THE CENTURY'S 5 BEST PLAYERS
Reino Nori #34
Even with his passing in 1988, his exploits will exist in the perpetuity of memory and the record book on a scale with a Babe Ruth and Jim Thorpe.
The legacy of "The Phantom Finn"-the nickname used by local newspapers in his day-will always stand the test of time. Nori was the only athlete in Northern llinois history to earn 17 varsity letters in five sports. He was the first Huskie product to perform in the National Football League and the Chicago Tribune's famed College All-Star Game at Soldier Field.
As the story goes, Detroit Lions head coach George "Potsy" Clark traveled to DeKalb in 1936 to see Nori for himself. The two met on the Glidden Field cinder track. "Son," asked Clark, "do you want to play professional football?"
Nori joined the NFL as a free agent, playing for the Lions (1936), Brooklyn Dodgers (1937), and Chicago Bears (1938). "I like Nori's aggressive spirit," Clark noted at the time. "He runs the team well, is greased lightning in the open field and he throws a soft, accurate pass." His final days playing,football were spent at Camp Grant during World War II (1942-43).
A charter member of the NIU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1978, Nori won Northern Illinois monograms in basketball (1932-33,1933-34, 1934-35, 1935-36), football (1932, 1933, 1934, 1935), baseball (1933, 1934, 1935, 1936), track (1933, 1934, 1935, 1936), and wrestling (1932-33).
Nori was the school's first Little 19 Conference Player of the Year in football (1935). He won First-Team All-Little 19 honors in both football and basketball. He captained the NIU football, basketball, and track squads. He starred as a halfback on the gridiron, a forward in basketball, a third baseman in baseball, a sprinter and long jumper in track, and a 135-145-pound entry in wrestling.
"Nori was a :09.8 sprinter. He was built," said Northern Illinois Hall of Famer Tego Larsen who lettered in football during 1936-38. "It was speed. It was confidence. It was determination. Reino believed in himself. He had everything. He was always a threat inside or outside."
In a track dual meet against the University of Chicago, Nori tied for first place in the long jump with a fellow gridder named Jay Berwanger, the first recipient of the Heisman Trophy. On the hardwood, Nori performed on the NIU Athletics Hall of Fame 1933-34 quintet that scrimmaged Kansas and Pittsburgh in the National Association of Basketball Coaches convention exhibitions at Atlanta, GA.
In football, Nori still holds the school record for the longest run from scrimmage-a 99-yard touchdown vs. Wisconsin-Whitewater on November 17, 1934. The Northern Illinois legend still ranks No. 4 in career touchdowns (31 in 1932-35), No. 7 in single-season scoring (101 points in 1935), No. 5 in career scoring (204), and No. 8 in season TDs (15 in 1935). As a senior, he ranked second in the nation in scoring.
A three-sport star (football, basketball, and track) at DeKalb High School, Nori died at Kishwaukee Community Hospital on October 8, 1988, at age 75.
LeShon Johnson #42
LeShon-A-Mania was real. There was no more ballyhooed Northern Illinois University performer in The First Century. Reino Nori. Larry Brink. George Bork. Mark Kellar. John Spilis. Guys, take a backseat. LeShon Johnson was the standard-bearer around here and new NIU Athletics Hall of Famer (2003).
The "Cowboy" exploded onto the national scene. The biggest thing to hit DeKalb since supermodel Cindy Crawford. Or as prominent New York Times columnist Ira Berkow acknowledged, LeShon "in most cases has been a one-man show."
Prior to 1993, no Huskie football player had ever made major-college First-Team All-America. No. 42 made Northern Illinois history-making unanimous First-Team All-America that season. Eleven-fold with such marquee names as Florida State's Charlie Ward, San Diego State's Marshall Faulk, UCLA's J. J. Stokes, Notre Dame's Aaron Taylor, etc. Johnson was only the sixth player in the state of Illinois to make unanimous First-Team All-America. The other five? Red Grange, Dick Butkus, Jim Grabowski, David Williams, and Moe Gardner of Illinois.
More elite company? LeShon finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy race as a senior. The sleek, six-foot, 205-pounder received five first-place votes, 51 second-place, and 59 third-place votes in the Downtown Athletic Club balloting. He was also named UPI National Back of the Year. Top three Doak Walker National Runningback Award finalist. Football News Offensive Player of the Year finalist. Big West Conference Co-Offensive Player of the Year.
"LeShon for Heisman" T-shirts-priced at $12.95 apiece-became collector's items on campus. A full video crew-including ESPN "College Game Day" anchor Chris Fowler- spent a full day on campus. Stuff like this didn't happen every day in DeKalb.
Not only did Johnson lead the country in individual rushing and all-purpose yardage, No. 42 out rushed 65 of the nation's then 106 NCAA Division 1-A teams in 1993. With his 179.6-yards-per-game rushing average, No.42 outgained such postseason bowl entries as Alabama, California, Indiana, Miami(FL), Texas, and Utah.
