The news of former USC receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe transferring to Illinois got my wheels spinning. I decided to dig through the archives to find some of my favorite Illini names. Maybe I’m partial to those that are difficult to say, since my last name has been butchered my entire life. Some should be pretty obvious, some will be a bit more obscure, and some will leave you asking “Who the hell is that?”
Honorable mention to Kennedy Cattenhead (women’s basketball), Chunky Clements (football), Justin DuVernois (football), Damir Krupalija (men’s basketball), Jens Kujawa (men’s basketball), the Mkwezalamba brothers (Tisunge, football; Maxwell, track), Maverick Morgan (men’s basketball), Wisdom Onyegbule (football), Gimel President (football), Fritz Rock (football), Anthony Sacramento (men’s gymanastics) and DeJazz Woods (football).
Let’s begin with those currently on Illini rosters, in no particular order.
A somewhat unheralded recruit when he signed with Illinois basketball prior to the 2018-2019 season, Giorgi immediately won the hearts of fans and the media with his charisma, charm, and most importantly, his play on the court. The European import was flat out dominant at times, including a freshman-record 35-point performance in a win against Rutgers. Giorgi, who has already ascended to first-name only status among Illini faithful, finished third in scoring with 12.5 points per game, behind only Trent Frazier and another single-named stud I’ll get to in a second. Bezhanishvili is proving to be one of Brad Underwood’s biggest recruiting wins as head coach and a building block for the program’s future. Never change, Giorgi. Never change.
While Giorgi was a pleasant surprise, Ayo has already shown the promise that made him one of the most sought-after players in the country. The Chicago native led the Illini in scoring as a freshman and flirted with the NBA this offseason. With Ayo back in the fold for (at least) one more year, the Illini are entering what feels like a make-or-break season. Fighting Illini fans have been desperately seeking an end to the team’s six-year NCAA tournament drought. Illinois finally has national expectations again and Ayo is the guy-o that has what it takes to fulfill them.
The Belgian swingman was virtually unknown when he announced his commitment to the Illini in early June. He looks like he has pretty good ballhandling skills and could be a decent scorer. But Illini fans really have no idea what to expect from the 6-foot-7 forward. He could be the next Giorgi...or the next Matic Vesel. Only time will tell. But what Bosmans-Verdonk does have is a really cool name with potential for a really cool nickname. “Big Bosmans” has been my favorite of the monikers I’ve seen so far (shout out to my fellow pro wrestling nerds).
Nancy Panagiotopoulou Andritsopoulou
That’s...a mouthful. The 6-foot-3 forward was an academic all-Big Ten honoree in 2019, but has yet to see any game action during her two seasons with Nancy Fahey and the Illini. I’m nicknaming her “Eye Chart.”
A member of the women’s gymnastics team, Balthazor has earned 14 individual event titles, including 11 during the 2018 season. She was honored as a Second Team NCAA All-American that year and also received the team’s MVP award. Rae Balthazor also sounds like a Game of Thrones character, which has to count for something.
Now, for the former players...
Allison racked up an impressive 106 catches and 1,480 yards in his two seasons in the Orange and Blue. Geronimo was signed by the Green Bay Packers as an undrafted free agent in 2016. Through three NFL seasons, Allison has amassed 55 receptions for 758 yards and four touchdowns.
In addition to having a pretty cool name, V’Angelo Bentley was one of the most productive special teams players in Illini history. Bentley is Illinois’ career leader in kick-return yardage and the only player in program history to return a fumble, interception, punt and kickoff for touchdowns. Bentley joined Penn State’s coaching staff as a Defensive Graduate Assistant in 2019.
I mean, come on. Twitter would’ve loved this dude because of his name alone. The younger brother of Uwe — who played at Indiana and spent five years in the NBA — Olaf scored just 19 total points in 22 contests from 1985-87.
