Feb. 1—Hard to believe a decade has passed since Nick Allegretti first popped up on the radar here in Champaign.
Not hard to believe the versatile offensive lineman and former Illini is experiencing success in the NFL.
Even when it wasn't exactly expected. The 27-year-old Allegretti, now in his fifth season with the Kansas City Chiefs, made only his second start of the season this past Sunday in the AFC championship game against the Ravens. He filled in admirably at left guard for All-Pro Joe Thuney, out with a pectoral injury, and played all 81 offensive snaps during the Chiefs' 17-10 victory. A win helped out by the fact the Chiefs' offense had the ball for more than 37 minutes and the offensive line only allowed two sacks of Patrick Mahomes.
Now, Allegretti gets a chance to make some history on Feb. 11 in Super Bowl LVIII. If Kansas City can win its third Super Bowl title since 2020 and knock off the 49ers in a rematch of Super Bowl LIV, the pride of Frankfort will win his third Super Bowl ring with the franchise that drafted him in the seventh round of the 2019 draft. That would give him the most Super Bowl wins of any former Illinois player.
Allegretti is currently tied with Dave Diehl, Jim Grabowski, Howard Griffith, Ted Karras, Ray Nitschke, Preston Pearson and Eugene Wilson for two Super Bowl wins by a former Illini.
While Allegretti won't get near the recognition as another seventh-round pick — 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy was the last pick during the 2022 draft — in the coming week, his contributions could still be vital if Kansas City wants to become the first team since the Patriots in 2003 and 2004 to win back-to-back Super Bowls.
It's not clear yet if Thuney will play against the 49ers, but if he doesn't, Allegretti proved capable against a stout Ravens' defensive line.
Plus, he has Super Bowl starting experience, having started against the Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV. But that game is more remembered by Chiefs' fans by the offensive line's inability to block for Mahomes as Tom Brady led Tampa Bay to an easy 31-9 win.
Either way, Allegretti has come a long way from his days starring at Lincoln-Way East, where he gave The News-Gazette a sneak peek into his experience at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in 2013.
Here's one tidbit from the five first-person essays he wrote for us during his weeklong stay in San Antonio a decade ago that still resonates to this day, showing off his maturity then that is evident now as a married father and consummate pro.
"Visiting the children's hospital is something that stuck out to me and has been my favorite part of the trip so far," Allegretti wrote in 2013. "It was nice to put a smile on the faces of kids going through some very tough times and to speak with the parents of the children who have the same illness my brother, Joey, had previously been diagnosed with.
"My older brother Joey, who (went) to Illinois, had leukemia, but he beat it (in 2009). I just tried to let the parents know that my brother is doing great and their kids will be fine."
Much like Allegretti is doing now. It wasn't always easy for him during his time at Illinois. Three head coaches, only one bowl game and five straight losing seasons. But he persevered.
Much like he's had to do in the NFL, with only 17 career starts — both in the regular season and postseason — during his five seasons.
It's why Allegretti, understandably, was a bit emotional talking to reporters on the field at M&T Bank Stadium last Sunday evening in Baltimore.
"I'm appreciative to be part of this organization," Allegretti said. "It was an emotional week. The fans are incredible. I try to stay off Twitter, but every time I opened it, it was a ton of support towards me. I'm not used to seeing anything on Twitter about myself, so that was incredible. You can't understate what Joe Thuney has meant to this team. I had a challenge, and the guys knew that. They were there for me all week, helping me with communication and making sure that I was ingrained with the starting five this week. God, I'm so proud of this team, proud of that offensive line and honored to be a part of it."
And it's why more of his well-known teammates, like Travis Kelce, have respect for Allegretti. Kelce, also known as Taylor Swift's boyfriend these days, called Allegretti one of his favorite teammates of all-time.
