Saturday, February 19, 2022

NIC-10's 100 Greatest Football Players: No. 1 - Laurie Walquist, Rockford

Rockford High School sports pioneer Laurie Walquist is seated
in the front row, second from left, next to George "Papa Bear" Halas.

The Northern Illinois Conference's first great player remains its most accomplished - if you look at high school, college and professional accomplishments in total.

Laurie Walquist was a two-sport star at all three levels and one of the area's biggest winners. He was a halfback in the old single wing offense for the 1916 and 1917 Rockford Rabs. The Rabs were 7-3-1 in 1916 with Walquist scoring one touchdown and adding an extra point. He was the unquestioned star of the 1917 team, scoring five touchdowns and adding 12 extra points for a team that went 9-1 and finished with a claim as the top ranked team in the state.

Walquist and lineman Milton Olander went from starring at Rockford to the starting lineup of the University of Illinois in 1918. Both Walquist and Olander were starters all four years for the Illini.The 1918 team was Western Conference champions with a 5-0 record and the 1919 squad went 6-1 and has been picked retroactively as the national champion by the Billingsley Report and Boand System and co-national champion by the College Football Researchers Association.

Overall, in Walquist's four years in the starting backfield, the Illini went 20-8. Walquist had four passing touchdowns, three rushing touchdowns and a TD reception. Walquist was second team All-Big Western Conference in 1919 and first team all-conference in 1920 and 1921.

Walquist also played basketball at Illinois all four years. After finishing his final season, Walquist and fellow Rockford High School graduate Harry Englund signed with George Halas' Chicago Bears in the fledgling NFL.

Englund, who played with the Decatur Staleys in 1921, would play just that one year with the Bears. Walquist, though, would stick around until 1931, playing with many of the legends who got the pro game on solid footing.

Walquist's 1922 teammates included Halas, the player coach. In 1925, Walquist was in the backfield with Red Grange. In 1929, he was teammates with Paddy Driscoll. In 1931, he played with Bronko Nagurski.

While Walquist was never the big star, he was a star. He played in 111 games, starting 77. He had four touchdown passes, 10 rushing TDs and four receiving. More importantly, he was as big a winner in the pro ranks as he was in high school and college. The Bears had winning seasons in eight of his nine seasons - he didn't play in 1923. The 1926 Bears went 12-1-3. The 1922 and 1927 Bears were 9-3. Overall, Chicago was 73-36-16 with Walquist on the roster.

After the 1931 season, Walquist, who earned an economics degree at Illinois, transitioned to assistant coach and part-owner. He finally left the Bears in the mid-1930s to become sales manager at Chicago Furnace & Supply Co. He settled in Glenview and died in 1985.

No. 1 - Laurie Walquist, Rockford
Year Level Team Accomplishments Points
1916 High School Rockford Winning Team 1
1917 High School Rockford First Team All-Conference 2
Winning Record 1
Conference Champion 1
1918 College Illinois Letter Winner on Power 5 Team 4
Starter 1
Winning Team 1
1919 College Illinois Letter Winner on Power 5 Team 4
Starter 1
Second Team All-Western Conf. 0.5
Winning Team 1
National Champion 1
1920 College Illinois Letter Winner on Power 5 Team 4
Starter 1
Winning Team 1
First Team All-Western Conf. 1
1921 College Illinois Letter Winner on Power 5 Team 4
Starter 1
First Team All-Western Conf. 1
1922 NFL Chicago Played in NFL 3
Starter 1
Winning Record 1
NFL Runner Up 1
1924 NFL Chicago Played in NFL 3
Starter 1
Winning Team 1
NFL Runner Up 1
1925 NFL Chicago Played in NFL 3
Starter 1
Winning Record 1
1926 NFL Chicago Played in NFL 3
Starter 1
Winning Record 1
NFL Runner Up 1
1927 NFL Chicago Played in NFL 3
Starter 1
Winning Record 1
1928 NFL Chicago Played in NFL 3
Starter 1
Winning Record 1
1929 NFL Chicago Played in NFL 3
Starter 1
1930 NFL Chicago Played in NFL 3
Starter 1
Winning Record 1
1931 NFL Chicago Played in NFL 3
Starter 1
Winning Record 1
Totals 77.5

Thursday, February 17, 2022

NIC-10's 100 Greatest Football Players: No. 2 - Carlos Polk, Guilford

If Carlos Polk had been picked by a different team on draft night he might have ended up the greatest football player in NIC-10 history.

