Through the Trifocals

Illini trivia question: What Illini athlete played in five National Football League Super Bowls and brought home two championship rings? For a hint, this outstanding running back and third down receiver never played a single down of college football. Still don't know, then read Illinisports' latest column.

The subject of this column was a 13-year running back in the NFL from 1967-1980. In 176 games, he carried the ball 941 times for 3609 yards and 13 touchdowns, and he caught 254 passes for 3095 yards and 17 touchdowns. He played for legendary coaches Don Shula, Chuck Noll and Tom Landry. By the time of his retirement, he was considered the best clutch third down receiver in the NFL. And he played in five of the first thirteen Super Bowls, winning two of them.

Yes, Preston Pearson made many Illini fans proud with his outstanding pro football career. But the reason for this column has nothing to do with football. Indeed, it is timely because of the University of Illinois' 100 year basketball celebration and the reunion of all Illini basketball lettermen scheduled for the Minnesota game on January 29, 2005. Unfortunately, as of this date Preston is not planning to attend the festivities, and this writer would like to see that rectified.

Preston Pearson lettered two seasons with the Illini basketball team in 1966 and 1967. Never a great scorer, Pearson made his mark with his great athleticism and strong defense. He was intelligent and personable, he had a positive impact on his teams, and he demonstrated enough athleticism to attract the NFL. So much so that he was drafted in the 12th round by the Baltimore Colts.

But Preston wanted to be a basketball player and not a football player. His older brother Rufus was the great football player in the family. Rufus was considered one of the greatest halfbacks in the country by the time he had graduated from Freeport High School. Pete Elliott had recruited him successfully for Illinois, although he never made it to campus, first for an academic deficiency and later for a psychological problem that debilitated him.

Preston saw himself as less talented a football player than Rufus, so he decided to emphasize basketball. Because of his exceptional leaping ability, Preston often played center for Freeport despite being only 6'-1" tall. Thus, he didn't have an opportunity to develop his guard skills well enough to receive a full-ride scholarship to Illinois, his favored school.

Illinois often had to recruit high school centers and forwards and convert them to guard back in the 1960's because there were few big men playing high school basketball back then and the best players had to play inside. This was not always an easy transition. Preston wanted Illinois so badly that he came to school his freshman year as a "walk-on", although he did receive a partial scholarship. Having come from a poor working class family, the lack of a full scholarship was a big imposition on him. Illini fans have long loved his loyalty to his state school and the sacrifice he made to attend Illinois.

Freshmen were ineligible to play varsity, but Preston did start for his freshman team. According to his book "Hearing The Noise: My Life In The NFL" (William Morrow & Company, New York, 1985, 303pp.), Preston believed firmly that Illini coach Harry Combes had offered him a full scholarship to begin after his freshman year, especially since he was a starter on his freshman team.

Unfortunately for Preston, Combes remembered it differently. It was common to reward scholarships to walk-ons who started for the varsity, and perhaps that is what Combes intended. Since Combes has long since passed, we have no way of knowing his perspective. Regardless, Pearson became quite bitter over having to continue without scholarship aid, and this bitterness may linger even today.

Ironically, Preston admits this downturn of events had its positive aspects. First of all, it gave him an edge that made him fight harder on defense and use his athleticism to the maximum. This constant display of strength and explosiveness impressed the pro football scouts. And he became attractive to conservative pro football executives because he showed no outward display of rebellion or dissention over his plight at a time when black activism and anti-societal protest was increasing.

Preston saved all his fight for the basketball floor. He fearlessly guarded everyone from guards to centers, including a vain effort against the mighty Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul Jabbar). He backed down to no one and was involved in a few altercations with opponents.

One time, he actually decked his guard opponent with a right cross during action on the floor. While he might not be proud of that moment now, it excited the fans and inspired the team. Preston got his big chance to be a starter during the middle of his senior season when the Slush Fund made three starters ineligible, and he took advantage of the opportunity to help make that weakened team competitive.

Preston wanted to play pro basketball, and like most ballers he believed he should have made it there. Having known him personally and watched a majority of his games, this writer cannot be that optimistic about his overall ability. After all, Preston had one little problem...he couldn't shoot. He could do everything else with ease, but the ball just wouldn't go through the hoop. He tried so hard and looked so good, but the basketball gods just wouldn't reward him on the offensive end. Perhaps he would have never experienced a great football career if the ball had gone through the hoop more often.

