Illini Legends, Lists and Lore: April 21, 2019

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Illini Legends, Lists and Lore: April 21, 2019

Before Corey Liuget, Whitney Mercilus and Dawuane Smoot in recent years — even before Don Thorp, Moe Gardner and Simeon Rice in the 1980s and '90s — Big Ten quarterbacks feared a 6-3, 240-pound Illini tackling machine with a nearly unpronounceable name.

John DiFeliciantonio, a product of Bishop Neumann High School in south Philadelphia, was the man Coach Bob Blackman depended upon to pressure the opponents' signal callers. From 1974 through 1976, despite incurring a wide assortment of injuries, DiFeliciantonio made headlines for Illinois from his defensive tackle position. In each of those three seasons, No. 96 recorded double-figure tackles for loss, totaling 32 tackles for loss for his career.

Teaming with Dean March, Walter Graham and others, DiFeliciantonio racked up nearly 200 tackles during his Illini career, winning second-team All-Big Ten honors after his junior year. As a senior in 1976, he was named Sports Illustrated Defensive Player of the Week for his role in Illinois' 31-6 upset victory over sixth-rated Missouri. He eventually played in the Blue-Gray All-Star Game, but never played professional football.

As an undergrad, DiFeliciantonio drove a beer truck in Champaign-Urbana during the summer of '76. However, it was his unusual hobby that grabbed him headlines in newspaper features: potting plants.

"My girlfriend went back to Chicago for the summer and she let me take care of her flowers while she was gone," said the amiable Italian. "She couldn't take care of 'em nearly as well as I do."

Forty-three years later, DiFeliciantonio is back in the City of Brotherly Love and his one-time hobby is now his livelihood.

After getting his start on the tomato line at Procacci Brothers, he worked himself up to president of the company, building it into one of the nation's largest wholesalers. Today, he and his wife, Michelle, and three of their four daughters operate the North American Produce Company in southwest Philadelphia. They handle hundreds of varieties of fruits, vegetables and herbs. DiFeliciantonio will celebrate his 64th birthday today.

Illini Birthdays:

Today: Nick Allegretti, football (23)

Monday: Kaitlyn Joyce, swimming & diving (23)

Tuesday: Lee Zerrusen, baseball (31)

Wednesday: Dave Postmus, football (51)

Thursday: Alex Diab, gymnastics (22)

Friday: Ted Beach, basketball (90)

Saturday: Branden Comia, baseball (19)

By Mike Pearson, author of Illini Legends, Lists & Lore (Third Edition now available in stores). Get more Illini birthdays, trivia and historical tidbits daily on Twitter@B1GLLL. His website is www.SportsLLL.com.

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