At Guilford, Polk was one of the very rare three-time all-conference football players. Joining him on this small list from the top 100 is Adam Schlamp (Freeport), LaVerne Grell (Freeport) and Ralph Baker (Rockford). Boylan's Steve Harris and Auburn's Donterrio Hannah also were three-time first-team all-conference players, but they didn't accumulate enough points outside of high school to make this list.

Polk was about as dominant a player as you'll see in high school. In his three years (1993-1995), he was credited with 453 tackles, 10 fumble recoveries, seven blocked kicks, five interceptions and 30 tackles for loss. The Vikings went 18-11 over those three years. 

Guilford went 7-3 in his senior season, finishing in second place. It was the highest finish for Guilford since the 1982 team that won the state title. The Vikings wouldn't win as many as seven games again until 2006. Polk was named NIC-10 defensive MVP, was a consensus all-state linebacker and was picked to play in the Illinois All-Star Game.

Polk also was named to the USA Today All-America team. In researching this list, he appears to be one of only three high school All-Americans. East's Jerry Latin was named to the Sunkist All-American team in 1970 and Stuart Walker, also of East, was named to the Parade Magazine team in 1974.

It is not a stretch to say that Polk was the most highly sought after recruit in NIC-10 history. Arizona State, Illinois, Iowa, Iowa State and Wisconsin. In the end, he chose Nebraska, which was perhaps the premier college program at the time. The Cornhuskers were completing their second straight undefeated season under Tom Osborne and a three year stretch where Nebraska went 36-1.

Polk redshirted in 1996 and was an immediate rotation player in 1997 as the Cornhuskers again went undefeated, winning the national championship with a 42-17 win over Tennessee in the Orange Bowl. In that title season, Polk had 32 tackles and one sack.

In 1999, Polk moved into the starting lineup and made first team All-Big 12. In 2000, Polk had one of the best college seasons every by a NIC-10 player. He was named first-team All-American by the Associated Press and American Football Coaches Association. He was a Football News Defensive Player of the Year semifinalist, a finalist for the Bronco Nagurski Defensive Player of the Year and the Butkus Award for the nation's top linebacker.

Polk ended his Nebraska career with 227 tackles, with 10 sacks and 32 tackles for loss. He still holds the NIC-10 record for tackles for loss for any player at the NCAA's highest level of college football. The Cornhuskers added Polk to their Nebraska Hall of Fame in 2010.

In 2001, the San Diego Chargers took Polk in the fourth round of the NFL draft. The Chargers had a need. Incumbent middle linebacker Junior Seau was 31 years old.

Unfortunately for Polk, Seau never retired, playing until he was 40. Polk ended up starting only six games in a seven-year NFL career. Instead, he became a special teams demon. He recorded 122 tackles in 75 games, including one playoff game. He became so well respected for special teams that he's become a special teams coach, getting hired in February 2022 by the Chicago Bears as assistant special teams coach.

Of course, had Polk been drafted by a team where he wasn't blocked by a Hall of Fame player, he may have found a starting role and earned enough points in this system to finish No. 1.

