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Happy 29th Birthday to former Fighting Illini football star Whitney Mercilus.

Recruited to Illinois in 2008 by coach Ron Zook, the Akron, Ohio high school star was redshirted as freshman. Following two seasons of steady but unspectacular play, Mercilus exploded onto the scene in 2011 as a junior defensive end. He led all collegiate players that season in quarterback sacks (16) and forced fumbles (9), and was a consensus All-American. Mercilus was the CFPA Defensive Performer of the Year and the winner of the Ted Hendricks Award as college football’s top defensive end. He also was the Illini’s Most Valuable Player and a team co-captain.

Mercilus was a first-round selection by the Houston Texans in the 2012 NFL Draft and signed a four-year contract for $7.6 million. In 2015, he signed a second four-year contract, this time for $26 million. Mercilus’ best seasons came in 2015 and ‘16 when he started 26 of Houston’s 31 games, registering 103 tackles and 19.5 sacks. In 2016, he earned second-team All-Pro honors.

Following an injury-plagued 2017 season, he bounced back last year with 22 solo tackles and 4.0 sacks.

Last December, the Texans nominated Mercilus for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, recognizing him for his outstanding community service. Over the last two years, his foundation, “WithMerci,” has donated more than $325,000 to families of children with disabilities and special needs. Mercilus also contributes to the Houston Independent School District, the Smartie Pants Academy, a school specifically serving students with disabilities and special needs, and to the American Red Cross. He serves as the lead spokesperson for the Texans’ mascot program (“TORO Takes the Bull Out of Bullying”), teaching thousands of elementary school students how to recognize and remove bullying from their schools.

Mercilus, credited with 42.5 career NFL quarterback sacks, is currently listed on the Texans’ 2019 depth chart as a starting SAM linebacker.

Big Ten football alumni among all-time NFL sacks leaders:

RK. Sacks, Name, School

1. 122.0, Simeon Rice, Illinois

2. 104.5, Neil Smith, Nebraska

3. 100.0, Andre Tippett, Iowa

4. 98.0, Cameron Wake, Penn State

5. 92.0, J.J. Watts, Wisconsin

6. 91.0, Trevor Pryce, Michigan/Clemson

7. 89.5, Tamba Hali, Penn State

8. 84.5, Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue

9. 81.5, Shaun Phillips, Purdue

10. 74.0, Cliff Avril, Purdue

— 42.5, Whitney Mercilus, Illinois

Illini Birthdays:

Sunday: Angelina Williams, basketball

Monday: Cierra Rice, basketball (22)

Tuesday: Carly Thomas, softball (23)

Wednesday: Jim Wright, basketball/track & field (87)

Thursday: Tony Ticknor, gymnastics (53)

Friday: Brian Junghans, football (52)

Saturday: Maggie Hillman, soccer (20)

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