Aug. 1, 2001
Dwight "Dike" Eddleman, the greatest athlete ever to have competed for the Fighting Illini, died this afternoon at Carle Hospital in Urbana at the age of 78, due to a heart ailment.
Eddleman put together a collegiate athletic career that may never be matched, since he not only earned multiple letters and competed in pinnacle events in three sports: football's Rose Bowl, basketball's NCAA Final Four, and the Olympics (for track and field), all in a span of less than two years.
"This is a sad day for the University of Illinois and for all of its friends and fans with the passing of Dike Eddleman," said Director of Athletics Ron Guenther. "He was a terrific athlete, but more importantly, he was a terrific person. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Eddleman family. His legacy on our campus will last as long as athletics are played at the University of Illinois."
Eddleman set Big Ten records for punting and punt returning, and was an outstanding receiver for Ray Eliot's Fighting Illini football teams of 1946-48. Eddleman won the Big Ten Silver Medal in 1949 and also led the nation in punting. He was a member of the 1946 Big Ten championship football squad which went on to defeat UCLA, 45-14, in the 1947 Rose Bowl. He booted an 88-yard punt against Iowa--that record still stands. He also returned punts for 89 and 92 yards for touchdowns.
On the basketball court, Eddleman was a member of the famed "Whiz Kids" teams that played under Coach Harry Combes. He led the squad in scoring during two of his three seasons. He earned All-Big Nine (predecessor of Big Ten Conference) honors his junior year, averaging nearly 14 points per game. The following season, Dike led the Orange and Blue to the Big Ten title and a berth in the NCAA Final Four, earning team MVP honors as the Illinois captain.
Eddleman had entered the University of Illinois in 1942, but the rule against freshman participation prevented him from lettering in football or basketball that year. In the spring of 1943, however, when the rule was rescinded, he earned the first of his 11 varsity letters--this one as a high jumper on the Illini track & field team for Coach Leo Johnson. After World War II intervened, Eddleman continued his track career, and literally soared to new heights. He won five Big Ten individual titles, and led the Illini to both the indoor and outdoor conference championships with high jump titles of his own. The next season he provided an encore performance, winning both the indoor and outdoor Big Ten high jump crowns while leading the Fighting Illini to both team championships. After winning the NCAA high jump championship, he capped off his track and field career by tying for second place and winning a silver medal at the 1948 Summer Olympic Games in London.
An ironman with not much of an off-season, Eddleman trained and competed year 'round. From the fall of 1947 to the fall of 1948, for example, he was in training or in competition on 354 of the 365 days. While he and the other Olympic athletes trained on board the ship as they headed for London that summer, they didn't train on the way back. He missed just 11 days of training between the Olympics and the start of football.
Eddleman was born Dec. 27, 1922, in the southern Illinois community of Centralia. When he was in grade school, he and his friend Stanley Eager, built high jump standards and emulated their hero, Lowell Spurgeon, a UI track athlete at the time. At the age of 14, Eddleman, an eighth-grader, cleared the six-foot mark in the high jump and was offered a college scholarship. That was the beginning of a statewide craze known as "Eddlemania." Eddleman would later be recruited by almost every major college in the nation, not only for track, but also for football and basketball. Even professional baseball organizations sought his services, though he did not compete in the sport as a high school athlete.
It was Illinois Governor Dwight Green that helped persuade Eddleman to matriculate to the University of Illinois. Eddleman was never sorry about that decision. In fact, in a 1977 story in the Daily Illini, he is quoted as saying, "I had no reason to go out of state because I was near home. You're known in the state and you graduate from the University of Illinois, and it helps you later in life to make a living. Who would know me out in California, New York, or somewhere else?"
As things turned out, even in retrospect, Eddleman underestimated his notoriety. His exploits as a high school basketball player spread his name far and wide. He led the Centralia Orphans to a third-place finish in the 1941 state tournament and to a state title the next season. Eddleman single-handedly led a dramatic comeback from 13 points down in the last five minutes of the 1942 championship game. He scored 2,702 points in his four-year high school basketball career.
He missed his sophomore and junior football seasons due to a knee injury he sustained on the gridiron as a freshman. But there was no rust to Eddleman's game when he returned as a senior. He finished third in the state in scoring and was selected captain of the all-state team. In track, he took third in Illinois in the high jump his freshman year, then won three Illinois High School Association (IHSA) titles as a sophomore, junior and senior.
It is no wonder that Eddleman became a member of the National High School Association Hall of Fame and the all-time IHSA all-state basketball team.
Even as a high school star from a town of 16,000, Eddleman attracted the attention of national magazines such as Life, Look, Sport Life and Saturday Evening Post. Each of those publications sent reporters to interview him in Centralia.
Eddleman's life would also be well documented while he attended Illinois, but perhaps not so well after he graduated. After weighing his several options in professional sports, he elected to compete in the fledgling National Basketball League, forerunner of today's NBA. He enjoyed a four-year career in pro ball with the Tri-City, Milwaukee and Fort Wayne clubs. He retired from professional basketball in 1953.
After an 18-year career in personnel with Central Soya in Gibson City, Ill., Eddleman joined the UI Athletic Association to raise money for Fighting Illini athletics. Since 1969, when he began those efforts, the nationwide fundraising efforts he began have generated annual sums that have grown from $100,000 to more than $4.25 million.
Eddleman retired in 1992, but has served as Director Emeritus of the Fighting Illini Scholarship Fund since then. In 1993, the UI Division of Intercollegiate Athletics paid tribute to him by appropriately naming the University of Illinois male and female Athlete of the Year awards after Eddleman.
Dike Eddleman is survived by his wife, Teddy, of Champaign, Ill. and their four children: son Thomas Dwight Eddleman, Jr., his wife, Lynn, and children Thomas Wayne and Dwight Edward of Champaign, daughter Diana Eddleman Lenzi, her husband, Gene Lenzi, and children Beau Taylor and Blair Eddleman Wilson of Tuscola, Ill., daughter Nancy Dru Hambright, her husband, Randy Hambright, and their children, Georgie Dru and Anna Elizabeth Hambright of San Antonio, Texas, and daughter Kristy Ann Stevenson, her husband, Bobby Stevenson, and their child, Samantha Lee, of Orlando, Fla.
Funeral services for Dike Eddleman will be at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 4, at the University Place Christian Church, 403 S. Wright St., Champaign, Ill. The Rev. Deborah Owen and the Rev. John Faircloth will officiate. Private burial will be in the Roselawn Cemetery in Champaign. Visitation will be from 6-8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 3, at the Morgan Memorial Home, 1304 Regency Drive West, Champaign.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Dike Eddleman Scholarship in care of the University of Illinois Division of Intercollegiate Athletics or to University Place Christian Church.