No. 2 - Carlos Polk, Guilford
Year Level Team Accomplishments Points
1993 High School Guilford First Team All-Conference 2
Winning Record 1
1994 High School Guilford First Team All-Conference 2
Winning Record 1
1995 High School Guilford First Team All-Conference 2
NIC-9 Defensive MVP 1
Playoff Team 1
All-State 1
USA Today All-American 1
1997 College Nebraska Letter Winner on Power 5 Team 4
Winning Team 1
Bowl Team 1
National Champion 1
1998 College Nebraska Letter Winner on Power 5 Team 4
Winning Team 1
Bowl Team 1
1999 College Nebraska Letter Winner on Power 5 Team 4
Starter 1
All-Big 12 1
Winning Team 1
Bowl Game 1
2000 College Nebraska Letter Winner on Power 5 Team 4
Starter 1
All-Big 12 1
Consensus All-American 1
Winning Team 1
Bowl Game 1
Career Record Holder (Tck-Loss) 1
2001 NFL San Diego Fourth Round Draft Pick 7
Played in NFL 3
2002 NFL San Diego Played in NFL 3
2003 NFL San Diego Played in NFL 3
2004 NFL San Diego Played in NFL 3
2006 NFL San Diego Played in NFL 3
Starter 1
Playoff Team 1
2007 NFL San Diego Played in NFL 3
Starter 1
Playoff Team 1
2008 NFL Dallas Played in NFL 3
Totals 75

NIC-10's 100 Greatest Football Players

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

NIC-10's 100 Greatest Football Players: No. 3 - Preston Pearson, Freeport

Nothing ever came easy for the greatest professional football player to come out of the NIC-10.

If you know anything about local football history, then you know the thumbnail sketch of Preston Pearson's career. More of a basketball player than football player at Freeport, Pearson played hoops instead of football at the University of Illinois. When his Illini career was over, Don Shula and the Baltimore Colts took a flier on him in the 12th round. Pearson, against very long odds, made the team and ended up playing in five Super Bowls in 14 years for three different teams.

If you dig a little deeper, Pearson's story is even more remarkable.

At Freeport, Pearson was a good but not great football player. In 1961, his brother Rufus powered the Pretzels to a 7-2 record. Rufus scored touchdowns in every game but the last. In back-to-back weeks, Rufus had touchdown runs of more than 30 yards in 7-6 wins.

Preston? He wasn't even mentioned in a game story from the Rockford newspapers. In a 1961 Freeport basketball preview, the writer mentioned that Preston became a starter the final two games of the football season.

In 1962, Preston took over for Rufus in the starting backfield, but that Pretzels team was one of the weaker ones in the Nate Johnson era. The 1959, 1960 and 1961 Freeport teams combined to go 22-3-2. The 1963 team would go 9-0 and the 1964 team would finish 6-2-1.

The Pretzels struggled to a 3-3-3 record in 1962, Preston's senior season. His biggest play, an 80-yard touchdown run against Sterling, was called back because he stepped out of bounds 18 yards into the play. His only touchdown as a varsity football player at Freeport was a 30-yard TD reception in his final game.

Preston was named honorable mention all-Big Eight, while his teammate, Jim Kuhlmeier, was named first team all-conference at halfback.

It was on the basketball court where Pearson made a bigger mark. He led the Big Eight in scoring in 1962-1963 with 17.4 points per game for a Freeport team that finished 17-8. He was named to the Chicago Daily News All-State team.

The 6-1 Pearson wasn't a major recruit, though. His best scholarship offer came from Bowling Green. Pearson had visited the University of Illinois the year before when the Illini were recruiting Rufus and was desperate to play in Champaign. So he wrote basketball coach Harry Combes a letter.

Combes responded, encouraging Pearson to enroll and they'd work out some kind of help.

Illinois offered room and board and Pearson worked a number of odd jobs around Freeport, including shoveling snow and delivering newspapers, to be able to afford tuition.

Eventually, Pearson worked his way into a full scholarship by carving out a role as a defensive stopper. By his senior year, he'd worked his way into the starting lineup, averaging 8.7 points and 6.0 rebounds per game for an Illini team that went 12-12.

