Kankakee’s Rich History with the National Football League

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Tyjaun Hagler, Al Babartsky and Harold “Butch” Woolfolk (left to right) are three NFL stars with Kankakee roots.

The Chicago Bears have called Kankakee County their Summer Home for nearly two decades.  But did you know Kankakee County has a rich history in football?  Country Herald takes a look at six former residents that went on to do big things both WITH and AGAINST the Chicago Bears, while others spurned the NFL altogether.

Blue Collar Men

It’s not often you see a man win a Championship for his hometown team and be asked years later to return to be honored as one of the greatest of all time!   Al Babartsky was that man.  Bart was so devoted to his fans that he legally shortened his name to “Bart.”

Bart worked for Fruehaul Trucking during the 1950s, but in 1943 won a World Championship with the Chicago Bears!  It wasn’t until 1966 Bart was asked to return to Chicago to be honored as one of the greatest Bears of all time. 

Photo via FindaGrave.com

Babartsky played in 53 games over the course of his NFL career. He died in 2002. His tombstone (shown above) reads “BART” to help fans find him. In 2019 the Chicago Bears celebrated their 100 years as a franchise by releasing their list of 100 greatest players of all time.  Bart’s name was not mentioned on the list.

Bart was a member of the Chicago Cardinals and Chicago Bears for six seasons. He was also a member of the Seven Blocks of Granite at Fordham University. The line also featured NFL legend, Vince Lombardi.

Seven Blocks of Granite, from left to right features Johnny Druze, Alex Wojciechowicz, Ed Franco, Al Babartsky, Natty Pierce, and legendary NFL coach, Vince Lombardi.

Spurned Legends

Bill Burrell was the 1959 Big Ten MVP.  He finished 4th in Heisman voting that year and came straight out of Clifton Central High School.  Burrell lived in Kankakee and Chebanse, but as a linebacker and guard, attended the University of Illinois.  Burrell was a consensus All American and was held with the highest regard as a player, drafted by both the American Football League (Buffalo Bills) and National Football League (St. Louis Cardinals) in 1960.  Burrell made enemies in both leagues when he choose to play professional ball in Canada instead. 

An official University of Illinois trading card featuring former Illini greats.

At any other school, those accomplishments would earn a place on a list that would be put before a committee for honors later in life.  However, Bill Burrell had his name slip through the cracks.  For his accomplishments, Burrell has earned a place in the College Football Hall of Fame.  In fact, in 1998, when Burrell passed away, the University of Illinois wrote in its media guide that Burrell was “currently on the ballot for election” and repeated that assertion to its fans annually until his 50 years came up in 2009.

Sadly, Bill Burrell was never nominated by the University. Burrell returned to Kankakee later in life as a business owner for over 30 years.  In 2017, Burrell was honored as a member of The Pigskin Club of Washington, D.C.  Later that year, Central High School renamed their football field, Bill Burrell Field.

Rushing Powerhouses

Born in Kankakee, James Smith was a running back for the L.A. Raiders, Washington Redskins, and Minnesota Vikings.  He attended the University of Michigan from 1974 to 1976.  During his time with the Wolverines, Smith caught 73 passes for a total of 1,687 yards, averaging 23.1 yards per catch.  Smith’s high came on November 8th, 1975 in a win over Purdue when he caught a career-high 184 yards on just five catches, including an 83-yard touchdown that set the record as the longest pass completion in Michigan history.  Today, he ranks #8 on the receiving yards per single-game record list for the Wolverines.  He was a first-team wide receiver on the 1976 College Football All-American Team.

Harold “Butch” Woolfolk attended Eastridge High School in Kankakee for one year.  He went on the play for the New York Giants, Houston Oilers, and Detroit Lions in the 1980s. Woolfolk also played for the Wolverines from 1978-1981.  He lead Michigan in rushing yards three straight years and set a school rushing record with 3,850 yards during his collegiate career. 

Highlights from Woolfolk’s MVP performance in the 1981 Rose Bowl.

Woolfolk was named MVP of the Rose Bowl in 1981 when the Michigan Wolverines beat the Washington Huskies, 26-6.  The game marked the first time legendary Coach Bo Schembechler won a bowl game after seven prior losses. Woolfolk’s NFL career was plagued with injuries in his seven seasons in the league.  He finished third in rushing as a rookie in 1982 and set an NFL record in 1983 with 43 rushing attempts in a single game.  Woolfolk also had seven 100-yard games, including receiving and rushing.

Super Bowl Champions

How would you like to have an athletic director with a Super Bowl ring?  That was the case with former NFL star Ted Petersen during his career at Kankakee Community College.  Petersen, who attended Momence High School, has not one but two Super Bowl rings with the Pittsburg Steelers during Super Bowl XIII and XIV with victories over the Dallas Cowboys and LA Rams. 

During his NFL career, he played in 94 games from 1977 to 1986.

Super Bowl XIV highlights

Kankakee vs Bourbonnais in the Super Bowl

Tyjuan Hagler has a rough history in the NFL as the only modern-era star to develop out of Kankakee County in the same span as the Chicago Bears calling the County home.  Hagler, who played high school ball with Bishop MacNamara, earned his Super Bowl XLI ring vs the Chicago Bears on February 4th, 2007. Hagler played from 2006-2010 and had a fumble recovery in the 29-17 win for the Indianapolis Colts.

Over the course of his career, Hagler played in 50 games with one interception, one forced fumble, two sacks and a total of 125 solo tackles.  The Tyjuan Hagler Foundation was founded in 2006 to inspire Hagler’s hometown community and inspire young kids to follow their dreams, regardless of adversities they face.

Who’s your favorite local NFL connection? Be sure to leave us a comment below.

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