ABC show shines unusual light on Illini football
Eric Stonestreet isn't a former Illinois football player. But he plays one on TV.
On ABC's critically-praised comedy "Modern Family," Stonestreet portrays Cameron, the larger-than-life half of a gay couple.
In Wednesday's episode called "Coal Digger" (8 p.m., WICD), Cameron comes out of the football closet.
"It's revealed that Cameron played some college football and he played at the University of Illinois," Stonestreet said.
In the show, Stonestreet's character wears a No. 7 Illinois jersey and orange and blue face paint.
"It's funny because only an Illinois fan would know that that No. 7 jersey is clearly an Illinois jersey," Stonestreet said. "Everybody else thinks it's an Elway jersey."
Why Illinois for Cameron? There were restrictions on what kind of footage was needed for the episode. And Illinois worked the best.
"They needed a night game that was five years ago and against Ohio State," Stonestreet said.
Ed O'Neill's character "Jay Pritchett" is the patriarch of the "Modern Family." In Wednesday's show, he is also a huge Ohio State fan. The kind who wants church-like quiet while watching the game on TV.
Jay realizes Cameron, his son's life partner, is also a big football fan.
"It's when you find out that Jay and Cameron have something more in common than Jay would have thought," Stonestreet said.
Despite the jersey and face paint, Cameron isn't an obnoxious football fan.
"He's very educated," Stonestreet said. "That's sort of the spin of the stereotype of a gay guy that the creators and the producers are going for. Sure, I did the 'Lion King' moment, but there's another level to Cameron, swigging back a beer and talking about outside linebackers and contain and things like that."
Cameron's partner in the show, "Mitchell" (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), isn't a football fan.
"I tell him, 'Isn't part of being in a relationship pretending to enjoy the interests of your partner?' " Stonestreet said. "He kind of comes around a little bit on it."
"Modern Family" uses a documentary style, with the characters at times talking directly to the camera. That's when we first find out that Cameron played for the Illini.
"I don't know what's in the final cut, but they either say I was a third-string offensive lineman or the starting center at the University of Illinois," Stonestreet said.
"We don't know if Cameron was out of the closet at the time he played football. We don't know any of that stuff. That's all left for the audience. But just the idea of the fact that this character that you're getting to know also played football is where the joke is. I don't think it was important how good he was. I think it's important that he played college football."
You'll hear Dick Butkus references in the show.
"He's one of Cameron's personal heroes," Stonestreet said.
Stonestreet doesn't have a favorite Illinois football player, but he knows some of the past greats. He mentions Simeon Rice and Jeff George.
"I loved Jeff George as a pro," Stonestreet said.
Stonestreet lived in Chicago from 1996 to '98, when Illinois went 2-9, 0-11 and 3-8. The actor knows the team is struggling again, off to a 1-5 start.
Though he didn't play college football, Stonestreet watched plenty of it as a student at Kansas State. He was at the school during Bill Snyder's glory days.
"I was there when we were winning bowl games," Stonestreet said. "I traveled to some bowl games and stayed with them even after college. We went to the Fiesta Bowl and played Syracuse when Donovan McNabb was the quarterback."