One of those 12 losses led to Pearson's biggest break. The Illinois were playing UCLA and the greatest college basketball player ever in Lew Alcindor. Late in the game, Pearson came from the weakside to block one of Alcindor's skyhooks. A Baltimore Colts scout was at the game and convinced Colts coach Don Shula to draft Pearson because of his athleticism.

Even though he hadn't played football in our years, Pearson made the team as a defensive back. The Colts eventually turned him into a kick returner and running back. Pearson was lucky to learn from several future Hall of Famers, including quarterback Johnny Unitas, tight end John Mackey, running back Lenny Moore and receiver Raymond Berry.

He learned his lessons well and began earning more and more snaps. He didn't get a carry or reception until his second year in Baltimore and didn't start a game until his third. In 1970, fortune smiled on Pearson again when Baltimore's defensive coordinator Chuck Knoll took over the Pittsburgh Steelers, long one of the worst franchises in the NFL, and Knoll traded for Pearson.

In Pittsburgh, Pearson's career took off. He had 503 yards rushing in 1970 and 851 yards rushing and receiving in 1971. In 1972, he was leading the AFC in rushing through the first four weeks of the season when he hurt his hamstring. That opened the door for future hall of famer Franco Harris.

Pearson's touches declined in 1974 and the Steelers chose not to re-sign the 29-year-old Pearson. The Dallas Cowboys were looking for a veteran running back and signed Pearson and put him in a role that he essentially pioneered - the third-down receiving back.

Pearson ended up playing six years with the Cowboys, catching 189 passes versus 325 rushing attempts.

Pearson played for three of the greatest franchises in football. He was the first player to play in five Super Bowls - 1969, 1975, 1976, 1978 and 1979. He was the first to play in Super Bowls for three different teams.

In 13 NFL seasons, he rushed for 3,609 yards, caught 254 passes for 3,095 yards and had 2,841 in punt and kickoff returns. The Freeport Pretzel who scored just one TD in his varsity career ended up scoring 36 in the NFL in the regular season and playoffs.

No. 3 - Preston Pearson, Freeport
Year Level Team Accomplishments Points
1961 High School Freeport Winning Team 1
1962 High School Freeport Honorable Mention All-Big 8 0.5
1963 College Illinois Played Basketball 0
1964 College Illinois Played Basketball 0
1965 College Illinois Played Basketball 0
1966 College Illinois Played Basketball 0
1967 NFL Baltimore 12th Round Pick 1
Played in NFL 3
Playoff Team 1
1968 NFL Baltimore Played in NFL 3
Playoff Team 1
Super Bowl 1
1969 NFL Baltimore Played in NFL 3
Starter 1
1970 NFL Pittsburgh Played in NFL 3
Starter 1
1971 NFL Pittsburgh Played in NFL 3
Starter 1
1972 NFL Pittsburgh Played in NFL 3
Starter 1
Playoff Team 1
1973 NFL Pittsburgh Played in NFL 3
Starter 1
Playoff Team 1
1974 NFL Pittsburgh Played in NFL 3
Starter 1
Playoff Team 1
Super Bowl 1
Super Bowl Winner 1
1975 NFL Dallas Played in NFL 3
Starter 1
Playoff Team 1
Super Bowl 1
1976 NFL Dallas Played in NFL 3
Starter 1
Playoff Team 1
1977 NFL Dallas Played in NFL 3
Starter 1
Playoff Team 1
Super Bowl 1
Super Bowl Winner 1
1978 NFL Dallas Played in NFL 3
Starter 1
Playoff Team 1
Super Bowl 1
1979 NFL Dallas Played in NFL 3
Playoff Team 1
1980 NFL Dallas Played in NFL 3
Playoff Team 1
Totals 72.5

Monday, February 14, 2022

NIC-10's 100 Greatest Football Players: No. 4 - Dean Lowry, Boylan

Boylan's Dean Lowry is No. 4 on this list with a bullet.

