Illinois Football: The Greatest Fighting Illini Ever to Play in the NFL

Preston BrownContributor IIIJanuary 23, 2012

Illinois Football: The Greatest Fighting Illini Ever to Play in the NFL

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    The University of Illinois has never been known as a major pipeline for NFL talent.

    But the idea of quality over quantity has definitely been in the mind of this football program for the past century.

    All of the players in this list have had a major impact on the NFL and some are in the discussion for the greatest players ever to play their respective position.

    There were many former Illini who deserved recognition for either their longevity in the league and/or their high draft status, but didn't make the final cut.

    What was left from that group was the 16 Greatest Illini Ever to Play in the NFL.

Honorable Mention

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    These are some of the players who were either high draft picks or have had success in the league, but just missed the cut for the final 16:

    George Donnelly, DB

    Kelvin Hayden, DB

    Cap Boso, S

    Stan Wallace, HB

    Jack Trudeau, QB

    Brandon Moore, OL

    All of these men deserve recognition for their accomplishments in the big leagues, but their accomplishments were just shy of "the greatest ever."

16. David Diehl, OT

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    Starting off our list of the best ever Illini to grace the pro gridiron is an offensive lineman who has been in the NFL since 2003.

    After being drafted in the fifth round of the '03 draft by the New York Giants, David Diehl almost immediately earned a spot as one of the Giants' starting tackles.

    Since taking the reins as the Giants' starting right tackle on day one, Diehl has only solidified his spot as a top tier tackle in the NFC. 

    He has started all of the 140 games he has played in, and he has only missed four games to injury in 2010.

    Diehl was an integral part of the Giants' Super Bowl run in 2007, as he led the way for the dynamic trio of running backs Ahmad Bradshaw, Brandon Jacobs, and Derrick Ward, while also being a rock in protecting franchise quarterback Eli Manning.

    And an All-Pro selection in '08 and then another Pro Bowl nod in '09 have left Diehl with plenty of accolades to add to that Super Bowl ring. 

    Although his play has declined slightly in recent years as he has been moved to different positions on the Giants' O-Line, Diehl has made Illini Nation proud and deserves to lead off this list of fine athletes. 

15. Brandon Lloyd, WR

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    This NFL journeyman holds many receiving records in Champaign, but he's also managed to make a quality name for himself in the pros. 

    Brandon Lloyd was selected in the fourth round of the 2003 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers.

    Since 2003, Lloyd has played for five teams (San Francisco, Washington, Chicago, Denver and St. Louis) and his career stats look like that of an above-average journeyman receiver: 305 receptions, 4,684 yards, 30 touchdowns. 

    So what is it that allowed Lloyd to garner such a high honor as No. 15 in this all time ranking?

    It is his amazing ability to catch anything that is thrown within the same area code as him.

    His career has been full of amazing acrobatic catches that seem to defy human ability, and the sheer uniqueness of what he can do allowed him to sneak into this all time list.

    These abilities were highlighted in his 2010 season with the Denver Broncos. In '10, Lloyd led all pro receivers in total yards with 1,448 and 11 touchdowns. Those stats were good enough to earn him his first, and only, All-Pro selection. 

14. Neil Rackers, K

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    Neil Rackers ... kicker?

    I can hear the curses now as you are reading this, wondering how a 12-year veteran kicker managed to snag the No. 14 spot.

    Just hear me out. 

    As far as kickers go, Rackers has been borderline elite in the NFL ranks ever since he was named an All-Pro in '05.

    He holds 79.8% career percentage with a career long of 57 yards.

    He has the NFL record for field goals of 55 yards or more in one quarter (two).

    He is even tied for the NFL record in 50 yard field goals made in one game (three).

    And he has also led the NFL in field goal attempts in two of his season as a pro.

    He has been the model for an accurate, consistent and clutch kicker in the NFL for a decade. It is that consistency, mixed with his impressive records, that allowed him to attain the 14th overall ranking in the Best Illini of All Time list.

13. Howard Griffith, FB

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    Howard Griffith is the quintessential "never heard of him" NFL player.

    Outside of his impressive career at Illinois, this NCAA record holder for most points in a game (eight) was the type of player who rarely got headlines in the pros.

    But he is one of the best behind-the-scenes players ever to play in the pros.

