By Matt Stevens - IlliniGuys Football Writer/Analyst
September 17, 2021
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Illinois will try to make it a perfect 2-0 record with a guest captain on the sidelines.
Three weeks after former Illinois head coach Ron Turner served in that honor prior to the 30-22 victory over Nebraska in the season opener and debut of the Bret Bielema era, former Illinois linebacker Kevin Hardy will be with the Illini as they host Maryland tonight for a 8 p.m. kickoff.
Hardy, a 1995 Butkus Award winner given to the nation’s best college football linebacker, is being inducted into the Illini Hall of Fame this weekend. Hardy was two-time All-Big Ten Conference selection and a consensus first-team All-American in 1995.
“I talked to Kevin earlier in the week and I am really excited to have him back here in the mix of our program,” Illinois head coach Bret Bielema said Thursday. “Kevin will be able to talk to our team after our practice on Thursday as we get excited to get back into Big Ten Conference play.”
Hardy, who was the No. 2 overall pick in the 1996 NFL Draft by Jacksonville, played nine years with the Jaguars, Dallas Cowboys and Cincinnati Bengals. In 1994, he teamed with fellow Illini Athletics Hall of Fame members Dana Howard and Simeon Rice, along with future long-time pro John Holecek to form one of college football's greatest linebacker groups at any school. Hardy finished his Illini career ranked ninth on the all-time Illinois list with 330 tackles, fourth in sacks with 18, and fourth in tackles for loss with 18.
The 15-person Illinois Athletics Hall of Fame Class of 2020 includes athletes and coaches from nine different sports and covers athletes from 1901 through 2013. Football is represented by Hardy, Pro Football Hall of Famer Ray Nitschke and two-time All-American Moe Gardner. Nitschke helped lead the Green Bay Packers to five world championships, including victories in Super Bowls I and II. Hardy earned consensus All-America honors in addition to the Butkus Award his senior season at Illinois, and Gardner is arguably the greatest defensive tackle in Fighting Illini history after earning First-Team All-Big Ten honors three times and consensus All-America recognition twice.
Long-time NBA star Derek Harper joins the Hall of Fame class with international luminary Tal Brody and Illinois's all-time leading scorer and rebounder for the women's program, Jenna Smith, enters the class this season as well.
Michelle Bartsch-Hackley was a three-time All-American on the volleyball court and was one of the great all-around players in program history. Vanessa DiBernardo was one of Illinois' most heralded soccer players, earning Second-Team All-America honors three times. Gia Lewis-Smallwood is the most accomplished field-event competitor in Illini women's track and field history after winning multiple U.S. championships and setting the American record in the discus.
Legendary coach Leo Johnson led Illinois to three NCAA and 17 Big Ten team titles, while coaching athletes who won 27 NCAA individual titles. The rest of the class also includes fencer Art Schankin, gymnast Don Tonry, wrestler Adam Tirapelle and baseball and football legend Garland "Jake" Stahl, who was an All-American football lineman and a catcher for the baseball squad as well.
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