By Doug Halberstadt
Last week, I wrote a column (“Who are the 10 most famous athletes from Rockford?” posted online June 11) in which I composed a list of my choices for the “10 Most Famous Athletes from Rockford, Ill.” I never would have imagined how much feedback and conversation a column such as that could create. It has been a lot of fun hearing from so many people and reading their suggestions about who should have made the list.
I also learned from a few people that I should have titled it “The 10 Most Famous Sports Figures from Rockford.” More than one person questioned whether a professional pool player or a NASCAR crew chief qualified as athletes. That remains a topic for discussion in perhaps another column, on another day.
What I did learn is that the most blatant error I made was leaving “Bad” Brad Hefton off my list. The former Professional Karate Association heavyweight champion and member of the Illinois State Martial Arts Hall of Fame definitely should have made the list. He ruled the world of kickboxing in the 1970s and 1980s, and is still regarded as one of the most fearless fighters in the history of the sport.
Two other names that were mentioned more than a few times were Ira Matthews and Jerry Latin. Both were star football players. Matthews played his college ball at the University of Wisconsin. He led the nation in punt returns in 1978. He averaged 16.9 yards per return, including three for touchdowns. He played professionally for the Oakland Raiders. He was named to the NFL 1979 All-Pro team as a return man during his rookie season. He played three years with the Raiders, and was a member of the Super Bowl XV championship team.
Matthews also set a Monday Night Football record on Oct. 25, 1979. In a game against the San Diego Chargers, he returned a kickoff 104 yards. Matthews is definitely another name worthy of making the list.
Latin’s name was suggested by numerous people as well. He was a two-sport (football and basketball) star at Rockford East High School in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He played collegiately for the NIU Huskies and spent four years in the NFL playing halfback and kick returner for the St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Rams. Latin continues to work and make his home here in Rockford.
Numerous other suggestions were made as well. All accomplished athletes, but none I — or most other people — would consider famous. There were also a few other suggestions that were famous but weren’t really from Rockford. The most popular person in this category was Danica Patrick. She was born in Beloit, Wis., and grew up in the Roscoe/Rockton area. Most people who are regular readers of my columns know I’m a big fan of Patrick’s and would never purposely slight her.
I thoroughly enjoy it when a column I write generates so much good discussion. It’s like striking gold for a writer. Thanks for all of the great comments and suggestions.
Doug Halberstadt can be reached via e-mail at Dougster61@aol.com.
Posted June 17, 2014