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Big Ten Icons: Red Grange

It’s an exaggeration, but only a slight one, to describe Red Grange as the “Babe Ruth of College Football.” Grange played only three varsity seasons at the University of Illinois, in the nation’s heartland, while  Ruth was a larger-than-life presence on New York’s Yankees for nearly two decades. He’s credited with rescuing baseball from the throes of a gambling scandal, and there’s no doubt Ruth transformed how the game was played through his unprecedented and prodigious slugging. Yet Grange was such an electrifying performer as “the Galloping Ghost” during those three Illinois seasons that he helped college football take its

Big Ten Icons: Magic Johnson

Sometimes it’s right there in front of you. Struggling to find the right word to describe freshman Earvin Johnson’s play in a 36-point, 18-rebound performance for Lansing Everett High School, Lansing State Journal sportswriter Fred Stabley Jr. settled on “Magic.” The choice could not have been more appropriate. Over the next 20 years, Earvin “Magic” Johnson would become one of the most celebrated and accomplished basketball players in the world, first at Michigan State University, then for the Los Angeles Lakers. “Magic” — the one-word handle became as distinctive as “Pele” or “Ali,” applicable to one man only and a

Big Ten Icons: Jesse Owens

Thousands of athletes have distinguished themselves and earned acclaim for their schools in the storied 114-year history of the Big Ten Conference, but no individual’s accomplishments cast a larger shadow than those of Jesse Owens. In 1936, three years before the world went back to war, his fleet feet and indomitable spirit struck a telling blow against Adolph Hitler’s plans for worldwide Nazi domination. A sharecropper’s son and grandson of a slave, James Cleveland Owens was born Oakville, Ala., in 1913 and was known as “J.C.” to his parents and 10 siblings. The family moved to Cleveland when he 9

Big Ten Icons: Archie Griffin

It stands to reason that running backs would be distinguished citizens at Ohio State University, where “three yards and a cloud of dust” was the unquestioned football mantra through the storied Woody Hayes Era and for at least a few years on either side of it. Archie Griffin is the most distinguished of those citizens. The Buckeyes have certainly had bigger backs than Griffin. Some were faster, and quite a few went on to more accomplished professional careers. But in terms of sheer consistency and productivity, no one ever did it better than the 5-foot-8, 182-pound dynamo from Columbus. The

Big Ten Icons: Tom Harmon

Tom Harmon transcends the overused term “football hero.” He was a hero in most every sense of the word. Seventy years after he last performed as a single-wing tailback for the University of Michigan, “Old 98” is still remembered as perhaps the most talented player in Wolverines history, a true triple threat on offense and a standout on defense. He was also the punter and the place-kicker. He probably would have taped ankles and passed out the orange slices at halftime had he been asked. “Tom Harmon does more things than Red Grange,” Hall of Fame coach Amos Alonzo Stagg

Big Ten Icons: Dick Butkus

In the history of sport, it’s doubtful there has ever been a more ideal melding of game, player and position than football, Dick Butkus and middle linebacker. It’s as if he were born to play the position, or the position were invented with Butkus in mind. All-American, All-Pro, Hall of Famer … even the highest accolades don’t really capture the talent and intensity he brought to the game. Thirty-six years after hung up his cleats and limped off the field on his ravaged knees for the last time, the name Dick Butkus remains synonymous with a relentlessly fierce style of

Big Ten Icons: Nile Kinnick

Truth, we are told, can be stranger than fiction. In Nile Kinnick’s case it was also more impressive. The spellbinding exploits of Frank Merriwell and Jack Armstrong and other fictional sports heroes of the early 20th century had nothing on the real-life accomplishments of Kinnick, who with his fellow Ironmen pretty much rescued University of Iowa football during a magical 1939 season that still stirs the imagination 71 years after it took place. There’s a reason the Hawkeyes’ home field bears Kinnick’s name. All of Iowa was hit hard by the Great Depression and its aftermath, and Kinnick’s proud, hard-working

Big Ten Icons: Jerry Lucas

In an era of no Internet, very limited television and no recruiting services to turn teenage athletes into national celebrities, how does a kid from small-town Middle America become the most famous high school basketball player in the nation? By being as talented and as well-rounded as Jerry Lucas. Before there was Bill Bradley, before there was Larry Bird,  there was Jerry Lucas. Bradley was known for his talent, work ethic and smarts during an All-America career at Princeton. Bird came in a larger package at Indiana State. Those same attributes distinguished Lucas, and they came in a solid 6-foot-8

Big Ten Icons: Rick Mount

Sinatra had his voice, Hendrix had his guitar, and Rick Mount had his jump shot. Sinatra’s smooth-as-velvet singing and Hendrix’s pyrotechnic playing likely generated more worldwide fame and fortune, but it’s doubtful either man had more mastery of his instrument than Mount did any time he had a basketball in his hands, anywhere in a gym. He averaged 32.3 points per game and shot nearly 50 percent from the floor over his three varsity seasons at Purdue from 1967-70. If there was a layup among his 910 career buckets, no one readily remembers. And this was before the advent of

Big Ten Icons: Isiah Thomas

Isiah Thomas was one of the most heavily recruited basketball players the Chicago area has ever produced. Bob Knight landed him by winning over the person who exerted the strongest influence in Thomas’ life: his mother. Mary Thomas was an incredibly strong-willed woman who raised her own nine children and helped with scores of neighborhood kids in the notoriously tough “K-Town” area of the city’s West Side. Once she decided Indiana was the best place for her youngest, the battle was over. “I don’t think Coach Knight was used to people standing up to him the way my mother did,”