Johnson gained a school and Big West-record 1,976 yards and 12 touchdowns on 327 carries. At the time, the "Cowboy" produced the fourth-best single-season in NCAA 1-A rushing history behind previous Heisman winners Barry Sanders of Oklahoma (2,628 yards in 1988), Marcus Allen of Southern Cal (2,342 in 1981), and Mike Rozier of Nebraska (2,148 in 1983).
The Haskell, OK, product completed his Northern Illinois days as the No. 4 all-time NCAA career rusher with a 150.6 ypg. Average behind Cornell's Ed Marinaro (174.6 ypg. in 1969-71), O.J. Simpson of Southern Cal (164.4 ypg. in 1967-68), and Herschel Walker of Georgia (159.4 ypg. in 1980-82). A third round pick of the Green Bay Packers in 1994, Johnson also played for the Arizona Cardinals before being sidelined in 1999 in his debut on the New York Giants with lymphoma. Johnson finished his pro career wth the XFL Chicago Enforcers (2001).
John Spilis #87
Back in 1968, you name the wide receiver and Northern Illinois University senior John Spilis ranked with any of them. Notre Dame's Jim Seymour. Florida State's Ron Sellers. SMU's Jerry Levias. Washington's Gene Washington. Oklahoma's Ed Hinton. Any of them.
Talent-wise, it was no problem. At 6-4, 217-pounds, No. 87 possessed great hands,an uncanny ability to catch passes in crowds similar to a basketball rebounder, and bigtime speed for his size. Playing was never a problem for John Spilis.
Instead, his personal dilemma was NCAA limbo. His senior season was the year before the Huskie football program moved to major status. So, at the time, Northern Illinois was playing as an independent with no conference statistics, no all-league teams, and no players of the week.
On top of all that, Spilis suffered a broken leg in his final college game and missed playing in the postseason American Bowl. Still, No. 87 caught two touchdown passes on the broken leg vs. 16th-ranked Ohio that November afternoon-the second ending his college career and setting the school's career TD reception mark (22) then held by Huskie Little All-Americas Al Eck and Hugh Rohrschneider.
Ironically, Spilis caught 46 passes for three consecutive seasons or 138 career receptions for 1,815 yards and 22 TDs (1966-68). The Thornridge High School product was even more dangerous on kickoff returns-going 90 yards vs. North Dakota State and then 97 on the opening play vs. Bowling Green State that led to a 7-6 Northern Illinois triumph in its first victory over a "major" in 1968.
"He's a definite pro prospect," said Huskie coach Howard Fletcher. "I can only quote the pro scouts that have talked to me and they rate Spilis as one of the best receivers in the country."
"Fletch" turned out to be a prophet on two counts-(1) Spilis became the highest Northern Illinois NFL selection in the 1969 draft (third round or 64th player chosen) by the Green Bay Packers and (2) would play for the legendary Otto Graham vs. the New York Jets in the College All-Star Game in Chicago.
In addition to the Packers, Spilis also played for the Washington Redskins and Chicago Bears. He was inducted into the NIU Athletics Hall of Fame (1984) and named to the All-Time Huskie Stadium Team (1995), plus the All-Century Team (1999).
George Bork #11
One of the greatest and most recognizable names in the modern era of Northern Illinois football, Bork was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in August, 1999.
One of eight Divisional inductees- players and coaches from NCAA Division 1-AA, II, III, and NAIA institutions-the former Little All-America was the first Huskie to be enshrined and one of only 12 national inductees with Mid-American Conference connections.
You may have heard of the others-Doyt Perry from Bowling Green State, Don James from Kent State, Bob Babich, Sid Gillman, Woody Hayes, George Little, Ara Parseghian, and Bo Schembechler from Miami (OH), Frank Loria from Marshall, Merle Gulick and Mel Long from Toledo.
"This couldn't happen to a more deserving guy than George," said Northern Illinois Hall of Fame coach Howard Fletcher. "All the things he accomplished and all the publicity he generated for Northern Illinois, this is tremendous. Bork was the top quarterback I've ever had. George was the perfect guy for that system."
Mark Kellar #31
It was 1995-the public unveiling of the All-Time Huskie Stadium Team and the first meeting of the school's two major-college rushing kingpins, Kellar and tailback LeShon Johnson. They shook hands, hugged, and exchanged mutual respect. "Sure I know who you are," LeShon told Kellar. "You're No. 31. You led the country in rushing. I saw your picture in the media guide."
Not only was Kellar an impact player for coach Jerry Ippoliti and Northern Illinois during 1971-73, he certainly was in his rookie year in the World Football League with the Chicago Fire. Kellar led the WFL in scoring and rushing and scored five touchdowns in one game before breaking his leg in the 11th contest of the season. He is one of four players to have his NIU jersey retired.
The Next Five:
Stacey Robinson, QB (1988-90)
Bob Heimerdinger, QB (1948-51)
Dave Petzke, SE (1977-78)
Hugh Rohrschneider, E (1960-63)
Frank Lewandoski, LB (1976-79)
The All-Century Team Committee
Mike Korcek, chair
Bob Brigham, Fran Cahill, Pat Culpepper,
John Farney, Howard Fletcher,
Bob Heimerdinger, Jerry Ippoliti,
Tego Larsen, Bud Nangle, Joe Novak