For a time Mike Prior wasn’t sure which helmet to wear, that of a baseball or football player.
“There weren’t too many people knocking down my door (as college football recruiters),” said the former Illinois State standout in both sports.
“My junior year, I didn’t even start,” Prior said of his prep football career at Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights. “I had much more success in baseball. I pretty much played whatever sport was in season, but you played baseball from April until August.”
Things began to change his senior year.
“Tom Klupchak, my high school quarterback, got (Marian Catholic football) Coach (Dave) Mattio to look at me at receiver,” Prior said. “That year I played a wingback position on offense, free safety on defense, and returned punts and kicks.
“We started out the year 11-0, and I had success on both sides of the ball. I started to get some recognition.”
'Michael would come up with a big play'
Mattio remembers Prior as a difference maker.
“Sometime during a ballgame Michael would come up with a big play whether it was a pass reception, a punt return, a kick return or an interception,” Mattio said. “He showed the athletic signs of people who go on athletically.”
Mattio recalled two of those times.
“One was against Joliet Catholic, our arch rival at the time. We were down 14-0 and Michael ran back the second half kickoff 90 yards. We wound up winning 21-14,” he said. “I also remember a 71-yard punt return against Rich South in the playoffs.”
Mattio noted that Prior excelled beyond football.
“He followed his older brother Don who finished third in the state wrestling tournament,” Mattio said. “Michael was a taller, thicker version. He had the audacity to be a three-sport athlete. Michael was a very talented wrestler. He was a tremendous baseball player as well.”
Yet, his prep coach also remembers Prior as more than just an athlete.
“He did all of these things with the utmost respect and class,” Mattio said. “He had the respect of his coaches and his peers. Michael is a great human being.”
When his high school days ended, Prior began to realize that there were more football scholarships than in baseball.
“There just aren’t a lot of full rides in baseball,” he said.
Still, not everyone was convinced. Prior remembers when then-Northern Illinois football coach Bill Mallory came to get a look at the potential recruit.
“It was January, and I was in wrestling season,” Prior said. “By the end of football I was usually down to 160 or 165 pounds. I had cut weight (for wrestling) and was down to around 155. Bill told me I was too skinny and small.”
However, ISU head coach Bob Otolski soon entered the picture.
“We stole Mike Prior,” said Otolski in 2012. “He was on my list when I was an assistant at Indiana University. Mike could have played in the Big 10 or at Notre Dame.”
Otolski offered Prior his scholarship early.
“It was something like December,” Otolski said. “Mike’s father had been working late. I had been there since 6:30 or 7 and his dad came home around 11 or so. I told Mike that we were offering him a scholarship right there. I told him if he got hit by a car and never played a down for us, he would still have his scholarship. His parents loved that.”
Prior recalled, “He told me, ‘We’d like you to play free safety for us.”
However, Prior still had the itch to play baseball.
“I figured that I had a better chance to play baseball at the next level, so I wanted to stick with it,” Prior said.
Otolski came up with an offer for his recruit.
“He told me that if I played spring football my freshman year, then I’d be welcome to play baseball the springs after that,” Prior said.
Ironically, Prior had never talked to Redbird baseball coach Duffy Bass about the idea.
“I kept up with baseball through a good friend of mine, Todd Reiser, who was a freshman on the team,” Prior said. “I also played baseball in the summer.”
He also hit the weight room hard during his early years at ISU. He managed to get his playing weight to “around 180” pounds.
“Coach Otolski had a challenge system in place to move up the depth chart,” Prior said. “The way it worked was that you could challenge the player in front of you on the depth chart. There we three skills tests. The player higher on the chart always won all ties.”
The skills test consisted of speed, tackling and a one-on-one drill. The challenges were conducted following the second practice of three-a-day preseason workouts.
“I finally won around the sixth challenge about a week before our first game of the season,” Prior recalled.
Prior’s starting time lasted three games before a case of mono hit him.