    Ever heard of a guy named Terrell Davis?

    The Broncos running back who had 2008 yards and 21 touchdowns in '98 and holds the franchise career record for yardage in only seven seasons.

    The two-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year was a player who could have been the best running back of all time if injuries had not derailed his career in the '99 season.

    Well, Griffith had more to do with Davis' success than any other player on that Broncos team not named John Elway.

    Griffith was the man who cleared lanes, threw devastating blocks and allowed Davis to work his magic.

    His career stats of 351 yards and 12 touchdowns are pretty uninspiring, but put in a tape of Griffith's playing days, and you will be amazed at the passion and intensity for which he played this game.

    It is those intangibles (along with his two Super Bowl rings) that allowed Griffith to snag the No. 13 spot

12. Pierre Thomas, RB

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    At number 12 we have another running back who has quietly made a name for himself as one of the New Orleans Saints' top offensive weapons. 

    Pierre Thomas carries with him the underrated theme that many of these players I have thus far ranked share. 

    Thomas came into the league in 2007 as an undrafted free agent with the Saints, and in his five seasons he's done enough to catapult himself above some players on this list who have played for twice as long as he has.

    So what about him is so impressive?

    Thomas has achieved football's ultimate goal and has a ring from Super Bowl XLIV and was an integral part in the Saints' run that year.

    Thomas is one of those players that can just do anything. Run, catch, return, pass protect, lead block—it's almost amazing how versatile he is and how skilled he is in each one of those areas.

    His stats might not blow you away—3,864 combined yards (rushing/receiving) and 30 total touchdowns—but the system he's in keeps the running backs from sporting amazing numbers.

    Even though the Saints were in the top five in rushing this year, they rotated that between four backs, so the individual numbers for each were obviously decreased.

    If Thomas decided to leave New Orleans (which I strongly doubt he will do) for the chance to be a feature back elsewhere, don't be surprised if you see him putting up 1,500 total yards and 12-plus touchdowns a year.

    He's that good. 

    And remember that Thomas kept future first round pick Rashard Mendenhall on the bench while they were both attending the University of Illinois, so the guy obviously has incredibly underrated talent. 

11. Rashard Mendenhall, RB

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    Speaking of Rashard Mendenhall... We continue the streak of great Illini running backs with the Steelers back at No. 11 on this list.

    Mendenhall is a player who is still establishing his legacy in the league. But his talent, statistics and play in huge games are the factors that moved him up so high in this ranking.

    Some may argue that this spot is far too high for a player who has only came into the league in 2008, but I believe that he is an elite talent who is only going to get better as he moves into the prime of his career.

    It's that potential that puts him above some of the more decorated players who came before him on this list.  

    To me, the possession of a Super Bowl ring is what defines greatness.

    And having the ring is a theme that resonates throughout most of the players on this list. It's one of the major contributors to making these players "the best ever," and Mendenhall is a part of that club with his Super Bowl XLIII ring.

    On top of that, his stats in only four years have been downright awesome.

    In his rookie season, he was only able to achieve 58 yards on 19 carries because of a devastating knee injury that put him on the IR list.

    But since that season, he has been unstoppable, averaging 1,103 yards and 10 touchdowns per year.

    The Steelers have been quietly moving away from the ground game in favor of Big Ben and his team of speedy receivers, but Mendenhall has made the most of his opportunities.

    It is that consistency that propelled him to the No. 11 spot in only four short seasons.  

10. Kevin Hardy, DE/OLB

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    The first player in our top ten had Hall of Fame potential and could have been a lot higher in this list, if only he could have stayed healthy.

    Kevin Hardy, the '95 Butkus Award winner out of Illinois, was drafted No. 2 overall by Jacksonville in the 1996 draft.

    It took him a couple of years to come into his own in the league, and in an impressive '98 season where he set the franchise record for tackles (186), Hardy showed what he was capable of.

    He earned a spot on the '99 All-Pro team after leading his team to a 14 win season and racking up 153 tackles and 10.5 sacks of his own.

    Then in 2001, Hardy suffered a season-ending knee injury that killed all the impressive momentum his career was building.

    He spent the rest of his career between the Cowboys and the Bengals and was an effective player, but was unable to recreate the dominance that he had before the injury. 

