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Korcek: Johnson my vote for Huskie Stadium’s greatest athlete

Just typing out loud.

Okay, with the countdown on Huskie Stadium’s “50 Greatest Players” (1965-2015) reaching its climax this week, I thought I’d throw in my two cents and my top three picks into the discussion.

Remember, you’re reading an “against-the-grain” guy and 1.4 billion people in China could probably care less.  

In all seriousness, participating in the balloting not only was a privilege and a fun NIU grid nostalgia trip, but totally excruciating and exasperating. My final worksheet had 10 spots for 50 finalists. There were at least 20 players scribbled there, crossed out, and then reconsidered. Make a decision, Mike.

“Egads, how, in good conscience,” I thought several times, “can I leave this guy off?”

First things first. Being ranked among the Huskie Stadium’s “Top 50” is exceptional in itself. Top 10? There isn’t much degree of seperation in this esteemed group. Talk about the ultimate subjective exercise.  It tested by brain and heart.  What defines the greatest? Best athlete? Best statistics? Most All-America teams? Most Heisman Trophy votes? Most media exposure? Highest NFL draft pick? Who knows.  But it all factors in the equation.

What it does mean is that for 50 years, NIU football and its fans have been fortunate to see some truly great student-athletes perform at Huskie Stadium – through thick and thin – whether it was during the 1-10 season in 1976 or the Orange Bowl campaign in 2012. Bottom line is that this 50th anniversary celebration created some off-season buzz in the social media and our community. How appropriate for this venue’s milestone season.

My hat’s off to NIU athletic director Sean Frazier and his staff, consultant Rick Cerrone for his idea, plus Donna Turner’s media relations office for the execution of the promotion. As Frazier has often stated: “Tradition doesn’t graduate.”

For better or worse, here’s my picks:

No. 3: Jordan Lynch, quarterback (2010-13). No. 3? You’re friggin crazy, Mike. Jordan is the obvious No. 1 pick, no doubt. Get real, dope. I am. Lynch’s credentials are off the chart – anybody’s in the major-college ranks, not just NIU’s.  

Two-time All-America, an unprecedented two top ten Heisman finishes (seventh in 2012 and third in 2013), five NCAA FBS QB rushing records, 10,552 career total offense yards and 100 touchdowns, 24-4 as a starter, Orange Bowl participant, etc., etc. The back-to-back-to-back, classic ESPN2 prime time performances vs. Ball State, Toledo, and Western Michigan (321 rushing yards). Not to mention, Lynch’s high-level production peaked as a senior when he was not only the target of every defense but probably pretty banged up physically.  

I could fill ten columns with No. 6’s exploits. Personally, I’ve never seen a more exciting and productive Huskie Stadium era QB (in a Tim Tyrrell, Stacey Robinson, and Chandler Harnish universe). Mike, what the heck do you want? Please read on.

No. 2: John Spilis, wide receiver (1966-68). Maybe the greatest NIU player few national media had heard about at the time. How could that be? Wasn’t No. 87 NIU’s highest NFL draft selection for 40 years (third-round or 64th player picked by Green Bay in 1969) until DE Larry English (first-round or 16th player by San Diego in 2009). Yes, he was. 

So how do you explain that Spilis never made All-America, all-league, or even conference player of the week?  Surely, his school-record 28.8-yard kickoff return average (24 for 690 yards) in 1968 should’ve ranked among the NCAA leaders in that stats category, too. Nope.

Spilis and NIU played in NCAA “limbo” in those three years. As Northern Illinois made the transition from the Interstate Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and the College Division to University Division (now FBS), athletics director George “Chick” Evans did not want the Huskies associated with that lower level of competition. Unwittingly, the patriarch of NIU men’s athletics, in essence, disenfranchised the program and its student-athletes until 1969 when the football program was elevated to the major-college ranks. Quite a controversy on the sports page in 1966.

So, Mike, what does this woulda-shoulda-coulda stuff have to do with Spilis’ status in the Huskie Stadium Top Ten? Many times external factors determine outcomes or situations. The urban myth about Spilis catching two TD passes vs. MAC champion and No. 16-rated Ohio (NIU’s highest ranked FBS opponent at the time) in 1968 on a fractured leg is true. The injury kept Spilis out of the All-American Bowl, but Bud Nangle lobbied to get him in the College All-Star Game at Soldier Field vs. Joe Namath and the New York Jets.

Dave Petzke and Justin McCareins are NIU Hall of Fame receivers and deservedly so.  At 6-foot-4, 217-pounds, Spilis was the bigger, faster target.

His long strides in the open field ate up yardage quicker than Pacman consumed dots.  Like a rebounder in basketball, he could “fly” to the ball.  Check out the current picture on the NIU athletics website where Spilis is making a catch over the middle.  His one foot is 30-36 inches off the ground, the top of his helmet would probably be rim-level on a basketball court, the ball being cradled in his huge hands. Spectacularly unique amongst Huskie Stadium’s greatest.

No. 1:  LeShon Johnson, tailback (1992-93):  Tennessee’s and Oklahoma State’s loss was NIU’s gain.  No other Northern Illinois athlete has made unanimous First-Team All-America at the glamour position of major-college football —AP, UPI, Kodak (coaches), Football News, Walter Camp, Football Writers Association of America, Sporting News, Pro Football Weekly were the recognized honor squads in 1993.

With his school-record 1,976 ground yards as a senior, Johnson had produced the (then) fourth-best single-season in NCAA FBS history behind previous Heisman Trophy recipients Barry Sanders, Marcus Allen, and Mike Rozier.  I don’t know about you, but LeShon finishing sixth in the Heisman voting on a 4-7 team playing in the relatively obscure Big West Conference with no TV appearances borders mind-blowing.  The difference between being a Heisman candidate and a Heisman finalist?  ESPN and a winning team.  

Think LeShon goes to New York on a 12-win Orange Bowl squad?  Or if ESPN carried the NIU-Iowa contest when Johnson exploded for 306 yards and five TDs and ex-Hawkeye-turned-radio-analyst Ed Podalak commented on the post-game: “(Michigan’s) Tyrone Wheatley couldn’t carry this kid’s jock.”  Maybe I jinxed the process by buying a new suit.  I was convinced LeShon was headed to the Downtown Athletic Club.  In the vernacular, he got robbed.

Johnson’s breakaway speed (:04.35 in the 40) belied his size (six-foot, 201 pounds).  In all my years at NIU, I’ve never seen a more talented athlete work so diligently.  Every run in practice went to the goal line.  Many media interviews waited until No. 42 got done lifting.  Scouts insisted “the Cowboy” would be a first-round NFL pick.  Not sure what transpired since LeShon went to Green Bay (third-round and 84th player).  There was some speculation about his aggressive agent (the late Gary Wichard) who also had the infamous Brian Bosworth.

The other rumor about LeShon wanting to pile up yardage for the sake of yardage, I don’t believe it.  At homecoming in 2003, when we were in the same Hall of Fame induction class, I had the pleasure of standing next to Johnson at midfield during the halftime ceremony.  LeShon soaked in the loud, responsive capacity crowd, turned to me, and yelled:  “Mike, I want to suit up!”

One has to believe that Jordan Lynch, John Spilis, and the rest of Huskie Stadium’s “50 Greatest Players” would say the same thing.

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