The lineman was the defensive anchor of two state championship teams at Boylan. He was a three-year starter in the Big 10 at Northwestern and he's one of the very rare NIC-10 football players to became an established starter in the NFL.

At Boylan, Lowry utterly dominated. He was first-team all-conference for the 14-0 Titans in 2010, who won the first football state title in school history and the first for the NIC-10 since 1994. His senior year, he had 10 sacks among his 65 tackles, and he caught two passes, both touchdowns. The 2011 Titans again went 14-0, winning a second straight state championship. No NIC-10 team has even reached a title game since. Lowry was named conference defensive MVP and all-state by the Chicago Tribune and Champaign News-Gazette.

His high school play drew interest from dozens of schools in the Midwest. Iowa, Purdue and Indiana recruited him from the Big Ten along with MAC schools Ball State, Northern Illinois and Western Michigan. In the end, Lowry chose to study economics at Northwestern.

He made an immediate impact for the Wildcats, playing all 13 games as a true freshman as a backup. He moved into the starting lineup as a sophomore and was an honorable mention all-Big Ten selection as a junior and second-team all-conference as a senior. Durability was his calling card. Lowry didn't miss a game in four years and finished his college career with 139 tackles, 31 of which were for loss. Only Carlos Polk (Guilford) and Joe Coniglio (Boylan) are confirmed to have had more at the highest level of NCAA Division I football.

The Green Bay Packers took Lowry in the fourth round of the 2016 draft, 137th overall. Only Mike Junkin (Belvidere), a first round pick, and Leonard Bell (Jefferson) and Leo Stasica (Rockford), third round picks, were taken in higher rounds.

As a rookie in 2016, Lowry played in 15 of 16 games. In 2017 and 2018, he was a part-time starter. He became the every week starter at left defensive end in 2019 and has kept the job in 2020 and 2021. His ability to answer the bell each week continues to add to his value. He's yet to miss a game in high school, college or the pros because of injury.

This ranking was compiled before the 2021-2022 season. Even if you added in the points he gained from this season, as you'll see, Lowry remains No. 4 on the list. But he's perhaps three seasons away from moving all the way up to No. 1.

Although the NFL is known as the Not For Long because careers can end in a single play, Lowry is as good a better as any that he'll continue to be a productive player in the NFL for several more seasons. In 2021-2022, he started all 17 games, had 42 tackles and had career highs in sacks (five) and quarterback hits (nine).

For his career, he has 209 tackles and 15 sacks in the regular season and another 15 tackles in eight playoff games. He's now played in 104 NFL games - regular season and playoffs - starting 73. Only Preston Pearson (Freeport), with 198 NFL games, and Laurie Walquist of the long closed Rockford High School, who played 111 games in the 1920s and 1930s, have played more.

Lowry also has been a winner at every level. His Boylan teams went 28-0. Northwestern was 30-20 in his four years on campus, playing in two bowl games. The Packers have gone 66-38, including eight playoff games.


No. 4 - Dean Lowry, Boylan
Year Level Team Accomplishments Points
2010 High School Boylan First Team All-Conference 2
Winning Team 1
Conference Champion 1
Final Four 1
State Champion 1
2011 High School Boylan First Team All-Conference 2
Conference Defensive MVP 1
Winning team 1
Conference Champion 1
Final Four 1
State Champion 1
All-State Selection 1
2012 College Northwestern Letter Winner on Power 5 Team 4
Winning Record 1
Bowl Game 1
2013 College Northwestern Letter Winner on Power 5 Team 4
Starter 1
2014 College Northwestern Letter Winner on Power 5 Team 4
Starter 1
Honorable Mention All-Big 10 0.5
2015 College Northwestern Letter Winner on Power 5 Team 4
Starter 1
Winning Record 1
Bowl Game 1
Second Team All-Big 10 0.5
2016 NFL Green Bay 4th Round Draft Pick 7
Played in NFL 1
Playoff Team 1
2017 NFL Green Bay Played in NFL 3
Starter 1
2018 NFL Green Bay Played in NFL 3
Starter 1
2019 NFL Green Bay Played in NFL 3
Starter 1
Playoffs 1
2020 NFL Green Bay Played in NFL 3
Starter 1
Playoffs 1
Totals 67

