Super Bowl LII, the last game of the football season, has come and gone and unfortunately will end without any Fighting Illini getting a Super Bowl ring. Ted Karras was the last Illinois alumnus in the playoffs, but he could only watch as Arizona alum Nick Foles outdueled Michigan’s Tom Brady en route to the Super Bowl MVP award.
Thirty-two years ago, Tony Eason became the first and (so far) only Fighting Illini to ever start the Super Bowl, and it went very poorly. Let’s take a look at how he got there.
The Legend of Champaign Tony
Tony Eason came to Illinois by way of a junior college in Sacramento in 1980 as part of new coach Mike White’s efforts to revive a moribund Fighting Illini program with an explosive passing offense. While redshirting due to transfer rules, he watched fellow California quarterback Dave Wilson throw for 621 yards against Ohio State and end up with the NFL’s New Orleans Saints as the QB of the future behind Archie Manning.
In his first season starting, he set the Big Ten on fire, breaking conference records for touchdowns, passing efficiency, passing yardage and other offensive stats while leading Illinois to a 7-4 record. He was such a sensation that a retired U of I music professor wrote and recorded a song christening him “Champaign Tony” and hyping him up for the 1982 Heisman Trophy.
The 1982 Fighting Illini lived and died with their senior quarterback, who broke several of his own conference and school records while also tossing 19 interceptions. Nevertheless, Illinois finished with seven wins yet again, and the Illini qualified for their first bowl game since before the sanctions from the Slush Fund Scandal of 1967. Illinois faced off against Bear Bryant’s Alabama Crimson Tide in Bryant’s final game, committing eight turnovers to lose 21-15, but the Big Ten MVP runner-up would leave Illinois as the most celebrated player since Dick Butkus.
Road to the Super Bowl
Eason was part of the legendary 1983 NFL draft class and was one of the six quarterbacks selected in the first round. He’d lost to Dan Marino’s Pitt Panthers in 1981 but led his East squad to a win over John Elway’s West team in the 1983 Shrine Game. The New England Patriots picked him 15th overall to replace oft-injured veteran Steve Grogan.
Though he struggled in limited action as a rookie, Eason flourished in 1984, tossing 23 scores to 8 picks and posting the third-highest QB rating in the NFL. Despite being sacked a then-record 59 times, Eason led four 4th-quarter comebacks and was a bright young star on a balanced offense anchored by the running of Craig James and the receiving of Stanley Morgan, Derrick Ramsey and Irving Fryar.
1985 was an uneven year for Eason, who only started 10 games while tossing 17 interceptions (against just 11 touchdowns), but a solid year for the Patriots as a whole as they leaned more on the rushing of James. Eason returned to start the last five games and was the established starter for the playoffs. Despite their 11-5 record, they finished third in the AFC East and would have to go on the road for the playoffs.
The New York Jets provided little resistance in the wild card round, and the Patriots’ defense stepped up to intercept the L.A. Raiders’ Marc Wilson three times en route to a victory. Eason threw three touchdowns on just 12 attempts against Dan Marino’s Miami Dolphins as the Patriots became the first team to ever win three road playoff games to make the Super Bowl.
The Big Moment
Lining up across from Eason in Super Bowl XX was the 1985 Chicago Bears defense.
That’s about all you need to know to guess how the game went for him...except it was even worse than you might imagine. After New England recovered a Walter Payton fumble at the Chicago 19, Eason threw three straight incompletions, setting up a field goal that would represent the Pats’ only lead of the game.
The Patriots held the Bears to a field goal, and Eason was set up with good field position at his own 41. After two incompletions, he was sacked for a 10-yard loss to force a punt, but the defense held. Once again, Champaign Tony had the ball in a tie game with perhaps the greatest defense football had ever seen, and on second and ten he dropped back — only to cough up the ball while taking a sack at his own 13.
Nevertheless, the defense held Chicago to a field goal and New England had the ball yet again, and this is where things got out of hand.
James was stuffed for a loss of five and stripped of the ball by Mike Singletary, after which point the dam broke and the Bears scored a touchdown. Eason would throw another incompletion and be sacked once more before being pulled from the game for Steve Grogan, but by then the score was 20-3 and Grogan fared little better.
Eason would finish the game 0-for-6 with three sacks and a lost fumble, which is still the worst statistical line for any quarterback to start the Super Bowl. He should shoulder little blame for this; three of his six attempts were dropped, and the whole offense was incredibly overmatched (as evidenced by the fact that making the quarterback switch did little to stop the bleeding).
Still, he’s remembered mostly for that horrible start in the Super Bowl, and to this day is reclusive and reluctant to talk about it.
Tony Eason’s story didn’t end there. He started a career-high 14 games in 1986, posting career highs in completion percentage and yardage and leading the Patriots to the AFC East title game. They traveled to face John Elway’s Denver Broncos in the playoffs and were forced to rely on Eason with a stagnant running game. He posted a better line than Elway’s 13-for-32 and one interception performance, but was sacked six times, with the last of them coming in his own end zone in the fourth quarter of a 22-17 heartbreaker.
By now, you can see a pattern emerging that involved Eason being sacked at a truly prodigious rate (in fact, over 10 percent of his career dropbacks resulted in sacks). One-hundred and thirty sacks in three years as a starter clearly took their toll, and he’d only start ten more games before retiring in 1990.
Nevertheless, an alumnus of our beloved Orange and Blue was once the starting quarterback of the Super Bowl.
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