By Josh Eastern
It was my freshman year at the end of the 2015 season. IU was hosting Wisconsin in a Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal match.
I had yet to start covering the men’s soccer team like I would my sophomore year and this past season. I was a casual fan and would go to the occasional game. For this game, I remember it was a cold, but clear November afternoon.
Instead of the normal Cutters teams that provide ballboys and ballgirls, they needed volunteers from the fans sitting in the student section area. I obliged and went about my duties collecting the balls that went out of play and giving them to the players for throw-ins.
There was one moment that stuck out to me from this whole experience. It was somewhere in the middle of the game. I went to chase down a ball and turned around and all I saw was a bloody face. That happened to be Grant Lillard.
That was my first memory of Lillard and it stuck with me throughout the rest of his career in Bloomington. It showed his toughness, his will to do anything to win and just how much he was willing to put himself in positions that warrant that.
He was a stalwart on the IU backline and played at an All-American level in his four seasons. IU has had a lot of very good defenders in its rich history and there is no doubt Lillard will go down as one of the very best.
When Indiana needed something, you could almost always turn to Lillard. Along with being the fantastic defender he is and was at IU, he scored 14 goals and contributed nine assists.
But when looking at his last season in Bloomington, the job he did as captain was maybe his best work. Not only did he help integrate the new freshmen into the squad, but he also led a defense that was the best of all time.
They went 966 minutes without allowing a goal a mark that spanned 11 games. It was the fourth best mark in NCAA history. Out of all of the marks and records Lillard reached and set, it’s hard to argue that wasn’t his top accomplishment.
“Grant will go down as one of the finest defenders to wear the IU jersey,” IU coach Todd Yeagley said in an IU Athletics release. “We are excited to see Grant join an organization that is going to be a deep playoff team in the years ahead.”
That’s the kind of player he was at Indiana and will continue to be in his MLS career.
Wednesday it became official that he would indeed sign a Homegrown Contract with Chicago Fire. That means he will bypass the MLS Draft.
Now instead of playing alongside his longtime teammates of guys like Timmy Mehl and Andrew Gutman, he’ll be playing alongside pros like Bastian Schweinsteiger and Nemanja Nikolić.
In his last season in Bloomington, the Hinsdale, Illinois native went out with a bang. He earned the Big Ten Defender of the Year award, was a MAC Hermann award finalist, a unanimous First-Team All-America selection, along with earning first team honors for the United Soccer Coaches All-Midwest Region, College Cup All-Tournament Team, Big Ten All-Tournament Team.
It’s an extensive list of accomplishments as it should be for a player like Lillard.
But what stood out most of all was the type of leader he was on and off the field. He wanted to win and expected nothing less of the rest of his teammates. That’s why captained the Hoosiers in 2017.
They may have ultimately fallen short in the end, but the legacy Lillard leaves behind in Bloomington is captaining one of the best defenses in NCAA history.