Howard: 'I'm getting honored for doing what I like'

Howard: 'I'm getting honored for doing what I like'

CHAMPAIGN — It's hard to imagine having more Illini greats in one room at one time.

Illinois honored the Athletics Hall of Fame Class of 2018 on Saturday afternoon at State Farm Center with the official induction ceremony.

Honoree Dana Howard talked about what made him the Big Ten's all-time leader in tackles.

"I'm getting honored for doing what I like, tackling people," the Butkus Award winner said. "I just like to hit people and let them know I'm there."

Of the 21 honorees, seven have passed away, one was too ill to attend, and two, Kevin Anderson, the only Illini to ever compete in the Grand Slam tennis finals, and Scott Langley — a 2010 NCAA champion in golf — are both in competitions this weekend. There were some dramatic moments, like coach Lou Henson, the first honoree named to the group, coming to the forum to tell about how he and his wife decided between a job at Oklahoma and Illinois.

They were going to sleep on the decision. He knew his wife was going to speak up for the better Oklahoma program.

But she said "Illinois."

"You know who the boss in this family is: Mary," Illinois' winningest coach said.

Next up was Darrin Fletcher, the Oakwood product who batted .497 in one season at UI and spent 14 years in the majors. He would rather talk about Henson, and another honoree, Kendall Gill.

Growing up in Vermilion County, Fletcher said he was more into hoops than baseball.

"I wanted to be the next Kendall Gill," he said.

As for Henson, Fletcher said one of the most moving moments in his life was when the coach sent him a copy of his biography.

Gill also praised Henson, along with other coaches. He told how the coach called him out in his first practice.

"Get him some mustard, he's a hot dog," Gill said, attempting to mimic Henson's voice.

Honorees were from 12 different sports: National Hall of Famers, Olympians, national champions and multi-sport stars.

Of the 14 living members of the class, 10 are men and four women. Volleyball All-American Nancy Brookhart Cherin, who took a selfie at the podium, joked about the toll of top competition. She recently had a knee replacement and soon will have another.

"It's a small price to pay," she said of dominating the Big Ten with Mary Eggers Tendler.

Soccer star Tara Hurless, who left Illinois as the all-time leading scorer in program history, and track and field's Tonya Williams and Celena Mondie-Milner also spoke.

Mondie-Milner talked about how seriously she took the words commitment and journey. A fifth-grade teacher made the class write a wish book. Hers included singing, dancing and ice skating.

Another was sports. She arrived in Champaign from Georgia on a brutally cold day, but found a home in C-U, as an 18-time All-American with 17 Big Ten individual and relay titles. On the other hand, teammates considered her "a terrible singer," "not a great dancer" and not born to skate.

In the 400-meter hurdles, Williams set an NCAA Championships meet record of 54.56 seconds in 1996.

But she got off to a slow start, in the 11th grade. She practiced only on Wednesdays because of jobs she had, and only got serious about track her senior year.

Dave Downey also got off to a slow start, growing up in a house with no indoor plumbing.

But as an Illini on the hardwood, he left as the all-time leading scorer then, with 1,360 points. His 53 points in 1963 still stands as the most by an Illini in a single game.

He said he excelled "because of the team, not because of anything I did."

Downey had fond memories of playing in the Assembly Hall's first year, and playing golf with a Nobel Prize-winner, John Bardeen.

Jim Grabowski, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, also won two Super Bowls with the Green Bay Packers.He played with great players at Illinois and in the pros, and made an important distinction.

"It was a lot more fun playing with them than against them," Grabowski said.

Justin Spring was a four-time NCAA individual champion and 13-time All-American during his Illini career. He was part of the bronze medal winning U.S. team at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Now the head coach of Illini men's gymnastics, Spring said that after living in the fast-paced East, he finds Champaign "captivating and "easy-going."

It wasn't always like that.

"I wasn't allowed to be mediocre," Spring said.

Willie Williams, once the World's Fastest Human, succeeding Jesse Owens, was too ill to attend.

Honorees who have passed were Alex Agase, Charles Carney, Ray Eliot, Maxwell Garret, John "Red" Kerr, Charles Pond and Joe Sapora.