The University of Illinois has a rich history of athletic excellence stretching back to the infancy of basketball and the era before the forward pass. Welcome to Illini Legends, where I'll be dusting off some stories of the past glories of Illinois Fighting Illini from days gone by. Everyone knows about Red Grange, Dick Butkus and the Flyin' Illini, but those are just the most prominent figures in our history. Let's dig deeper.
For a long time, Illini blogger Robert of Illiniboard.com had been ranting and raving about how unbelievably bad the Illini were at intercepting the ball, and numbers backed him up. In the linked post, he listed every team by interception total from 2003 to 2013 and Illinois was dead last (120th out of 120).
"That's just... that's just stunning. I want to scream. Three coaches, countless defensive coordinators, 126 games... 83 interceptions."
Last year, however, the Fighting Illini defense proved to be tough against the pass, snagging 13 interceptions in their 12 games for an average of 1.1 per game. At long last, the Illini were playing up to the level of Al Brosky, and his spirit could rest easy.
Who is Al Brosky, besides the owner of a fantastic surname? (It's either bro + ski or it rhymes with Oskee) He is the owner of the all-time record for career interceptions in FBS college football with 29 and he did it in only 27 games over three seasons (Bowl game statistics have not been counted. He picked off a 30th pass in the Rose Bowl after the 1951 season, but the official record book lists 29. Stats from the early 1950's are hard to come by).
Born in 1928 to Czechoslovakian immigrants in Cincinnati, Brosky started at halfback his only year of high school football for Chicago's Harrison High School and was enlisted in the Army from 1946 to 1948. After spending a year at St. Louis playing halfback, Brosky transferred to Illinois to continue playing football for legendary coach Ray Eliot. He started at safety in 1950, a year in which he set the Big Ten record for interceptions in a season with 11 for the 7-2 Fighting Illini. Against Iowa that year, he began a streak of intercepting a pass every game that lasted until October of 1952. The 15 consecutive games in which Brosky got a pick is also an NCAA record that still stands.
In 1951, Brosky's 10 interceptions propelled the Fighting Illini to a Rose Bowl berth. They defeated
Washington Stanford 40-7 in the first nationally televised football game to finish the season 9-0-1; it is the most recent national championship claimed by Illinois. Brosky was an All-American during this year.
In 1952, the Fighting Illini fell to 4-5, but Brosky continued to pick off quarterbacks at a generous clip, racking up 8 to total 29 for his illustrious career. A senior captain and team MVP, Brosky also returned punts throughout his three years, averaging 6 yards per return.
After Illinois, Brosky would play one season of professional football for the NFL's Chicago Cardinals. He had two interceptions in nine games. Brosky was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1998 and was voted the greatest Illini defensive back of all time in 2010. He passed away later that year at the age of 82. Here's his story as he tells it:
"We had a good season when we went to the Rose Bowl. Any sport that I played, I just played it. That's all. I never added up my hits or walks. I just played the game and let it go. I didn't know how many interceptions I had. I never paid any attention to it. I wasn't afraid of hitting. I was brought up in a neighborhood that you better hit first and hit hard. The College Football Hall of Fame was the top of everything. When Ron Guenther got in there (as AD), a few of my friends knew him and they said, 'What about Brosky?' He looked it up and said 'Oh, my God, what happened here?'
Lou Tepper was another one. We had a golf tournament there and he came over to talk to me. He said, 'I played defensive back. Guess how many interceptions I had? Four.' After the golf tournament, he was walking up and down the aisle saying, 'Reporters, here's your story, Brosky. He's one of the best there ever was.' I went to St. Louis University the first year. I was a running back and I did pretty well. The president of St. Louis University took me out to lunch and told me, 'If you want to continue with football, watch your grades and leave St. Louis.' He told me they were going to give up football. I wrote Ray Eliot a letter before I went there. I wanted to know if I would have a chance to try out for the football team. He said, 'You're sure welcome to come out for the team.' It worked out."
- Al Brosky, NCAA career interception leader
Al Brosky holds the FBS records for career interceptions (29), career interceptions per game (1.1) and consecutive games intercepting a pass (15). He's undoubtedly one of the greatest to ever wear the Orange and Blue, and hopefully his spirit will guide our secondary this year as it did last year.