Sunday, February 13, 2022

NIC-10's 100 Greatest Football Players: No. 5 - Ira Matthews, East

Standing 5-8 and weighing 175 pounds in his prime, Ira Matthews had a tough time convincing coaches that he was a workhorse ball carrier. Instead, he settled for being that rare player who could win a game with five or six touches a game.

Matthews was one of the constellation of stars that formed perhaps the greatest collection of talent in NIC-10 history. The East E-Rabs went 22-0 in 1973 and 1974, winning the Class 4A title in the first year of the state playoffs.  

With so much talent, Matthews had to share the ball with running backs Russell Pope and Joe Black and quarterback Dean Schlueter. His high school career totals of 1,235 yards rushing and 663 yards receiving don't even rank in the top 30 all-time in the NIC-10. But he had an amazing knack for the big play. He scored touchdowns on 14 of his 168 carries at East, averaging 7.4 yards a run. He added eight more as a receiver, averaging 17.4 yards per catch. He also added one touchdown each on an interception return, kickoff return and punt return.

Matthews was one of five E-Rabs from 1974 to play Division I college football at the highest level. He and lineman George Wojtowicz went to Wisconsin where Matthews reprised his big-play role for the mostly middling Badgers.

In four years at Wisconsin, he gained 2,268 yards from scrimmage, averaging 5.0 yards per carry and 12.8 yards per reception, scoring 13 touchdowns. He added another 588 yards and three touchdowns returning punts and kickoffs. He led the NCAA in punt return average his senior year, averaging 16.9 yards per return.

Al Davis drafted Matthews in the sixth round of the 1979 NFL draft and he made one of the league's most prestigious franches as a kick return specialist.

Matthews played every game of the 1979 and 1980 seasons. He rarely appeared as a running back. In three years with the Raiders, he had just seven rush attempts and three pass receptions. He excelled as a returner, though. He finished second in the NFL in kickoff return average in 1979, including returning one kick for a 104-yard touchdown. In 1980, he was fourth in the NFL in punt return yardage.

The 1980 Raiders made it all the way to the 1981 Super Bowl where Oakland trounced Philadelphia, 27-10. Matthews returned two kickoffs and one punt during the game.

In 1981, Matthews got hurt five games into the season. In 1982, the Raiders traded him to the Green Bay where he was supposed to team up with James Lofton and John Jefferson, but he tore a hamstring and never appeared.

In the end, Matthews played 41 games in the NFL, including playoffs.

No. 5 - Ira Matthews, East
Year Level Team Accomplishments Points
1973 High School East Special Mention All-Conference 1
Winning Team 1
Conference Champion 1
Top Four Ranking 1
1974 High School East First Team All-Conference 1
League Leader (Yards/Carry) 1
Winning Record 1
Conference Champion 1
Final Four 1
State Champion 1
All-State 1
1975 College Wisconsin Letter Winner on Power 5 Team 4
1976 College Wisconsin Letter Winner on Power 5 Team 4
Starter 1
1977 College Wisconsin Letter Winner on Power 5 Team 4
Starter 1
1978 College Wisconsin Letter Winner on Power 5 Team 4
Starter 1
League Leader 1
Winning Record 1
1979 NFL Oakland 6th Round Draft Pick 5
Played in NFL 3
All-Conference Player 1
1980 NFL Oakland Played in NFL 3
Playoff Team 1
Super Bowl 1
NFL Champion 1
1981 NFL Oakland Played in NFL 3
Totals 51

NIC-10's 100 Greatest Football Players

Saturday, February 12, 2022

NIC-10's 100 Greatest Football Players: No. 6 - Mike Junkin, Belvidere

The greatest player to come out of the Belvidere football factory under Verne Pottinger wasn't there very long, but he was there long enough to set a standard that lifted the program for years to come.

