The Illinois Valley has a rich tradition went it comes to producing pro football talent. There are no fewer than 15 gridiron greats to have been born or played in the Illinois Valley who went on to play professionally in either the National Football League, the old All-American Football Conference or the Canadian Football League.
Cedar Point native Joe Rutgens, a 1957 graduate of LaSalle-Peru High School, enjoyed a nine-year, All-Pro career (1961-69) with the Washington Redskins. He took great pride in representing the Illinois Valley and has followed those that came up through the ranks after him.
“I always tried to keep up on them as much as I can. I got to become pretty good friends with Doug Dieken,” Rutgens said, noting the Streator native and fellow Fighting Illini who played 14 seasons with the Cleveland Browns.
Rutgens enjoyed a great following from the Illinois Valley when the Redskins came to St. Louis each year to face the rival Cardinals.
“We played the Cardinals every year down there, and they’d always have a bus come down. I’d needed 40 or 50 tickets for that game. Luckily, nobody else on the Redskins was from the area, so they’d give me their tickets,” he said. “We played in Chicago one time; I think I needed 60 or 70 tickets for that one.”
Rutgens is one of four L-P products to go on to play in the NFL, joined by Mike Kasap, Mike Goff and John Skibinski.
Rutgens, 73, was a first-round draft pick in 1961 out of the University of Illinois of both the Washington Redskins and the Oakland Raiders, then of the old AAFC. He broke in with the Redskins as their Rookie of the Year in 1961. The Skins’ defensive tackle played in two Pro Bowls and lined up for a total of 110 games from 1961-69, named as the Redskins’ Player of the Year in 1965.
He recently was named as one of the top all-time defensive players for the University of Illinois and is up for nomination to be added to the Redskins lists of greats for their celebration of their 80th anniversary.
Oglesby’s Kasap graduated from L-P in the late ‘30s. The 6-2 offensive tackle played for both the University of Illinois and Purdue before being drafted in the 1945 NFL Draft (115th overall) by the Detroit Lions. He played one season (1947) in the NFL with the Baltimore Colts. He died Oct. 20, 1994, at age 71 in LaSalle.
Born in Spring Valley, Goff starred for the Cavaliers in the early ‘90s, graduating in 1994 and went on to Iowa City to play for the Hawkeyes. He was a third-round draft pick by the Cincinnati Bengals in 1998.
The 6-foot-5, 312-pound guard played 12 seasons in the league, including six for the Bengals and five with the Chargers before retiring after one season with the Chiefs (2009). He played a total of 171 games with 154 starts. He recovered eight fumbles during his career.
L-P’s Skibinski came by his football naturally, the son of L-P coach Joe Skibinski, who played three seasons (1952-56) in the NFL with the Browns and Packers. The younger Skibinski played for L-P in the early ‘70s and played his college ball at Purdue, like his father. Skibinski was a sixth-round draft by the Bears in 1978, playing in the same backfield as the legendary Walter Payton, before sustaining a career-ending knee injury in 1981 at age 26.
The most recent Illinois Valley resident to launch his pro career was Aaron Shea of Ottawa. The Michigan Wolverine tight end was taken in the fourth round of the 2000 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns.
The former Ottawa Pirate played six seasons (62 games) for the Browns, catching seven touchdown passes along the way. He signed with the Chargers but was unable to play with a spine injury that ended his career at 29 years old.
He was hired as the Browns’ Director of Player of Engagement in 2011, a position he still holds. He remains close friends of Patriots’ star quarterback Tom Brady, a teammate at Michigan.
Dieken was a sixth-round draft pick of the Browns in 1971 out of the University of Illinois. He played all 14 seasons with the Browns from 1971-84, appearing in more games (203) in the NFL than any of the 14 Illinois Valley products.
Another Streator native, Russel Daugherty, who was born 1902, played one season with the NFL’s Frankford Yellow Jackets (1928). Like many area pros, he also played for the Fighting Illini.
Roy Ruskuksy, who was born April 6, 1921, in Spring Valley and played for Hall High School. He played two seasons in the old AAFC, including 1946 with the AAFC’s San Francisco 49ers (1946) and the New York Yankees (1949). He played college ball at St. Marys College of California.
Oglesby-born Bo Molenda played 11 seasons in NFL, including stints with the New York Yankees (1927, ‘28), the Green Bay Packers (1928-’32) and the New York Giants (1932-’35). He played high school ball in Michigan and went on to play for the University of Michigan.
One of the true area greats of the gridiron is St. Bede almunus Ken Gorgal. The three-sport Bruins’ star took his talents to Purdue University to play both quarterback and defensive back and return kicks and punts. He was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the sixth round of the 1950 draft. He received a $200 signing bonus and told the Peoria Journal Star in a 2011 interview, “I’d never seen $200 before in my life.”
The star safety made six interceptions for the Browns 1950 NFL champions. After two years in the Army, he returned to the Browns, who smashed the Lions 56-10 for another NFL championship in 1954. A year later, he was traded to the Bears, whom he had rooted for as a youth growing up in Peru. The love affair didn’t last long when he clashed with Bears’ owner/coach Papa Bear Halas, who released Gorgal during the 1956 season.
The rival Green Bay Packers claimed Gorgal off waivers, making him the only Illinois Valley native to play on both sides of the heated NFL rivalry. He played the season out with the Packers but retired after the 1956 season at age 27. Gorgal, 82, who lives in Chicago told the Journal Star he was still bitter about being let go by the Bears and didn’t want to go back to Green Bay because it was “Bush League.”
Mendota great Bill Brown was a star fullback for the Minnesota Vikings from 1962-74 after being drafted out of the University of Illinois by the Bears in 1961. He played in five Pro Bowls, was named the MVP of the Vikings several times and was selected to the Vikings’ 25-Year Club on the 25th anniversary of the founding of the franchise.
At Mendota, his Trojans won the NCIC from 1954-’56, but the one big one got away from him in the NFL where the Vikings dropped three Super Bowl games.
“I think I was fairly satisfied with my accomplishments in the NFL, but you wanted to win a Super Bowl,” Brown, who still lives in the Minneapolis area, once told the Mendota Reporter.
Robert Neuman of Mendota played three seasons with the Bears (‘34-’36), appearing in 24 games at end. He played his college ball at Illinois Wesleyan University.
A third Mendota Trojan went north of the border to make his claim to fame in the Canadian Football League. Ray Jauch, a 1956 MHS grad, played his college ball at Iowa. He was drafted by the NFL”s Buffalo Bills but opted for a higher-paying proposition with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League.
His playing career was cut short in his second season when he tore an Achilles tendon. He became head coach of Edmonton in 1970, where he lead the Eskimos to three Grey Cup appearances, winning the Super Bowl of the CFL in 1975. He would also serve as head coach for Winnipeg and Saskatchewan before returning to Mendota in the late ‘90s.
The CFL also became a home away from home for Utica native Leo Kahill, who was also a successful coach and general manager.
Two area players saw action during the NFL strike of 1987. Walnut’s Ron Bohm played three games at defensive end with the St. Louis Cardinals. He was a star for the Walnut Blue Raiders and the University of Illinois.
Princeton’s Pete Roth broke through with the Miami Dolphins’ replacement strike team, playing three games. He was a standout running back for PHS and Northern Illinois.