Will Super Bowl Make Rashard Mendenhall Greatest Illini Rusher Ever?

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For the second year in a row, the Super Bowl will have a feature back from the University of Illinois. This time, the Illini tailback is the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Rashard Mendenhall;  who in 2008 became the first University of Illinois player taken in the first round of the NFL Draft since 1996.

14 years ago, UI produced the #2 (Kevin Hardy taken by Jacksonville) and #3 overall (Simeon Rice drafted by Arizona) picks. Hard to believe that team went 5-5-1. Mendenhall’s 4.45 forty time, ideal size at 5’11”, 225, a 33½ inch vertical, Shard has developed into a star in the NFL. The native of Skokie will burn by you, run through you and impress you with a last name that sounds like it should belong to a British aristocrat. Or perhaps the name of the English countryside mansion where that nobleman lives.

Mikel Leshoure is drawing all sorts of Mendenhall comparisons right now, as his draft stock is gaining serious momentum. But who are the other Illini rushers who made their presence felt in the NFL?

By Paul M. Banks

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Pierre Thomas-
On December 30, 2007, in the New Orleans Saints’ season finale, injuries had taken regular starters Deuce McAllister (out for the season after the 3rd game of the season against the Tennesse Titans), Reggie Bush, and Aaron Stecker out of the game. Thomas proved he could carry the load and despite the Saints loss, Pierre made history that day. Not only did Pierre get his first NFL start in his hometown at Chicago’s Soldier Field against the Bears; he became the first Saints player to gain over 100 yards both rushing and receiving in the same game. It propelled him into a great 2008 season, and starter role in 2009, where he helped the Saints win it all.

Keith Jones-
Had some decent games with the Atlanta Falcons in 1980s.

Ty Douthard, Jameel Cook, Carey Davis, Jason Davis-
I probably wasted your time even bringing up their NFL careers. Rocky Harvey is currently a star with the Ft. Wayne Freedom by the way…I know you DON’T CARE!

Robert Holcombe-
The school’s all-time leading rusher had a fine seven year career as a fullback. In 1999, Holcombe won a Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams. He played four seasons for the Rams and led the way for NFL MVP Marshall Faulk. Finished with just over a 1,100 career yards and 14 TDs.

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Howard Griffith
He ran for 8 touchdowns in the 1990 Illini preconference win over SIU. Record still stands to this day. He also converted to fullback in the pros. In 1997, Griffith joined the Denver Broncos and played five seasons for the Broncos, primarily as a blocking back for Terrell Davis.

He didn’t get very many rushing attempts but was often used as a receiver out of the backfield, recording 27 receptions in 1996 and 26 in 1999. With the Broncos, Griffith won 2 Super Bowl rings. Griffith was a big contributor in the Broncos Super Bowl XXXIII win, scoring 2 rushing touchdowns in the game. While playing for the Denver Broncos, Howard earned the nickname The Human Plow due to his extremely successful blocking for Terrell Davis.

He had a nice little career over 11 NFL seasons with 351 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns, along with 122 receptions for 844 yards and 9 touchdowns.

After football, Griffith wrote a book on business leadership, and is an accomplished public speaker on the topic. Today, Howard is a Big Ten Network studio analyst. For more with/about Griffith, go here

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Red Grange-
In 2008, he was named the greatest college football player of all time by ESPN. He was to pro football what Babe Ruth was to Major League Baseball. He earned All-America recognition three consecutive years, and appeared on the October 5, 1925, cover of Time. His number 77 was retired at the University of Illinois in 1925. It remains one of only two retired numbers in the history of University of Illinois football, the other being the number 50 (Dick Butkus.) This is the bar for Illini running backs. Rashard may easily be able to have the second greatest pro career that an ex-Illini ever had, but he would have to become a living legend to unseat the “Galloping Ghost” or “Wheaton Ice Man” as #1.

Paul M. Banks is CEO of The Sports Bank.net. He doesn’t have a real nickname, but he is also a regular contributor to the Tribune’s Chicago Now network, Walter Football.com, Yardbarker Network, and Fox Sports.com

He does a weekly radio segment on Chicagoland Sports Radio.com and Cleveland.com

You can follow him on Twitter @thesportsbank

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