Mike Junkin's father was a United Airlines pilot and his family didn't move to Belvidere until he was a sophomore. The Bucs became known for relentless winning under Pottinger, but that wasn't the case when the Junkins came to town.

In 1981, Junkin's first year in the starting lineup as a linebacker and offensive guard, Belvidere went 2-7. At that point, the Bucs were just 15-30 under Pottinger. In 1982, Junkin was the only Belvidere defensive player named to the first team All-Conference team as the Bucs improved to 6-3. It was the first of 15 straight winning seasons, that included three IHSA titles games and two state titles.

Junkin was tall enough (6-3) for big time NCAA football, but he was too skinny (190 pounds). But he also had an older brother, Trey, who played at Louisiana Tech and later spent 15 years in the NFL as a special teams player. That pedigree intrigued college coaches and Junkin ended up playing at Duke.

Then, as now, the Blue Devils were a basketball school in serious need of football talent. New Duke coach Steve Sloan plugged him into the lineup right away. Junkin had 58 tackles for loss as a freshman, 105 as a sophomore, 162 as a junior and 188 as a senior. His total of 513 remains a record for any NIC-10 player at the highest level of college football. The next closest on the list is Brock Spack with 384. Junkin's 31 tackles for loss is only surpassed by Guilford's Carlos Polk when he was at Nebraska.

The production certainly caught the eye of NFL evaluators. Marty Schottenheimer, who compiled a 200-126 record in the NFL from 1986 to 2006, was so impressed with Junkin that he traded up in the 1987 draft to take Junkin fifth overall, ahead of players such as Shane Conlan (Bills at No. 8), Jerome Brown (Eagles at No. 9) and Rod Woodson (Steelers at No. 10).

Junkin remains the only NIC-10 player to ever be taken in the first round of the NFL draft.

Unfortunately, the draft was Junkin's NFL highlight. Curiously, the Browns decided to turn a middle linebacker tackling machine into an pass rushing outside linebacker. Plus, he had bad luck with injuries. His rookie season was ended by a wrist injury. His 1988 season was hampered by a knee injury. Before the 1989 season, the Browns traded Junkin to the Chiefs for a fifth-round pick. Junkin suffered through an ankle injury and a shoulder injury in what would be his final NFL season.

Still, he ended up playing 21 games in the NFL, including the playoffs, starting seven. Only eight former Big Eight/NIC-10 players from the Rockford area have played more.

No. 6 - Mike Junkin, Belvidere
Year Level Team Accomplishments Points
1981 High School Belvidere Losing Team 0
1982 High School Belvidere First Team All-Conference 2
Winning Team 1
1983 College Duke Letter Winner on Power 5 Team 4
1984 College Duke Letter Winner on Power 5 Team 4
Starter 1
1985 College Duke Letter Winner on Power 5 Team 4
Starter 1
All-ACC 1
Honorable Mention All-American 0.5
1986 College Duke Letter Winner on Power 5 Team 4
Starter 1
All-ACC 1
All-American 1
Career Record Holder (Tackles) 1
1987 NFL Cleveland First Round Draft Pick 10
Played in NFL 3
1988 NFL Cleveland Played in NFL 3
Starter 1
Playoff Team 1
1989 NFL Kansas City Played in NFL 3
Totals 48.5

NIC-10's 100 Greatest Football Players

Friday, February 11, 2022

NIC-10's 100 Greatest Football Players: No. 7 - Jerry Latin, East

The No. 7 player on our list was one of the area's all-time breakaway threats and it carried him all the way to the NFL - where he got little chance to show off his skills.

