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Illinois Football: The 20 Most Beloved Figures in Team History

Tom DohertyCorrespondent IJanuary 16, 2017

Illinois Football: The 20 Most Beloved Figures in Team History

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    PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 01:  Running back Rashard Mendenhall #5 of the Illinois Fighting Illini celebrates after scoring the Illini's first touchdown in the third quarter over the USC Trojans in the 'Rose Bowl presented by Citi' at the Rose Bowl on January
    Robert Laberge/Getty Images

    The University of Illinois has one of the oldest, richest football programs in the country.

    Choosing a list of just 20 of the most beloved players in school history wasn't easy. This list includes seven college football Hall of Famers, numerous All-Americans and some of the biggest legends in the history of American football.

    Without further adieu, here are the 20 most beloved players in Illinois school history. 

20. J Leman

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    CHAMPAIGN, IL - NOVEMBER 4:  Running back Antonio Pittman #25 of the Ohio State Buckeyes runs with the football as he is tackled by J Leman #47 of the Illinois Fighting Illini in the first half at Memorial Stadium November 4, 2006 in Champaign, Illinois.
    Scott Boehm/Getty Images

    J Leman was an All-American linebacker for the Illini and an integral part of the 2007 Rose Bowl team.

    He was most definitely a fan favorite. He exemplified the hard-nosed, tough-as-nails mentality that Illinois linebackers have historically had. 

    He's not the best linebacker in school history, but he was very good for the entirety of his career and led the team in tackles for consecutive seasons.

19. Jeff George

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    CHICAGO - DECEMBER 5:  Recently signed quarterback Jeff George #11 of the Chicago Bears warms up prior to a game against the Minnesota Vikings on December 5, 2004 at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    If Jeff George was not as arrogant as he was, he would probably be higher on this list. 

    During his two years at Illinois, George amassed nearly 5,000 yards passing and 31 touchdowns en route to a Sammy Baugh Award for the nation's top quarterback in 1989. He went on to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 1990 NFL draft.

    He may be the most talented quarterback to wear an Illinois uniform.

18. Rashard Mendenhall

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    PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 01:  Rashard Mendenhall #5 of the Illinois Fighting Illini runs against the defense of the USC Trojans during the 'Rose Bowl presented by Citi' at the Rose Bowl on January 1, 2008 in Pasadena, California.  (Photo by Donald Miralle/G
    Donald Miralle/Getty Images

    Rashard Mendenhall was quite a force during the Illini's 2007 season.

    He rushed for a then school-record 1,681 yards and 19 touchdowns. He was far and away the best running back in the country during that time. Mendenhall was drafted in the first round by the Steelers in 2008 and enjoyed a breakout season in 2010.

    He may not have the career totals that Illinois' rich tradition of running backs boast, but his 2007 season is comparable to any in school history.

17. Brandon Lloyd

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    ST. LOUIS - AUGUST 31:  Brandon Lloyd #6 of Illinois is unable to hang on to the ball as Michael Harden #26 of Missouri defends in the second half on August 31, 2002 at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Missouri.  Missouri defeated Illinois 33-20.  (Pho
    Elsa/Getty Images

    Brandon Lloyd has been making spectacular catches going back to his days in Champaign.

    Lloyd hauled in 2,017 yards receiving and 17 touchdowns during his career and was known for his jaw-dropping catches.

    He floated around the NFL for a few seasons before exploding with a Pro Bowl season in 2010. He was quite a player for the Fighting Illini.

16. Howard Griffith

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    27 Oct 1990: Running back Howard Griffith of the Illinois Fighting Illini looks on during a game against the Michigan State Spartans. The Illinois Fighting Illini won the game 15-13.
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Before Howard Griffith won Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos, he tore up the gridiron with the Orange and Blue.

    In his three seasons with the team he rushed for 2,418 yards and 31 touchdowns. Most fans will remember his performance against Southern Illinois in 1990, when he rushed for eight touchdowns in one game.

    That's an NCAA record that still stands today.

    Griffith was a bruising runner and followed his stellar college career with a fairly successful one in the professional ranks.

15. Tony Eason

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    26  Jan 1986:   Quarterback Tony Eason of the New England Patriots tosses the football during the the Super Bowl  XX  game with the Chicago Bears at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana.  The Bears won the game, 46-10.   Mandatory Credit: All
    Getty Images/Getty Images

    Tony Eason's arrival at Illinois marked the beginning of a great run of quarterbacks for the school. 