“I dropped to under 160 pounds and missed three games,” he said. “I did manage to recover and get back for the end of the season.”
Once back in the starting lineup, Prior never left it. Over the course of his career, he earned All-American honors and was named first-team All-Missouri Valley Conference defensive back three times. Prior set school and league records with 23 career interceptions. In addition, he was named team Most Valuable Player his sophomore and senior years.
"The most success we had was my junior year,” he noted. “We finally got above .500. A lot of us had been starting since we were freshmen. Everybody grew and the work in the weight room paid off.”
That team, the 1983 Redbirds, posted a 6-4-1 record.
“Southern Illinois knocked us out of playoff contention late in the year,” Prior said of a 28-26 loss in Carbondale on Nov. 5. “We also had a tie (with West Texas State) that hurt us.”
Former Western Illinois head coach Pete Rodriquez vividly remembered going against Prior.
“He was a real ball hawk,” Rodriquez said years later. “He had good return ability as well. He made good decisions. He was heady. I remember him getting guys lined up (on defense). He didn’t have that great 4.4 speed, but he was very athletic and talented.”
Prior played four football seasons at ISU. He still holds the school career records for interceptions and punt return yardage. He also excelled in baseball. Prior still holds the ISU records for career batting (.388) and slugging (.715).
Prior joined fellow ISU football greats Estus Hood and Dennis Nelson in having their uniform numbers retired in 1995. In addition, he was enshrined in the ISU Hall of Fame in 1991.
Prior followed his outstanding collegiate career by becoming just the third Redbird athlete to be drafted by two professional sports leagues. While the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took Prior in the seventh round of the 1985 National Football League draft, the Los Angeles Dodgers made him a fourth-round selection.
“I weighed my options,” Prior recalled. “It was close. I was engaged to be married at the time. With baseball, I knew there would be the minor leagues and a lot of traveling. In football, you wouldn’t be on the road as much.
“I figured football would be better for a family lifestyle for raising kids. Plus, I figured I’d know by Labor Day (with NFL cuts) if I was going to make it or not. If I did get cut (in football), then maybe I’d give baseball a try.”
When Prior made the Tampa Bay roster, baseball never again entered the equation. He spent the 1985 season as a return man for the Bucs.
A year later, Prior broke his wrist and was released by Tampa Bay. Claimed by the Indianapolis Colts, Prior became a defensive back in 1987.
“That was the year of the strike,” he said. “I started out as a replacement player. I was one of five replacement players the team kept.”
Asked if he faced any difficulties being a replacement player when the regulars returned, Prior replied, “Maybe a cold shoulder from some, but it really wasn’t that bad in Indianapolis. A lot of players had already crossed the picket lines by the end.”
Also helping make his case was the fact that the Colts were 0-2 when the strike started.
“We were 2-3 when the strike ended and those players came back,” he said. “Winning helped a lot and most of the players were more angry with the NFL Players Assocation and the owners (than with replacement players).”
Super Bowl glory & Indianapolis story
In all, Prior played 13 seasons in the NFL. Prior recorded 35 career interceptions in that time. He spent the last six years with Green Bay. Prior intercepted a pass thrown by New England’s Drew Bledsoe in the Packers’ 35-21 victory in Super Bowl XXXI.
“Sure, that was a thrill,” he said. “I also had another (interception) that stands out. It was in 1989 with the Colts when we were fighting for the playoffs. I picked Bernie (Kosar) of the Browns in overtime.”
Today, Prior serves as the Colts’ Youth Football Commissioner.
“My job basically revolves around anything with youth football,” the father of three said. “We do a lot of different programs.”
Those programs range from second grade through high school for school systems in the state of Indiana.
“The kids have blast,” Prior said. “There is also a character development aspect to it. There are also ties to NFL initiatives like the NFL Play 60 campaign you see these days. We want these kids to stay active.”
As a former standout in both football and baseball, Mike Prior knows quite a bit about staying active.