inconsistent during kicking drills in spring games.
Thing is, Griffin knows you’re probably wondering about that too.
“That’s a tough part that is kind of hard to understand sometimes,” Griffin said. “It’s like, ‘Damn, he’s spending all this time. Is he ever going to kick a football?’ With me, when I go to these places, it’s not like I’m going to party or going to just vacation. I’m going with other collegiate athletes, doing athletic things while I’m taking these trips. That’s what I’ve always been. I’ve always been driven to do more than the average person.
“I like being on the go. I like doing a lot of things. I feel like I just have a drive and time management skills that allows me to do all of these things while also working hard and also trying to be the best on the field as I can be. That’s the main priority.”
Take a trip to Fort Collins, for instance. After spending time with Moore in the gym, the two went to the Colorado State indoor practice facility for a kicking session. How did they get in the door? Griffin reached out to a special teams member on the Rams and orchestrated a quick visit inside.
Those are the moments that are ingrained in Griffin’s mind. The moments with his best friend as the two still grind towards their goals together, just in a different venue than they’d ever been.
“Everybody’s favorite moment of that trip was when I posted on my Snapchat or Instagram story or both, I went to the indoor at Colorado State and just had a kicking session,” Griffin said. “We like pushing each other. We’ve always worked out together. It’s nothing new for us. It’s just an opportunity to do it somewhere else while we’re both out living the dream.”
Griffin’s game list since August 2021 is extensive, taking up three pages of a notes app on his iPhone. He lists himself as having attended 85 games from his own games to high school games, particularly his younger sister’s games at Danville High School, to Danville Area Community College games, to any number of Illini athletics events across all sports and an NFL game to see former teammate Chase McLaughlin.
“Caleb, what do you do outside of football?”
Pretty easy answer, I’d say pic.twitter.com/K8NROzxRdx
— Caleb Griffin (@calebgriffiin) June 12, 2022
If it wasn’t for seeing his friends, Griffin readily admits he wouldn’t do this. Plus, free games, a free place to stay and some time together make the trips fairly palatable. He also relishes the chance to see his former high school classmates in their new environment. He’s been to Notre Dame to see close friend Anaya Peoples before she transferred to DePaul. He went to Florida to see former high school teammate Sean Houpt. He went to Georgia to see former classmate Erin Houpt. He traveled to Denver to see former teammate Tevin Smith. And the list goes on. Each trip is a chance to reconnect in a different part of the country.
“That’s one of the coolest things,” Griffin said. “As you know, these people have been my friends my entire life. We grew up together, done everything together and then we’ve all gone our separate ways for college. Everybody, not changes a little bit, but you forget how it is to be around them all the time. Going and hanging out with them for a while is just something that’s really cool to see what has changed for them, how they do things now and just catching up. That’s the coolest thing. We all text, FaceTime, play Xbox together all the time, there’s not much better than just hanging out together.”
Griffin still spends plenty of time on football. He knows that’s his priority and his best chance to grab the starting kicker spot is squarely in front of him. He also likes to push the bounds of his schedule. If he can make something work to get a quick trip in and see a friend, he’s going to do it. If it’s more than an eight-hour drive — hello, Colorado — he’ll hop a flight to maximize his time.
If Illinois is playing somewhere, Griffin will make that trip too. Griffin went to the volleyball team’s NCAA Tournament match against Kentucky in Texas in December and made it over to Pittsburgh for the men’s basketball NCAA Tournament game in March. He spends days at the baseball diamond — probably talking some trash — and hits softball for games as well.
These moments are fleeting. Griffin knows he won’t always be the college kid with the schedule that, though challenging, allows him to hit the road for games. He won’t always have a broad network of friends in college athletics. These are his realities. Now he wants to maximize them.
“That’s something that you guys have seen and everyone has seen is really important to me is the group of people around me and who helped me get to this point,” Griffin said. “Watching them live out their dream, doing it together, going through the struggles together is just something that pushes me and something that I feel really lucky to have the experiences that I’ve had. To me, life is all about experiences. I feel like every time I’m going to these different games or different events, that’s another experience for me that I’ll be able to talk about and I’m able to enjoy. I really enjoy the experience aspect of it as well.”