Numerous Northwestern and Illinois players have made the transition to the National Football League. The Fighting Illini currently have 17 former players in the NFL and the Cats have 16. (Graphic by Carly Schulman)
Numerous Northwestern and Illinois players have made the transition to the National Football League. The Fighting Illini currently have 17 former players in the NFL and the Cats have 16.

Graphic by Carly Schulman

Football: Next level rivalry: Comparing the impact of Wildcats, Fighting Illini on the pro game

November 23, 2021


Before he was scoring 42-yard touchdowns for the Detroit Lions, running back Godwin Igwebuike suited up on the opposite side of the ball. 

Igwebuike roamed the defensive backfield as a safety for the Wildcats, contributing to bowl victories in two consecutive seasons and earning two second-team All-Big Ten nods.His journey from undrafted free agent to converted running back may be incredible, but he’s just one player in a recent wave of “Pro Cats” helping turn the NFL purple. 

The 2021 draft marked the first time multiple NU players were drafted in the first round, with the Los Angeles Chargers selecting offensive tackle Rashawn Slater at No. 13 and the Cleveland Browns picking cornerback Greg Newsome II at No. 26.

But is this trend enough to give the Cats bragging rights over archrival Illinois, a program that has produced legends such as Red Grange and Dick Butkus? Does a rivalry that has been as even as they come — currently sitting at 55-54-5 in the Fighting Illini’s favor — have a clear winner on the pro level? 

Here’s how the two programs compare in their NFL footprint ahead of their matchup in the season finale.

Current NFL players

Illinois and Northwestern are nearly even in their numbers of current NFL players, with the Fighting Illini boasting 17 alumni in the pros and the Cats close behind with 16. But when it comes to the impact of those players, NU is a clear leader. 

Newsome and Slater have made immediate contributions to their teams, with Newsome registering seven pass breakups across eight games and Slater enjoying a historic rookie season protecting Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert’s blind side. The Cats also have a starting quarterback in their corner in Saints quarterback Trevor Siemian. Browns place-kicker Chase McLaughlin headlines Illinois’ list, along with Jaguars defensive end Dawuane Smoot and Cowboys wide receiver Malik Turner.

EDGE: Northwestern

NFL legends

NU can lay claim to one of the winningest quarterbacks of all time in Otto Graham, a selection to both the College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame and a three-time league champion with the Cleveland Browns. The Cats have another Hall of Famer in quarterback and halfback Paddy Driscoll, along with Pro Bowl regulars Steve Tasker and Chris Hinton.

The Fighting Illini have a defensive legacy, with fearsome linebackers Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke ruling the NFL in the ’60s and ’70s and defensive lineman Simeon Rice racking up 122 sacks and a Super Bowl ring at the turn of the century. Running back and receiver Bobby Mitchell is another Illinois Pro Football Hall of Fame selection as a transcendent receiving threat in the 1960s.

EDGE: Even

NFL coaching

Given the statewide popularity of the Chicago Bears, Illinois alum George Halas is a pretty important name. He coached the Bears for 40 seasons and formerly held the all-time coaching wins record while also playing for the team in the 1920s. Oh, and he co-founded the NFL. Recently fired Illinois head coach Lovie Smith, who did not attend the school or serve as a coach in Champaign prior to his NFL tenure, led the Bears to the Super Bowl in the 2006-07 season.

Thankfully for Cats fans, Pat Fitzgerald opted to stay in Evanston on a 10-year contract rather than entertain rampant NFL interest this past offseason. But NU has had a couple of stars on the sidelines. 

Dennis Green, the Cats’ coach for much of the 1980s and the second Black coach of a Division I football team, turned the Minnesota Vikings into a perennial Super Bowl contender. Most recently, former Cats running back Jason Wright joined the Washington Football Team as its president in 2020, becoming the first Black person to serve in the role for an NFL team.

EDGE: Illinois

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Twitter: @john__riker

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