GIBSON CITY — Aidan Laughery kept his college football commitment decision close to the vest before announcing it publicly.
On the Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley senior’s short list of people he informed ahead of time was 2019 GCMS graduate and former high school teammate Bryce Barnes, currently a junior outside linebacker at Illinois.
The two regularly play “Call of Duty: Warzone” on Xbox — Barnes is “a beast” at the game, according to Laughery — and Barnes took time out of GCMS football’s 2018 post-Class 2A state final press conference to tell assembled media that Laughery, then a freshman, one day would be a star.
“He’s been just supportive of every aspect of (recruiting),” Laughery said of Barnes. “(He’s said,) ‘I’ve got to do what’s best for me, and if it’s not Illinois, that’s OK.’”
And it’s probably more than OK with Barnes that Laughery did pick Illinois.
Laughery verbally committed to Bret Bielema’s Illini at GCMS’s football field on Wednesday evening, 45 days before the Falcons open their 2021 season at the same location against Carlinville. He unzipped a GCMS jacket to reveal a navy blue Illinois long-sleeve T-shirt underneath before slipping on a navy blue Illinois hat, with a gold Iowa hat left on the table covered in a red and black GCMS banner.
“I’ve been dreaming about that since I was a little kid,” Laughery told The News-Gazette on Tuesday, a day before he held his public announcement. “I think it really just speaks to the people I’ve had around me to really help me get there and the hard work I’ve put in.”
Laughery selected Illinois from a final three that also included Iowa and Washington State. Recruited primarily as a running back, the 5-foot-11, 190-pound, three-star athlete also possessed offers from Buffalo, Illinois State, Michigan State, Minnesota and Rutgers.
The 2021 N-G All-Area first-team choice compiled 464 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground and averaged more than 7 yards per carry during his four-game junior season last spring, also serving as a safety on defense.
And he’s played on the Illini’s Zuppke Field once before — during the aforementioned 2018 2A state championship game, during which GCMS defeated Maroa-Forsyth 35-16 for the team’s second title in as many years.
“I’ve loved scoring touchdowns since I was little. It’s an adrenaline rush doing that, and I can’t wait to do it for Illinois in Memorial Stadium,” Laughery said. “I truly believe we’re turning the football team around, and I feel like we can be back on top to where Illinois once was.”
Laughery is Illinois’ 14th member in its Class of 2022 and the group’s second running back, joining Joliet Academy’s Jordan Anderson in that regard. Laughery also is the eighth in-state player to join that class.
“All the commits, they’ve got a group chat. They keep asking me, ‘Hey, when are we adding you? When are you committing? Is it going to be Illinois?’” Laughery said. “The players, the coaches, I feel I can talk to anybody. So family is definitely a motto, and it’s definitely real there.”
Laughery said that family-focused vibe is the primary reason he chose the Illini, who offered him both during Lovie Smith’s time as coach and early in Bielema’s tenure.
Laughery couldn’t concretely say which Illinois coach has been his main recruiter because “I’ve heard from everybody on a regular basis,” though he highlighted running backs coach Cory Patterson, wide receivers coach George McDonald and Bielema himself as the Illini representatives he’s spoken with most often.
“Not to speak negatively on anybody else, but before this new staff, that was definitely not a thing,” Laughery said. “To be honest, if Coach B and his staff wouldn’t have came here, I probably wouldn’t be going to Illinois.”
Laughery officially visited the Illini campus June 4-6 and was swayed by what he heard from current team members, both longstanding and new.
“Prather Hudson ... some other guys that played SEC ball, some guys that were elsewhere and then the other guys obviously had the old staff there, and they said they’ve never had anything close to what they’ve got now. Every single one of them,” Laughery said. “And (they said) that you feel like you’re actually cared about. You’re not just a player. You’re not this body for them to throw out there and hope to win. ... It’s a real family. Everybody there is loving it.”
Laughery now will try to help coach Mike Allen’s GCMS team bounce back from a 2-2 season earlier this year, after which he qualified for the IHSA Class 1A boys’ track and field state meet in both the 100-meter dash and 400 relay. He actually held the meet’s top 100 dash seed time coming in but had to withdraw because of an injury.
“That’ll be a good thing for me is getting my decision out of the way. ... I can just know where I’m going and focus on my team here at GCMS,” Laughery said. “Right now, it’s about building that team chemistry, doing our workouts together and getting everybody ready to go.”