One memorable shot must be shared. Pearson went in for a dominant, tomahawk dunk. He hit the back of the rim with such force that the ball literally flew out almost all the way to midcourt. What jumping ability. What strength. What bad luck.

Preston Pearson was shocked but excited when the Baltimore Colts drafted him even though he hadn't played football since high school. But that was the beginning of a charmed athletic career for the man who could get no respect or reward for his basketball prowess.

In a true reversal of fortune, for the next thirteen years Pearson always seemed to be at the right place at the right time. The Colts developed him slowly, giving him few playing opportunities in his first couple of years. But they kept working with him, believing in his potential for a positive destiny. As a result, Preston found himself playing in Super Bowl III with the powerful NFC juggernaut Baltimore Colts against the upstart AFC challenger New York Jets and their magical Joe Namath.

Obviously, Pearson's team didn't win the Super Bowl that year as the brash Namath put on a passing display for the ages. But he found himself back in the Super Bowl six years later with the vaunted Pittsburgh Steelers and their herd of All-Pro performers. Their 16-6 win over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IX gave Pearson his first Super Bowl ring.

Preston played his final six years as a Dallas Cowboy, and these were the best years of his career. He played in Super Bowls X, XII, and XIII with Dallas, winning another championship ring in 1978. And his 1978 season performance was his individual highlight, leading all NFL running backs in receiving with 47 catches for 526 yards. This accomplishment occurred primarily on third downs when opponents knew he was the primary option.

Preston Pearson was a household name among pro football fans by the time he retired after 1980. And University of Illinois fans cheered his every success, albeit from afar. He might not have played football at Illinois, but he was still one of our conquering heroes. Truly, Preston made a name for himself that rivaled almost every other Illini football great.

Sadly, Illini fans have never had the chance to reward him for his efforts in a tangible, direct way. Based on his book, there appear to be two main reasons why Pearson has never returned to the U of I, as an athlete or just as a graduate. One, he is still disturbed by the scholarship incident. And two, like his brother before him, it is not his nature to revisit the past, no matter how glorious. He prefers to look to the future, and that future may not include a visit to the U of I on January 29.

So this column serves a two-fold purpose. One, many younger Illini fans are otherwise unaware of one of Illinois's greatest athletes, and we hope this is now remedied. And two, we would like to make a personal appeal to an acquaintance who deserves to take his rightful place among the honored elite as we celebrate 100 glorious years of Fighting Illini basketball.

Preston, we empathize and understand at least some of the depth of your frustration. While we cannot know completely how you feel, we at least realize you have a right to your feelings. We respect you regardless of your decision relative to visiting campus this year or ever again.

But please understand that celebrations such as the special one on January 29 are as much for the fans as the former players. Illini fans have a need to remember their heroes and to praise them one more time. You still have many fans and supporters in the Illini community, many more than you may realize. They want to show you how much they appreciate all you have done, for yourself, your university, your family and the extended community where you live.

Fans don't know about your inner struggles, the barriers you needed to overcome to become all you are today. All they know is that you are one of their heroes, and they will miss you if you don't show up. Illinois basketball has had a proud history, and you are a part of that. You have as much right to be there as anyone else, and you are as welcome as anyone else. The coach who mistreated you is long gone, but many others who supported you then are still here to support you now.

Campus has changed significantly since you were here, but you will find many familiar sights nonetheless. And your memories, many of which are of a positive nature, will flood back into your conscious awareness as you retrace your favored steps. You were a success at the University of Illinois and earned your degree despite the obstacles. You have a right to celebrate that, and the campus atmosphere can remind you of what you accomplished.

You saw some of the greatest highs and lowest lows while at Illinois. You were part of a basketball team that was building momentum toward a national championship run. Beating Kentucky at Kentucky opened many eyes (and embarrassed more than a few bigots). You also saw firsthand the devastation of the Slush Fund. And then you helped guide a young remnant team to several outstanding upset victories.

You have much to remember, and Illini fans have much to share with you. Please keep an open mind about a possible return for a visit to the U of I. Even if you can't visit formally on January 29, please consider coming back on your own sometime. The U of I was your home for four years, and it longs for its family to return and reconnect.

And even if you don't return, it is hoped this column can help remind those fans who might have forgotten you and the younger fans who never knew about you. You are an Illini, and you always will be. Preston Pearson, thanks for the memories.

Go Illini!!!


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