Illinois FCS fun-size facts: Hall of famers, big play gamers & national media framers

Prairie State Pigskin enters its seventh year covering Eastern Illinois, Illinois State, Southern Illinois & Western Illinois football.

By Dan Verdun

Football can often frustrate fans.

Consider overthrown passes, missed tackles, untimely penalty flags and disappointing turnovers to name just a few. There’s the boom-or-bust of each recruiting class. And the pearls and pitfalls of the transfer portal.

But at their grass roots, sports are supposed to be entertaining and fun.

So, with the turning of the calendar to a new year, Prairie State Pigskin presents a collection of trivial bits as thoughts of past autumn Saturdays await next fall’s tailgates and on-the-field matchups.

We present them individually by school in groups of four, followed by an all-encompassing fact. 

Twins Avante and D’Ante’ Cox tied for the Southern Illinois team lead in receptions their final season as teammates. Each twin had 46 catches.

James “Boomer” Grigsby became the first Illinois State player inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

Eastern Illinois has two members of the College Football Hall of Fame. Darrell Mudra, who coached the Panthers to the 1978 Division II national championship and a 1980 runner-up finish, was inducted in 2000. Mudra, who also coached at Western Illinois, passed away in September. Quarterback Tony Romo was inducted in 2021.

WIU receiver Naseim Brantley accounted for 45 percent of the Leathernecks’ touchdown receptions with nine TD catches. His 53 receptions accounted for 29 percent of the team total, while his 893 receiving yards translated into 39 percent of WIU’s tallies. Brantley was voted as the Missouri Valley Football Conference Newcomer of the Year.

All four Illinois FCS head coaches have ties to the Land of Lincoln. SIU’s Nick Hill, WIU’s Myers Hendrickson and EIU’s Chris Wilkerson all played for and are alumni of their respective universities. ISU’s Brock Spack, a Purdue graduate, is a Rockford native.

SIU quarterback Nic Baker will enter his senior year just one touchdown pass away from tying Joel Samburksy (2002-05) as the Salukis’ career leader in pass completions (559). Baker is also poised to pass Sambursky in passing yards and touchdown passes. Baker trails Sambursky by 1,231 yards and 15 TDs.

Illinois State linebacker Zeke Vandenburgh, one of three finalists for the Buck Buchanan Award as the top defensive player in FCS, finished his Redbird career in the top three in sacks (24) and tackles for loss (43.5) on the all-time ISU lists.

Eastern Illinois QB Jimmy Garoppolo won the Walter Payton Award as the top offensive player in FCS in 2013. Since Garoppolo’s 5,050-yard, 53-touchdown senior season, the Panthers have played 17 different quarterbacks. Thirteen of those QBs have made starts, combining for 127 TDs and 113 interceptions.

Former Western Illinois player and alum Myers Hendrickson completed his first year as Leatherneck head coach. His father, Mark Hendrickson, was Western’s head coach from 2008-12. Prior to that Mark was WIU’s offensive coordinator from 1999 to 2007.

Illinois FCS figures predominantly in national media. EIU graduate Tony Romo is the lead analyst for CBS, while former Panther Sean Payton can be found in the network’s studio. WIU’s Rodney Harrison is a regular on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.” Ex-SIU defensive standout Bart Scott, who appeared on CBS’ “The NFL Today” from 2014-17, can now be seen on ESPN.

Former SIU great MyCole Pruitt, who  finished his collegiate career as the Missouri Valley record holder in career receptions (211), receiving yards (2,601) and receiving touchdowns (25) among tight ends, matched his pro career high with three touchdown catches this season. For the second straight season, Pruitt had three TD receptions.

During the Dec. 18 “Sunday Night Football” player introductions, Washington Commanders defensive lineman John Ridgeway III introduced himself and identified his college as “Illinois State.” Ridgeway, a Bloomington native, played from 2017-2020 for the Redbirds before transferring to FBS Arkansas for the 2021 season.

EIU assistant coaches Adam Gristick and DJ Bland each played on the Panthers’ 2012 and 2013 Ohio Valley Conference championship teams that qualified for the FCS playoffs.

WIU’s 0-11 season was the first winless Leatherneck campaign since the World War II-affected Western roster went 0-8 in 1944 under head coach Bob Barnwell.

The Illinois FCS teams went a combined 1-for-4 on onside kicks this past season: EIU was 1-for-1, while SIU was 0-for-1 and WIU failed on both its attempts. ISU did not attempt an onside kick.

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