Who are the 10 most famous athletes from Rockford?

Chad Knaus
Chad Knaus

By Doug Halberstadt
Sports Columnist

Sports writers are notorious for compiling lists. The 10 most this, or the top 10 greatest that. A column could probably even be composed of the “10 Best Sports Lists.” I thought it might be interesting to come up with my own. I want to see what names might appear on a list titled: “The Ten Most Famous Athletes from Rockford, Ill.”

Ideally, I would like to go out to CherryVale Mall during the Christmas shopping season and ask 100 shoppers to name the most famous athlete(s) they knew from Rockford. I would try to get a fair representation and cross-section of the population. I’d shoot for an equal number of males and females, people in their 20s, 30s 40s, 50s and older, and so on and so forth, and use those results to produce a list. But, since I neither have the time nor is it December, I compiled my very own list.

Keep in mind, I am a 53-year-old male who — other than the four years going to college in Peoria — has lived in Rockford my entire life.

The first name that immediately comes to my mind is Janet Lynn Nowicki. I was a pre-pubescent teen when she represented the USA in the 1972 Olympics. She was a very pretty blonde girl who brought back a bronze medal to Rockford. I’ll never forget the sense of pride she helped spread across this town. She takes the top spot on my list.

Chad Knaus has to come in second. The NASCAR crew chief has helped Jimmie Johnson win six Sprint Cup Series championships and does a great job mentioning Rockford in most of his interviews.

The next person I think of is Dallas West. I remember the buzz associated with his name when I was younger. It seemed like everybody claimed they knew him or played pool with him. He was inducted into the Billiard Congress of America Hall of Fame in 1996. Truthfully, I did play pool with him when I was in high school. He owned multiple pool halls in town. I seem to remember he ran the table against me at State and Madison.

I think Fred VanVleet would probably have topped the CherryVale Mall list. The Wichita State men’s basketball point guard grabbed the attention of thousands of stateline residents during the recent college basketball regular and post-season. He’s No. 4 on my list.

Another Olympian comes in at No. 5. Kenny Gould was a bronze medalist welterweight boxer in the 1988 Olympics.

I’m guessing a few of the older folks would have mentioned Ernie Kent first. Kent played high school basketball for Rockford West High School. As a class of 1973 senior, he was named Parade magazine and Scholastic magazine All-American. He played college basketball for the Oregon Ducks. He went on to eventually become the head coach at his alma mater and is employed as the men’s basketball head coach at Washington State University. He checks in at No. 6 for me.

No. 7 is Gene Lamont. The former Major League Baseball player and manager was born in Rockford, but grew up in and around Kirkland. He spent his entire playing career with the Detroit Tigers. He is one of the few players who hit a home run for his first career hit in the majors. In 1993, he was named the American League Manager of the Year while managing the Chicago White Sox. He is currently the bench coach for the Detroit Tigers.

Rockford is the hometown to another Olympic bronze medalist. Ronald Merriot is No. 8 on my list. He represented the USA in the 1984 Summer Games. I think he might have been higher on this list if I hadn’t been so busy doing a variety of other things that summer that didn’t allow me to spend a ton of time following the Olympics that year.

Former Chicago Cubs pitcher Rodney Meyers captures the No. 9 spot on my list. He pitched in the majors for the Cubs, Padres and Dodgers from 1996 through 2004. He finished his major league career with a 7-5 record and 161 strikeouts.

The 10th, and final, spot on my “Most Famous Athletes from Rockford, Ill.,” list goes to former Rockford Guilford High School linebacker Carlos Polk. He went on to star at Nebraska in the late 1990s. He was drafted by the San Diego Chargers in the fourth round (112th overall) in 2001. He played for the Chargers until 2007, and then was signed by the Dallas Cowboys in 2008. He is on Lovie Smith’s staff as an assistant special teams coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Obviously, this list is totally subjective and would have been my answers if I had to come up with a list of 10 famous athletes from Rockford. You might have other names you feel worthy of mentioning. If so, drop me a line and let me know who would have made your list.

Doug Halberstadt can be reached via e-mail at Dougster61@aol.com.

Posted June 11, 2014

8 thoughts on “Who are the 10 most famous athletes from Rockford?

  • Jun 11, 2014 at 3:29 pm

    What about that kickboxing guy?

    • Jun 11, 2014 at 4:02 pm

      Good call Joe……his name is Brad Hefton……he definitely should have been on the list!!!!!!!

  • Jun 11, 2014 at 5:42 pm

    Jill Hollembeak from Rockford/Cherry Valley, power tumbler, three-time world champion, five-time national champion, and member of the US Team that won three world championships. Inducted into the US Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2011. Read more here:


  • Jun 12, 2014 at 1:08 pm

    Bob Packard, one of the few people from Rockford to go to the Olympics and one of the few people who ever beat Jessie Owens in a race

  • Jun 12, 2014 at 7:26 pm

    Jerry Latin

  • Jun 13, 2014 at 8:50 am

    Hey Doug,

    I agree Hefton should have been on the list, he also did some acting in at least one movie I know of, don’t ask the name as it was a really bad ‘B’ movie. I worked with Brad for a number of years at Youngberg, Ind in Belvidere.

    How about Ira Matthews from that unforgettable ’74 Rockford East High State championship football team? He went to University of Wisconsin, led the nation in punt returns in 1978, three for touchdowns.
    Matthews set a Monday Night Football record with a 104-yard return and was a member of the Oakland Raiders Super Bowl XV championship team.

    Jerry Latin?

  • Jun 18, 2014 at 8:39 am

    Not much of a list. #2 is just a mechanic, not an athlete. #3 is a table games talent, not an athlete. #7 is on the list just because he happened to be born in Rockford, not raised here. #8 you don’t even bother listing his sport.

    The cruel reality is that for such a large city, Rockford does not generate many top level athletes. I would have listed Cliff Perteete, Calvin Glover, Mark Sibley and Jim Sallis from the near-undefeated Rockford West basketball team of 1966-67.

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