DALLAS — Houston Bates kept telling his Illinois teammates last year how much fun it would be to play in a bowl game.
The Fighting Illini now get to find out what he meant, with Bates opposing them as one of Louisiana Tech’s starting defensive ends in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
“Playing with those guys was always a fun time, but playing against them, I really don’t know how it can be better,” Bates said. “It’s not going to be like a hate matchup. It’s going to be a fun one, because I didn’t leave those guys on bad terms.”
It is an ironic career finale for Bates, who after graduating from Illinois last spring transferred to Tech to be closer to home so his mother could be at every game of his final season.
“I’m proud of him. There were situations he wanted to move closer to his mother, totally understood,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “I’m in the student-athlete business here, so Houston Bates was everything I wanted, everything I asked him to be. So, of course, I’d help him and release him.”
Tech (8-5), the Conference USA runner-up, plays the Illini (6-6) at noon Friday at Cotton Bowl Stadium.
Bates said his mother got to see only about half his games during his three seasons playing for Illinois. Even after tearing a ligament in her knee this year, she made it to every game — especially with home games on the Ruston campus only about four hours from Bates’ hometown of Covington.
“Losing my dad and not having him come to my games, it’s really been special for her to come see all of them,” said Bates, whose father died more than a decade ago after a battle with leukemia.
Bates has fulfilled the promise he made to his dad to play college football.
“It’s been everything,” Bates said. “He wasn’t in the stands ... but I know he was watching over me.”
When Bates decided to transfer from Illinois after a 4-8 season, he sat down with Beckman about leaving the program that he had grown to love dearly. He had already spoken with his mother and other family members about coming home, knowing he would be eligible to play immediately somewhere else since he already had his degree in community health.
“I remember going in there, being the most nervous I’ve ever been,” Bates said. “I think I’ve grown as a man since that, and it was a great decision on my part. He knows that, coming down here and being close to my family for one year. I’m glad I did it, and I don’t regret it. It’s going to be kind of crazy ending up playing Illinois as a result of that.”
Bates, who played in a bowl for Illinois as a redshirt freshman in 2011, started every game last season for the Illini. He now leads Louisiana Tech with 5½ sacks and helped fill a significant void after the Bulldogs lost defensive end IK Enemkpali in the NFL draft last May.
“He’s just been a huge addition to our program,” Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz said. “I know that Houston’s going to have a lot of friends on the other side of the ball.
“But I’m glad in this game he’s going to be wearing that Louisiana Tech logo on the side of his helmet.”