"Huge shoes to fill and stepped up like a champion," Kelce said on his popular 'New Heights' podcast he has with his brother, Jason Kelce. "Nick has been year-in, year-out, Mr. Reliable every single time he gets that opportunity to go in there. To play as good as he did and to play as big as he did in that moment in that game, we couldn't have done it without you, brother."
Senior watchFor more recent former Illini, these next few months are a chance to prove themselves to NFL teams.
Like Thursday night, when the East-West Shrine Bowl kicks off at 7 p.m. at the Ford Center at the Star in Frisco, Texas. Four former Illini will get the chance to showcase their talents in front of NFL personnel and on NFL Network, with all four of Bret Bielema's former players on the East roster.
Former Illini wide receivers Isaiah Williams and Casey Washington, tight end Tip Reiman and offensive lineman Julian Pearl, a Danville native, will take part in the game on Thursday night.
Then, on Saturday in Mobile, Ala., two former Illini will play in the Senior Bowl. Offensive lineman Isaiah Adams, along with defensive linemen Keith Randolph Jr. will suit up in the premier all-star showcase as part of the National team. Defensive lineman Johnny Newton, who is touted as a potential first-round pick by several mock drafts, was selected for the Senior Bowl but is not on either roster.
Making a racketBrad Underwood is a noted Chiefs fan. But he's not the only Illinois coach who is all-in on what Allegretti, Mahomes, Kelce and Swift are up to.
Count Illinois women's tennis coach Evan Clark among those hoping to see the Chiefs beat the 49ers on Feb. 11. Right after his Illini team, that currently sits at 4-2 after a win against No. 23 UCF this past Sunday in Norman, Okla., beats Mississippi earlier on that Sunday when the two teams meet at Atkins Tennis Center in Urbana before the Super Bowl begins later that day.
Why is Clark a Chiefs fan? Easy. He grew up in Liberty, Mo., a suburb of Kansas City, before he went on to play tennis in college at Missouri-Kansas City.
"I'm OK with the Chiefs. I'm OK with Taylor right now," Clark said with a laugh. "It's been exciting. My 10-year-old son refuses to root for the Chiefs, so that's the only issue right now is he's rooting hard against me, but the rest of the household is for the Chiefs."
On the men's tennis side at Illinois, the Illini have a chance at two marquee wins this weekend. Illinois (2-2) hosts No. 8 Duke (5-0) at 6 p.m. Friday and No. 16 North Carolina (3-2) at 6 p.m. Saturday. Both matches will be inside Atkins Tennis Center, a venue and environment Illinois men's tennis assistant coach Tim Kopinski is familiar with.
"It's not your typical, silent tennis match," said Kopinski, who played at Illinois from 2011-15, was a two-time First-Team All-Big Ten selection and is now in his second season on coach Brad Dancer's staff. "Those were my favorite memories when I played. There's that moment where it's dead silence and you're about to serve where you can hear a pin drop. You play that point, and then it's just ruckus again. It's so special. I think it's one of the best atmospheres in the country."
Coming attractionsThe Illinois baseball and softball seasons are fast approaching. The season opener for the Illini baseball team is Feb. 16 with a doubleheader against Akron in Winston-Salem, N.C., part of a three-day tournament hosted by Wake Forest.
The Illini softball team opens a week earlier, with Illinois playing Virginia Tech and Belmont on Feb. 9 in a three-day, five-game tournament hosted by Auburn.
Who better to get the lowdown on those two respective programs than the coaches leading them? At a Champaign institution like the Esquire Lounge, to boot.
Illinois baseball Dan Hartleb coach, about to begin his 19th season in charge and the program's all-time winningest coach with 532 victories, is the featured guest on 'Monday Night SportsTalk,' from 5-6 p.m. this upcoming Monday at the Esquire.
Stop on by to greet Hartleb or tune in on WDWS 1400-AM and 93.9-FM. Two weeks later, on Feb. 19, Illinois softball coach Tyra Perry will join us at the Esquire. Her Illini will already be two weeks into their season, but Perry will give the lowdown on her ninth Illinois team and more during her appearance.