Famous athletes with roots in central Illinois


CHARLESTON, Ill. (WCIA) — A small college in central Illinois bred many athletes that went on to become household names.

Or at least…names the football fans in your family would know.

Before they became Cowboys, Bears, or 49ers, they were EIU Panthers.

Eastern has a wall of fame, devoted to the more than a dozen panther players that became NFL players and coaches, but started their career in the heart of Our Town Charleston.

Tony Romo for the Cowboys, and Jimmy Garropolo for the 49ers are probably the names you know most.

But there’s also Mike Shanahan, Sean Payton, Ray McElroy, Jeff Gossett, and Bob Spoo.

The athletics department says they may not have gotten the same exposure there during their college career, as they would have at a bigger school. However, it speaks volumes about the legacy and strength of the program.

“Everyone’s aspiration is to play at the NFL or to play at the professional level, and when you can say these guys went to school here…and they’re now a household name,” said Associate Athletic Director Rich Moser. “They were in your shoes, they sat in this classroom, they dressed in this locker room, you can get there from here. That’s what they want to hear.”

New players can’t pick numbers 17 or 18, because those are the retired jerseys of the athletes many of them hope to become one day.

It’s not just football, though. EIU has also boasted athletes that went on to become UFC World Champions and esteemed baseball players.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.