Former Eastern, Western players square off for NFL title

Former Eastern, Western players square off for NFL title
Rolling Meadows High School and Eastern Illinois University graduate Jimmy Garoppolo is the starting quarterback for San Francisco in Sunday's Super Bowl. (Tribune photo)

Eastern Illinois and Western Illinois fans have an added interest in Sunday’s Super Bowl.

Former EIU quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is the starting quarterback for San Francisco, while former WIU defensive lineman Khalen Saunders plays for Kansas City.

Moreover, it’s likely the two will go head-to-head on the field as the 49ers and Chiefs battle for the Lombardi Trophy.

Garoppolo, a Rolling Meadows High School graduate, was a second-round draft choice of the New England Patriots in 2014. The 28-year-old was traded to San Francisco on Oct. 31, 2017.

While in Charleston, Garoppolo rewrote the EIU record book for passing and won the 2013 Walter Payton Award, the FCS equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.

This is Garoppolo’s third trip to the Super Bowl. He was Tom Brady’s backup in New England when the Patriots won a pair of Super Bowls.

Former Western Illinois defensive lineman Khalen Saunders was the third-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs. (Twitter photo)

Former Western Illinois defensive lineman Khalen Saunders was the third-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs. (Twitter photo)

Kansas City selected Saunders in the third round of last spring’s NFL Draft. The 23-year-old St. Louis native was the first WIU player ever chosen for the Senior Bowl.  

The 6-foot, 318-pound Saunders recorded 22 tackles, one sack and pass deflection in his rookie season with the Chiefs.

In addition to Garoppolo and Saunders, two others add to the connection between Illinois FCS programs and the Super Bowl.

Former Western Illinois head coach Randy Ball has been a pro personnel scouting assistant for the Chiefs since 2013. Ball posted a 64-41-1 record at WIU; that’s the most wins of any Leatherneck head coach. Ball was also an assistant at Illinois State in the late 1970s.

Meanwhile, former EIU defensive tackle Nick Kray is the administrative assistant to 49ers’ head coach Kyle Shanahan, son of former Panther Mike Shanahan.

Eastern Illinois Panthers

EIU graduates are 3-0 as Super Bowl head coaches.

Mike Shanahan (EIU Class of 1974) won back-to-back Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos in the late 1990s. Shanahan is a graduate of East Leyden High School in Franklin Park. Former EIU teammate and DeKalb native Mike Heimerdinger coached wide receivers for Shanahan’s Broncos.

Shanahan was chosen at No. 5 of the Top 10 Coaches in Bob McGinn’s The Ultimate Super Bowl Book. As noted above, Shanahan’s son Kyle is the 49ers’ head coach and also went to the Super Bowl as the Atlanta Falcons’ offensive coordinator three seasons ago.

Sean Payton (EIU Class of 1987) won a Super Bowl with the New Orleans Saints in 2010. Payton, a Naperville Central graduate, passed for over 10,000 yards in his EIU career and was the 1986 Gateway Conference Offensive Player of the Year.

Payton’s staff included EIU graduates Greg McMahon and Ryan Pace, now the general manager of the Chicago Bears.

Two years ago, former EIU linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill won a ring with the Philadelphia Eagles. Grugier-Hill played with Garoppolo at Eastern.

Former Eastern offensive lineman Ted Petersen played in two Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s.

Petersen, a native of Momence, recently retired as athletic director and director of physical education at Kankakee Community College.

EIU graduate Ken Baker was an NFL referee for 11 years and then spent another eight seasons working the replay booth. Baker served as the replay official for the Super Bowl in 2008 when the New York Giants upset the New England Patriots.

Illinois State Redbirds

Dennis Nelson and Mike Prior have each had their number retired by ISU. Both played on teams that wound up in the Super Bowl.

For Nelson, it was Super Bowl V. His Baltimore Colts slipped past the Dallas Cowboys 16-13 on a field goal by Jim O’Brien with nine seconds left on the clock.

The Kewanee native was a starting offensive tackle in four of his six seasons with the Colts after being selected in third round (77th overall) in the 1969 NFL Draft.

Asked his thoughts on the growth of the Super Bowl into the monster event it has become, Nelson said, “It was a big deal then, but it’s crazy now. It’s so big now. The money is unbelievable. The hype is out of control.”

While Nelson farms in his hometown today, Prior serves as the Indianapolis Colts’ Youth Football Commissioner.

“My job basically revolves around anything with youth football,” Prior said. “We do a lot of different programs.”

Prior was a three-sport star (football, wrestling, baseball) at Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights. He became a baseball and football standout at Illinois State where he was a draft pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Prior chose football and wound up playing 13 NFL seasons. He spent his final six years with Green Bay and intercepted a pass in the Packers’ victory over New England in Super Bowl XXXI.

Southern Illinois Salukis

Brandon Jacobs played one season in Carbondale after transferring to SIU from a crowded Auburn backfield that featured future NFL first-round picks Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown.

Jacobs rushed for 922 yards and 16 touchdowns for the Salukis in 2004. He drew the attention of NFL scouts as the MVP of the East-West Shrine Game and became a fourth-round selection by the New York Giants. Three years later, he was a Super Bowl champion. In seven seasons with the Giants, Jacobs would win two Super Bowl rings and become the franchise leader in career rushing TDs.

Detroit Lions’ head coach Jim Caldwell has won two Super Bowl rings as an assistant. Caldwell coached wide receivers at SIU from 1978 to 1980.

Western Illinois Leathernecks

According to a 2012 story on the WIU athletics website, Leatherneck players have won 12 Super Bowl rings as players in the NFL. In addition, former WIU player John Teerlinck owns three Super Bowl rings as an assistant coach.

Leading the way is defensive back Mike Wagner, who won four rings with Pittsburgh in the 1970s. Wagner, a graduate of Carmel High School in Mundelein, was an NAIA All-American in 1969.

Defensive back Rodney Harrison played in four Super Bowls, winning a pair of rings with the Patriots. Bob McGinn picked Harrison’s two-interception, two passes defensed, one sack and seven-tackle game versus Philadelphia as the 10th best performance by a defensive back in Super Bowl history. Harrison’s second pick with nine seconds left sealed New England’s win.

Don Beebe played in five Super Bowls, losing four with Buffalo and winning one with Green Bay.

The former Kaneland star and ex-Aurora Christian head coach experienced the highs and lows of pro football’s biggest game. Beebe is often remembered for running down and stripping Dallas defensive lineman Leon Lett of what appeared to be a sure fumble recovery touchdown in Super Bowl XXVII. Beebe is also cited in Bob McGinn’s The Ulimate Super Bowl Book for the sixth costliest dropped pass when he failed to haul a 20-yard touchdown that would have gotten Buffalo on the board just before halftime of Super Bowl XXVI.

WIU graduate Robert Ford was on the winning side twice in the 1990s as a Dallas Cowboys assistant coach under Jimmy Johnson.

Other former Leathernecks who have Super Bowl victories on their resumes are linebacker Bryan Cox (Patriots), running back Aaron Stecker (Buccaneers), defensive tackle Cyron Brown (Broncos), center Frank Winters (Packers) and offensive lineman Rich Seubert (Giants).

Macomb native and WIU graduate Red Miller was the head coach of the “Orange Crush” Denver Broncos that played in the Super Bowl VII.

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