    During his junior and senior years, he combined 6,608 yards and 37 touchdowns. He still holds the single-season record for passing yards in a season with 3,671 yards.

    Unfortunately, his Illinois teams were getting better, but they were not great yet. Who knows what he could have done with the 1984 Rose Bowl team. 

    Eason went on to play for a few teams in the NFL, including the 1985 Patriots that played in the Super Bowl.

14. Jack Trudeau

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    SAN FRANCISCO, CA - AUGUST 19:  Quarterback Jack Trudeau #10 of the Carolina Panthers looks on from the sideline during the exhibition game against the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park on August 19, 1995 in San Francisco, California.  The 49ers won
    George Rose/Getty Images

    Jack Trudeau is the most successful quarterback in Illinois history. Period.

    He still holds the school record for career passing yards (8,417) and touchdowns (51). He became the first quarterback to defeat all nine Big Ten opponents in one season. He also set an NCAA record for most attempts without an interception (215).

    He won the Davey O'Brien Trophy in 1984 and the team went to the Rose Bowl the same season.

13. Kevin Hardy

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    2 Sep 1995:  Linebacker Kevin Hardy of the University of Illinois gives a thumbs-up during the Fighting Illini 38-14 loss to the University of Michigan at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois.  Mandatory Credit:  Brian Bahr/Allsport
    Brian Bahr/Getty Images

    Kevin Hardy was a defensive force as a member of the Illini. Hardy was one of the many defensive stars at Illinois in the 1990s.

    An All-American in 1995, Hardy tallied 330 tackles in his career. This includes 38 tackles for loss and 18 sacks. He won the Dick Butkus Award for the nation's top linebacker his senior season. 

    Hardy was drafted second overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 1996 NFL draft.

12. Simeon Rice

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    28 Oct 1995:  Linebacker Simeon Rice #97 of the Illinois Fighting Illini goes up against some Wildcats from Northwestern at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois.  Northwestern defeated Illinois 17-14.  Mandatory Credit:  Jonathan Daniel/Allsport
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    His head coach once described him as the Red Grange of Defense. That's how dominant Simeon Rice was at the University of Illinois.

    Rice was a physical freak for his time (6'5", 253 pounds), making him a very difficult matchup to block. He raked in 44.5 sacks in his career, including 16 sacks in one season. Both of those are Big Ten records.

    Rice went on to have a very successful career in the NFL. He's without a doubt the best sack artist in school history and arguably one of the best athletes in the program's history.

11. Dana Howard

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    15 OCT 1994:  LINEBACKER DANA HOWARD OF ILLINOIS ON THE FIELD DURING A 47-7 WIN OVER IOWA IN CHAMPAGN, ILLINOIS. Mandatory Credit: Chris Covatta/ALLSPORT
    Chris Covatta/Getty Images

    Dana Howard was known for his trash talk and devastating hits during his illustrious Illini career. He's ranked ahead of Simeon Rice because he was so consistent.

    He's the school's all-time leader in tackles with 495. He was an All-American from 1993-1994 and was awarded with the Dick Butkus Award in 1994. Howard was the leader of some of the best defenses in school history.

    He didn't make much noise in the NFL, but he was a fan favorite in Champaign and backed it up with excellent play.

10. Bill Burrell

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    CHAMPAIGN, IL - OCTOBER 02: Nathan Scheelhaase #2 of the Illinois Fighting Illini passes the ball against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Memorial Stadium on October 2, 2010 in Champaign, Illinois. Ohio State defeated Illinois 24-13. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Bill Burrell played from 1955-1959 and was a two-way player for the Illini.

    As a linebacker and guard, he won the Silver Football awarded to the Big Ten's Most Valuable Player and finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting. He was an iron-man in a game that was transitioning to one-way players.

    When's the last time a guard was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy?

9. David Williams

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    CHAMPAIGN, IL - OCTOBER 02: Nathan Scheelhaase #2 of the Illinois Fighting Illini passes the ball against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Memorial Stadium on October 2, 2010 in Champaign, Illinois. Ohio State defeated Illinois 24-13. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    David Williams is the most accomplished receiver in school history.

    A two-time All-American and college football Hall of Famer, he holds the records for career receptions (262), receiving yards (3,382) and receiving touchdowns (24).

    He did all of these things before the era of the spread offense. That's just how good he was at Illinois.