    He finished his nine-year career with 743 tackles, 36 sacks and 5 interceptions. 

9. Jeff George, QB

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    Jeff George managed to sneak into the top ten of this list largely due to his huge amount of talent, his No. 1 overall draft position and the longevity that he had in the league.

    George is arguably the best quarterback ever to play for Illinois and came into the NFL with a lot of hype. The Indianapolis Colts bought into that hype and selected him with their first overall pick in 1990.

    A promising career turned ugly quickly in Indy. He held out for 36 days, was caught making inappropriate gestures to fans and had public arguments with the Colts. After his fourth season, he was traded to the Atlanta Falcons.

    A light seemed to turn on for George in Atlanta, though. He averaged 3,788.5 yards and 23.5 touchdowns over the next two years but still kept his propensity for throwing picks with 29 in those two seasons.

    George ended up with six other teams and never really made the type of impact that teams expected of him after three season with the Falcons.

    George went into a semi-retired state after the '06 season and has been hinting he would be willing to make a comeback if the opportunity presented itself.

    In total, George was in the league for 16 seasons, but only saw the field in 11 of them. His final stats were a respectable 154-113 touchdown-to-interception ratio with 27,602 yards and a QB rating of 80.4. 

8. Ernie McMillan, OT

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    Ernie McMillan is the first player on this list that starts dabbling in the "elite" category.

    As an offensive tackle, McMillan obviously won't have statistics that jump out and grab your attention because the only way to describe offensive lineman play in statistical form is with sacks allowed and pancakes (neither of which were recorded when McMillan came into the league in '61).

    What does stand out for a lineman like McMillan is his total seasons played in the league (15) and the number of Pro Bowls he was voted to (4).

    In his first 14 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, McMillan was an absolute terror in the trenches. 

    He was known for his high motor and tenacious ability to finish a play harder than any other player on the field. 

    McMillan was a special player who would still be able to compete in today's NFL. It's that knowledge that propelled him to the No. 8 spot.

7. Bill Brown, RB

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    Bill "Boom-Boom" Brown is a relatively unknown player for those of us not alive in the '60s, and that's a shame.

    Brown is one of the best running backs ever to don the purple and gold.

    This former Illini was an All-Big Ten Fullback during his collegiate days and also won a Big Ten title for the shot put. He was a multi-talented superstar in Champaign and then took those skills with him to the pros.

    Brown's running style was downright violent. He was such a punisher running between the tackles that he earned the nickname "Boom-Boom."

    And on top of his unique play style, Brown is one of the most decorated players in Vikings history.

    In 13 seasons, Brown managed to set Vikings' records for most games played by a running back (182), most consecutive games played by a running back (101) and most games started by a running back (111).

    He also holds the team record for career rushing attempts (1,627), and is tied for third in team history in rushing touchdowns (52).

    He was picked to four Pro Bowls in five seasons between '64 and '68 and was a mainstay in the league until his retirement in 1974. 

6. Simeon Rice, DE

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    With the number six spot, we are finally into that elite category of this ranking.

    From here on out are players who made immense impacts on the National Football League and are legends in their own right. 

    Simeon Rice was a game changer. I don't know how else to describe him.

    He was a player that the entire offense had to account for because he was so disruptive when it came to breaking up plays and sacking the quarterback.

    Rice was drafted third overall in the '96 draft and burst on to the NFL scene, tallying 12.5 sacks in his rookie campaign and earning multiple NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year awards.

    In eight of the next 10 seasons, Rice tallied double digit sacks (119 in all) as he showed the same devastating abilities on a consistent basis.

    He also was named an All-Pro four times and won a championship ring in Super Bowl XXXVII.

    Although Rice left the NFL in '08, his legacy as an elite pass rusher remained, and he is often brought up in conversations about the best defensive ends of the last 50 years. 

5. Bobby Mitchell, HB/Flanker

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    And finally ... the top five.

    Halfback and kick returner Bobby Mitchell leads off this list of superstars and Hall of Famers.

    After an extremely successful career with the Illini, Mitchell was drafted in the seventh round of the 1958 draft by the Cleveland Browns.

    So what is it that makes Mitchell so great?

    Well, for starters, he is a five-time All-Pro ('59,'60,'62,'63 and '64).

