Six former Illinois Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) players find themselves on active rosters as the 2017 National Football League kicks off Thursday in Foxboro, Mass.
That number is down one from last season with the retirement of former Eastern Illinois quarterback Tony Romo. In addition, ex-Illinois State receiver Cameron Meredith is on the injured reserved list.
Three Illinois State Redbirds headline this season's group. Two Eastern Illinois Panthers and one Southern Illinois Saluki round things out.
Illinois State boasts defensive end Shelby Harris of the Denver Broncos, tight end James O'Shaughnessy of the Jacksonville Jaguars and linebacker Nate Palmer of the Tennessee Titans. In addition, former Redbird offensive linemen Mike Liedtke (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and Cameron Lee (Chicago Bears) as well as linebacker B.J. Bello (Cleveland Browns) are on NFL practice squads.
Meredith injured his knee against Tennessee in the third preseason game. The St. Joseph High School (Westchester) graduate was expected to be the Bears' No. 1 wideout in 2017 after leading the team in receptions (66) and receiving yards (888) last season.
Romo, who threw for 34,183 yards in his pro career, will begin his broadcast career as the lead analyst for CBS this fall.
As for active players, Eastern features New England Patriot quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and Philadelphia Eagle linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill.
Garoppolo, a Rolling Meadows High School graduate, was the Patriots' starter last year while Tom Brady served his much-publicized NFL suspension.
Grugier-Hill begins his second season with the Philadelphia. Grugier-Hill, who played with Garoppolo at Eastern, is a former Patriots' draft pick.
Rookie Chase Allen led the NFL in tackles during the preseason en route to making the Miami Dolphins as an undrafted free agent. The linebacker is one of just two Salukis to lead SIU in tackles three straight years.
MyCole Pruitt, ex-SIU Saluki tight end, was signed to the Buffalo Bills' practice squad. Pruitt--formerly of the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears--has appeared in 20 games, starting three, and collected 12 catches for 102 yards in his career.
Crete-Monee product Lance Lenoir, Jr. was added to the Dallas practice squad after recently being cut by the Cowboys. Lenoir is the all-time leading receiver at Western Illinois and in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
In addition to those players, EIU product Sean Payton is the head coach of the New Orleans Saints, while ISU graduate Mike Zimmer holds that position with Minnesota.
The Illinois FCS schools also have a pair of NFL general managers: Rick Spielman (SIU) with the Vikings and Ryan Pace (EIU) with the Bears.
A season ago, Eastern Illinois was the only football program in the country to feature an NFL starting quarterback, NFL head coach and NFL general manager as alumni.