8. Buddy Young

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    CHAMPAIGN, IL - OCTOBER 02: Nathan Scheelhaase #2 of the Illinois Fighting Illini passes the ball against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Memorial Stadium on October 2, 2010 in Champaign, Illinois. Ohio State defeated Illinois 24-13. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Buddy "The Bronze Bullet" Young was a track and football star for Illinois in the 1940s.

    Young coupled a Rose Bowl MVP in 1946 with a NCAA track championship in the 100-meter dash. He is one of the most versatile athletes in school history.

    He's also one of the smallest men to ever play in the NFL at 5'4". 

7. J.C. Caroline

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    CHAMPAIGN, IL - OCTOBER 02: Nathan Scheelhaase #2 of the Illinois Fighting Illini passes the ball against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Memorial Stadium on October 2, 2010 in Champaign, Illinois. Ohio State defeated Illinois 24-13. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    In a recent poll compiled by longtime Illinois football reporter Loren Tate, J.C. Caroline was voted the third best player in the history of Illinois football.

    Caroline had a short, but marvelous career with the Illini. He amassed over 1,700 yards in two seasons and was an All-American.

    Who knows what he would've accomplished if he played longer.

6. Al Brosky

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    CHAMPAIGN, IL - OCTOBER 02: Nathan Scheelhaase #2 of the Illinois Fighting Illini passes the ball against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Memorial Stadium on October 2, 2010 in Champaign, Illinois. Ohio State defeated Illinois 24-13. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Al Brosky was one of the best defensive backs in college football history.

    His 29 career interceptions were a 23-year record. He captained the 1951 Rose Bowl team that slaughtered Stanford 40-7.

    His interceptions record is extremely impressive when you consider that passing was at a bare minimum in the 1950s and he was widely regarded as the best safety in the nation. 

5. Jim Grabowski

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    CHAMPAIGN, IL - OCTOBER 02: Nathan Scheelhaase #2 of the Illinois Fighting Illini passes the ball against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Memorial Stadium on October 2, 2010 in Champaign, Illinois. Ohio State defeated Illinois 24-13. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Jim Grabowski was a star running back for the Illinois squad in the 1960s.

    A two-time All-American, Grabowski won the Silver Football as the MVP of the Big Ten and was a finalist for the Heisman in the 1964 season. 

    Grabowski became the first No. 1 overall pick in school history in the 1965 NFL draft. 

4. Ray Nitschke

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    CHAMPAIGN, IL - OCTOBER 02: Nathan Scheelhaase #2 of the Illinois Fighting Illini passes the ball against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Memorial Stadium on October 2, 2010 in Champaign, Illinois. Ohio State defeated Illinois 24-13. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Ray Nitschke was a converted quarterback at Illinois. What a move that was.

    He is widely regarded as one of the fiercest linebackers not just in college football history, but NFL history.

    He was an animal at Illinois and took his talents to the NFL en route to a Hall of Fame career. 

3. George Halas

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    CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 23:  Brian Urlacher #54 of the Chicago Bears smiles while taking on the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field on January 23, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Yes, everybody knows George "Papa Bear" Halas for his instrumental role in the NFL.

    But a lot of people don't know that he starred in football, basketball and baseball at Illinois, winning the MVP of the 1919 Rose Bowl. 

    He is a legend in every facet of the word.

2. Dick Butkus

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    LOS ANGELES - SEPTEMBER 13:  NFL Hall of Famer Dick Butkus looks on from the endzone at halftime of the game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the USC Trojans on September 13, 2008 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, California.  USC wo
    Jeff Golden/Getty Images

    His name has already been mentioned numerous times in this article. That's because college football decided name the award for nation's top linebacker the Dick Butkus award.

    Many experts consider him the greatest middle linebacker in NFL history, and he certainly looked the part during his college years.

    Dick Butkus is the gold standard for linebackers and the toughest player to ever wear the Orange and Blue.

Red Grange

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    CHAMPAIGN, IL - OCTOBER 02: Nathan Scheelhaase #2 of the Illinois Fighting Illini passes the ball against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Memorial Stadium on October 2, 2010 in Champaign, Illinois. Ohio State defeated Illinois 24-13. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Red Grange was voted by ESPN as the greatest college football player of all time.

    Red Grange. The Galloping Ghost. One of the finest athletes to ever don a uniform.

    He will always and forever be the foundation of Illinois football.

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