Illini Legends, Lists and Lore: Dec. 9, 2018

Illini Legends, Lists and Lore: Dec. 9, 2018

Martin O'DonnellIf fans were asked to name the top three players from the 2007 Illinois football team, chances are Martin O'Donnell's name might not often be mentioned.

That's what typically results when one plays in the shadows known as the offensive line. However, the fact is O'Donnell was the only Illini player named to college football's most recognized all-star team, the Associated Press first team All-Americans.

Instead of linebacker J Leman or running back Rashard Mendenhall or quarterback Juice Williams, it was Illinois's left offensive guard who earned top-level acclaim.

O'Donnell was one of the nation's premier prep players at Downers Grove South High School for coach John Belskis. Just a few months after Ron Turner persuaded him to become a member of the Illini, then freshman O'Donnell worked his way into 2004's starting lineup by the second game. He'd remain there for the balance of his career.

After playing on under-achieving teams those first three seasons, the spotlight finally was turned on the Illini in 2007.

Headlining the season were home victories over No. 21 Penn State and No. 5 Wisconsin, then a stunning 28-21 triumph over top-ranked Ohio State in Columbus. When the Buckeyes earned a berth in the BCS Championship Game, coach Ron Zook's Illini happily accepted an invitation to play in the 2008 Rose Bowl Game.

O'Donnell retired from football to pursue his Master of Education degree in 2008. He became Director of Advancement for the UI library (2008-12), then Associate Director of Advancement for UI's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (2012-14). He's now Executive Vice President at Champaign's Busey Bank and also serves as the color analyst for Illini radio broadcasts.

Today, he celebrates his 34th birthday at his home in Savoy with his wife, Emily, his daughter, Ava, and his son, Michael.

But before he does that, O'Donnell looked back on five Illinois staff members who affected his career as an Illini student-athlete:

Harry Hiestand | Offensive Line Coach

"Coach Hiestand was, in 2003, one of the best offensive line coaches in the country, and that holds true to this day. Learning from him during 2003-2004 was like getting dropped into a Ph.D level course in offensive line play. Preparation, attention to detail and effort were the standard."

Eric Wolford | Offensive Line Coach

"Wolf was only my coach for a year (2007), but he had a huge impact on me. He was demanding, technically proficient and had a biting sense of humor. He's the kind of guy that we all wanted to play for and preached to our group that we needed to treat every snap like a brawl."

Trent Chesnut | Equipment Director

"There's been a lot of turnover and turmoil around Illinois over the past several decades, but Trent has been a stabilizing force through it all. He's the guy that former players all know and everyone appreciates the hard work and long hours that Trent and his team continually put in."

Lou Hernandez | Strength Coach

"Coach Lou came with Coach Zook and his staff in 2005 and made an enormous impact on the program. Every single day you walked into the weight room you had to 'get your mind right.' If you weren't locked in and ready to give maximum effort, you would get wrecked. The strength gains and mental preparation came in handy when the season came around."

Kristen Kane | Academic Counselor

"Academic counselors for football teams have to wear a lot of hats throughout the course of a given day. They often work long hours behind the scenes and are an integral part of the support structure for members of the team. During my time at Illinois Kristen was a constant presence and somebody that everyone on the team knew they could come to with any time for advice, guidance, or a pep talk."

Illini birthdays:

Today: Kevin Jackson, football (47)

Monday: Kevin Duchene, baseball (25)

Tuesday: Len Sitko, cross country/track & field (50)

Wednesday: Marlon Primous, football (50)

Thursday: Tonja Buford-Bailey, track & field

Friday: Brad Underwood, basketball coach (55)

Saturday: Tiara Armstrong, track & field (33)

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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