This one was a no-brainer. Revered as one of the greatest Illini ever, Butkus excelled on the gridiron, earning consensus All-American honors in 1963 and 1964. Butkus was named Big Ten Most Valuable Player in 1963 and helped lead Illinois to a Rose Bowl victory over Washington. He finished his Illini career with 374 tackles, and his #50 is one of only two jerseys retired by the school (Red Grange’s #77 is the other). He was selected third overall by his hometown Chicago Bears in 1965 and immediately became one of the most-feared defensive players in the game. Butkus revolutionized the middle linebacker position; he went to the Pro Bowl eight times in nine seasons, and was a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year (1969, 1970). Butkus was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979, College Football Hall of Fame in 1983, and the Illinois Athletics Hall of Fame in 2016. His #51 was retired by the Bears in 1994. Butkus has also enjoyed a successful post-football career as a broadcaster, pitchman and actor (Hang Time, anyone?)
This is the era of Illini basketball when I really started paying attention to the team. Lined up with Kevin Turner, Kiwane Garris, Jarrod Gee and others, “Chook” suited up for the Illinois from 1996-2000. Chukwudebe started 24 games in the 98-99 season, averaging 5.6 points per game and 3.2 rebounds.
A member of the LAST ILLINOIS TEAM TO MAKE THE NCAA TOURNAMENT (Sorry...I promised myself I wouldn’t cry), Egwu logged 106 starts during four seasons in Champaign. Known as a rim protector (remember when Illinois had one of those?), Nnanna owns the school record with 201 career blocks. He’s currently playing overseas in Australia’s National Basketball League.
Perhaps my favorite name on this list, “Uh-Oh” played tight end for the Illini from 2007-2009. Hoomanawanui was a 5th-round pick of the St. Louis Rams in 2010 and played for three teams across eight NFL seasons, winning a Super Bowl with New England in 2015.
“Merciless” is a trait most football fans want to see in a pass rusher. So if your last name is LITERALLY Mercilus you’d better live up to the billing. The 6-foot-4, 260-pound defensive end was first team All-Big Ten after leading the nation with 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles in 2011. Mercilus was selected by the Houston Texans with the 26th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Switching to outside linebacker as a pro, Mercilus has continued to impress, totaling 276 tackles and 42.5 sacks.
Here’s another example of your name predicting future success. Spring is the current head coach for Illini men’s gymnastics and perhaps the most decorated gymnast in Illinois history. He is a three-time Big Ten champion (parallel bars, floor exercise, all-around) and a four-time NCAA champ (high bar - 2004, 2006; parallel bars - 2005, 2006). Spring left the Fighting Illini a 13-time All-American and still holds program records on floor exercise, vault, parallel bars and high bar. A 2008 Olympic bronze medalist, Spring guided his alma mater to an NCAA team title in 2012.
How great of an old-timey name is that? Thurlby was a member of the Illini basketball and baseball teams from 1946-1950. After averaging 8.8 points in 38 games on the hardwood for Illinois, Thurlby went on to a minor league baseball career. Playing and coaching in the Cubs organization, he batted .269 in 515 games and won 100 games in two seasons as a manager, according to baseball-reference.com. Thurlby passed away in 2000 at age 71.
Isiah “Juice” Williams
It’s interesting that two of the most beloved Illini football players of all time — Dick Butkus and Williams — attended the same high school, Chicago Vocational. And, much like Butkus, Juice’s play on the field left many Illini fans awestruck. A dynamic dual-threat quarterback, Williams helped the Illini ascend to national relevancy in 2007. The sophomore engineered one of the biggest wins in program history, a 28-21 upset over No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus. Illinois capped off that season with its first bowl game since 2002 and the team’s first Rose Bowl appearance in nearly 25 years. Simply put, Juice dazzled for the Orange and Blue, setting the program record for rushing yards by a quarterback (2,557) and finishing as the school’s all-time leader in total offense, with 10,594 yards (a record that would be broken by his successor, Nathan Scheelhaase).
That’s it! That’s the list. Any other suggestions for all-time “cool” Illini names? Please comment below.