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Friday, November 4, 2011
Last campaign in Champaign

By Scott Powers
ESPNChicago.com

Jim Grabowski smiles and shakes his head each year when watching the Heisman Trophy presentation.

Not that the 67-year-old Grabowski wants to sound like an old man, but, well, things were different in his day.

Jim Grabowski
Jim Grabowski rushed for 1,258 yards in 1965 -- his second straight season with the country's second-highest total -- and finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting.
"I get kind of a laugh now," said Grabowski, who played fullback for Illinois from 1963 to 1965. "Now the top-five candidates fly to New York, and you have a weekend and sit there for the announcement. I think I learned by exception. They didn't call me and say, 'You didn't get it.' I saw in the newspaper that Mike Garrett won. I said, 'Oh well, I finished third.'"

"Like in every sport, it didn't have the hype and the coverage it has now," he said. "Still, it was a great award to win. I would have loved to have got it."

Grabowski's 1965 season represents the last time an Illini player was a legitimate contender for the Heisman Trophy. Tony Eason came the closest since, with an eighth-place finish in 1982. Dave Wilson (1980), Jeff George (1989) and Kurt Kittner (2001) also received Heisman votes during their respective seasons in Champaign.

Grabowski's standout season came on the heels of Dick Butkus' Heisman consideration in 1964. Like Grabowski, Butkus finished third in the voting.

Grabowski never had a problem receiving fewer votes than Tulsa's Howard Twilley and USC's Garrett in 1965. But he still believes Butkus was robbed in 1964. Butkus was beat out by Tulsa's Jerry Rhome and Notre Dame's John Huarte, who won it.

"Dick should have won it," Grabowski said. "I'm sure John [Huarte] is a wonderful guy, but I'm sure he won it because he was at Notre Dame."

Like Butkus, a fellow blue-chip high school recruit out of Chicago, Grabowski's achievements were expected at Illinois. Grabowski was highly sought after coming out of Taft High School on Chicago's northwest side. He chose Illinois over Michigan in a close decision.

"My best asset was I could get off the ball really quick," Grabowski said. "There was no such thing as a spread offense. It was hold your block and hit it quick enough."

Grabowski did that well throughout his Illini career. He ran for 491 yards in his first season in 1963. In the Rose Bowl in January 1964, he earned MVP honors with 125 rushing yards during an Illini win over Washington.

A year later, Grabowski wasn't far off from being in the 1964 Heisman discussion along with teammate Butkus. Grabowski ran for 1,004 yards in nine games and finished just shy of the nation's leading running back, Brian Piccolo, who had 1,044 yards in 10 games at Wake Forest. The pinnacle of Grabowski's season was by a 239-yard performance against Wisconsin, which was Illinois' single-game record until it was broken by Howard Griffith in 1990.

Coming off such a season, Grabowski set his sights on another robust output in 1965.

"I was proud of what I did the year before," Grabowski said. "The running game was so different than it is now. It was a goal to get 1,000 yards."

Grabowski exceeded his goal with 1,258 rushing yards. USC's Garrett led the country with 1,440 yards.

Jim Grabowski
Grabowski was the Big Ten's all-time leading rusher with 2,878 total yards when he was drafted in the first round of the 1966 NFL draft by Green Bay. He would go on to win two Super Bowl rings with the Packers.

Grabowski was the Big Ten's all-time leading rusher with 2,878 total yards when he was drafted in the first round of the 1966 NFL draft by the Green Bay Packers.

Injuries limited Grabowski to six years of pro ball, fewer than he had hoped for, but he won two Super Bowl titles with the Packers and closed out his career in 1971 with his hometown Chicago Bears.

"Coming to the Bears was a special highlight for me," Grabowski said.

Grabowski keeps his two Super Bowls rings in a safe deposit box and occasionally takes them out to show his grandchildren.

However, football wasn't done with Grabowski after he retired. Out of the blue, Grabowski said, he received a phone call from former Illinois radio broadcaster Dick Martin asking whether he was interested in being a color commentator for Illini football games. Grabowski said he'd take a shot; he was in the booth for 26 seasons.

Grabowski officially retired from broadcasting in 2007 when the lure of golf became too much.

"I live on a golf course and enjoy playing golf," said Grabowski, who resides with his wife, Kathleen, in Inverness, Ill., a northwest suburb of Chicago. "All those days in the fall seeing players here, I thought one of these days I'm just going to play golf on the weekend. It was time."

Grabowski, who has two daughters and four grandkids, plays golf a few days a week and finds other ways to spend the rest of his time.

"It's not bad," Grabowski said. "I stay busy. I remember asking [former Chicago Bulls player] Tom Boerwinkle, 'What are you doing in retirement?' He said, 'I can't tell you what I'm doing, but I'm busy.' That's how I feel about it."

Reflecting on his football career, Grabowski has only fond memories. It was the sort of career he couldn't even have dreamed of as a boy playing football with his neighborhood friends at Rosedale Park in Chicago.

"Growing up in the Midwest and to have a chance to play for the Packers and win the championships and play for the Bears, if you had told me that at 16, I would have said, 'Wow,'" Grabowski said. "I was a lucky guy."

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at spowers@espnchicago.com.