Latin was the first transcendent back of the Bob Pellant era at East High School. Latin finished fourth in the Big Eight in rushing as a junior with 797 yards on 116 carries. His senior year, he rushed for 1,325 yards on 190 carries, winning the rushing title by nearly 500 yards.

Latin was the first player in Big Eight recorded history (rushing stats weren't tracked until the early 1960s) to rush for more than 2,000 yards in his career. Latin was especially dominant in the middle of his senior season. Against Guilford, Boylan and West, he had games of 230, 207 and 239 yards rushing. Latin was first-team all-conference both seasons and was named to the 1970 Sunkist All-American team.

East won the Big Eight both of Latin's seasons on the varsity and went 14-4 overall. The 1970 team featured quarterback Mitch Anderson as well. Anderson would go on to Northwestern where he would lead the Big Ten in passing. Unfortunately, Latin's E-Rabs didn't have a IHSA playoffs to show where they stood statewide.

Latin had lots of college options. Both Illinois and Wisconsin wanted him. Instead, he chose to stay closer to home to play for Northern Illinois, which had just moved to the highest level of Division I football in 1969.

Latin had an up-and-down career at NIU. He spent his freshman year working on raising his grades. He moved directly into the starting lineup in 1972, but he spent much of the next two seasons blocking for Mark Kellar. Kellar would gain 1,316 yards as a junior in 1972 and then lead the NCAA with 1,719 yards in 1973. Kellar would go on to play one year in the WFL and three in the NFL.

As a secondary option, Latin gained 617 yards as a sophomore and 884 yards as a junior. His junior year included a 221-yard game against Marshall on just 18 carries.

Latin was positioned to take over as lead back in 1974. He had 20 carries for 106 yards in the season-opener against McNeese State. The next week, against Long Beach State, he injured his shoulder on his sixth carry. It essentially ended his college career.

The shoulder never fully recovered. Latin played in just four games and finished the season with just 150 yards. He didn't even suit up for his final college game.

Instead of showcasing his skills, Latin was damaged goods going into the NFL draft. The St. Louis Cardinals grabbed him with their last pick, the 11th round.

Latin beat the odds by making the Cardinals. Unfortunately, St. Louis already was strong at running back. The team had Terry Metcalf, who was coming off a Pro Bowl season in 1974 and would make it again in 1976 and 1977.

In Latin's three years with the Cardinals, he started just three games and got 116 carries in 35 games overall. His biggest moment came at the end of his rookie season. The Cardinals had clinched a playoff birth and rested Metcalf. Latin had 112 yards rushing in the last game, including a 57-yard touchdown run.

In 1978, Latin moved from the Cardinals to the Los Angeles Rams early in the season, but he still didn't see much action. That was his last year in the NFL. He ended up with 140 carries in the NFL for 560 yards rushing with another 152 yards receiving.

Latin returned to Rockford and put in a couple more seasons with the minor league Rockford Rams before hanging up the cleats for good.

No. 7 - Jerry Latin, East
Year Level Team Accomplishments Points
1969 High School East First Team All-Conference 2
Conference Back of the Year 1
Winning Team 1
Conference Champion 1
League Leader (yards/carry) 1
1970 High School East First Team All-Conference 2
Conference Back of Year 1
Winning Team 1
Conference Champion 1
League Leader (Rushing) 1
All-State 1
Sunkist All-American 1
Conference MVP 1
1972 College Northern Illinois Letter Winner on NCAA Div. 1A 3.5
Starter 1
Winning Team 1
1973 College Northern Illinois Letter Winner on NCAA Div. 1A 3.5
Starter 1
Winning Team 1
1974 College Northern Illinois Letter Winner on NCAA Div. 1A 3.5
Starter 1
1975 NFL St. Louis 11th Round Draft Pick 1
Played in NFL 3
1976 NFL St. Louis Played in NFL 3
1977 NFL St. Louis Played in NFL 3
Starter 1
1978 NFL Los Angeles Played in NFL 3
Totals 43

NIC-10's 100 Greatest Football Players