    He is one of the greatest kick returners of all time with five return touchdowns on 105 returns. That's good enough for fourth best all time.

    Oh, and he's in the NFL Hall of Fame (class of '83).

    Mitchell is the first member of this ranking to don the yellow jacket, and that is the propellant that shot him up to the No. 5 spot. 

4. George Halas, Owner/Coach

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    The number four player on this list will probably surprise some of you, not just because he was from Illinois but because he was an impressive player for the Illini.

    George Halas—or Papa Bear, as many Chicagoans know him—is one of the greatest men ever to grace the gridiron.  

    Halas was a two-way football player at the University of Illinois and helped lead them to a Big Ten championship in 1918, but there was no established professional football league for him to graduate into once his career at Illinois was up.

    After a short stints in the Navy in World War I and then in pro baseball for a year, Halas decided to get back into football. 

    He was instrumental in forming the American Professional Football Association (which became the NFL in 1922) and is one of the main men who brought current day fans the game that we love so dearly.

    He started the team that we now know as the Chicago Bears and was arguably the greatest coach and owner in the famed history of that great franchise.

    He won two Coach of the Year awards as well as six NFL championships and is a member of the NFL Hall of Fame.

    It is no question that Halas is one of the most important men ever to be involved in pro football. The only real question is: How could anyone be ranked higher than him on this list?

3. Ray Nitschke, MLB

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    One of the greatest linebackers in NFL history might be unrecognizable from the Illini team picture above, but you probably recognize him when he looks like this.

    Ray Nitschke came into the pros in the third round of the 1958 draft when the Green Bay Packers picked him with the 36th overall pick.

    This NFL Hall of Famer (class of '78) was a four time All-Pro selection.

    He was the MVP of the '62 NFL Championship game and a member of NFL '60s All-Decade Team.

    Nitschke proved he had what it took to be a member of Vince Lombardi's Packers with his unrivaled strength and toughness.

    His biography even talked about how an iron spike was driven into his helmet, but didn't hurt the guy. The helmet (with the hole) is currently on display in the Packer Hall of Fame as a testament to that tough as nails mentality. 

    Nitschke is arguably the greatest player to play the middle linebacker position... if only it wasn't for the next player on this list... 

2. Dick Butkus, MLB

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    With the No. 2 spot in the Greatest Illini Ever to Play in the NFL, we have the greatest linebacker ever to play in the NFL.

    Dick Butkus is one of the most feared and intimidating players ever to play in the professional ranks.

    His goal was to go out and do as much damage to the opposing team as possible.

    He wanted to break you. And he did just that.

    Butkus came into the NFL as the number three overall pick in he '65 draft and quickly became a star with the Chicago Bears.

    The amount of awards that this guy has to his name are just staggering.

    In eight of his nine seasons, Butkus was an All-Pro selection.

    He was a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year and a member of the NFL '60's All-Decade team.

    And he joined the elite "one thousand club" with his 1,020 career tackles.

    There is a good chance that there will never be another player like Butkus, and future offensive footballers could not be happier. 

1. Red Grange, RB

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    And finally, the greatest Illini ever to play professional ball ... Chicago Bears running back Red Grange.

    He was voted by ESPN as the greatest college football player ever, and is widely accepted as one of the best ever even though he played in the 1920s.

    I think that Chris Berman on ESPN's SportsCentury sums up the caliber of Grange's play better than any:

    "I was interviewing George Halas and I asked him who is the greatest running back you ever saw. And he said, 'That would be Red Grange.' And I asked him if Grange was playing today, how many yards do you think he'd gain. And he said, 'About 750, maybe 800 yards.' And I said, 'Well, 800 yards is just okay.' He sat up in his chair and he said, 'Son, you must remember one thing. Red Grange is 75 years old.''

    He could do anything. 

    Run, catch, block, pass, return punts and kicks and even play defense. He was the ultimate football equivalent to baseball's five-tool player. 

    The "Galloping Ghost" was the first player ever to make pro football exciting, and he contributed to the rise of the NFL as much as anyone else. 

    It just wouldn't be right to put any other player in this position. Grange is a legend and deserves all the recognition as being not just the greatest Illini ever, but one of the greatest football players ever.