CHAMPAIGN — Sometimes Kevin Hardy has to remind himself that he isn't dreaming. The former Illinois standout has done everything he once aspired to as a kid, from winning the 1995 Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker to being named First-Team All-Pro in the NFL in 1999.
Now, he'll add another accolade to his resume as one of 15 members of the 2020 Illinois Hall of Fame Class.
Hardy and a few other honorees were made available to the media Friday ahead of Saturday's official ceremony at State Farm Center. The induction of the 2020 Class was delayed until now due to COVID-19.
"Surreal is the word," Hardy said Friday. "I was talking to the other inductees and I told them, 'When I look back, I don't know how this happened.' Because sometimes you get opportunities and you have to be ready to take advantage of opportunities, and a lot of times I feel like I was in the right spot at the right time. And fortunately, I come from a good background, a good family that put me in this situation. But it is surreal to look back and to listen to people read off the accomplishments that not only I was able to do but we were able to do as a team."
Hardy, who served as an honorary team captain for Friday's home game against Maryland, starred for the Illini from 1992-1995. He was named First Team All-Big Ten in 1994 and 1995 and was a part of one of the most dominant linebacker corps in college football history.
Hardy played alongside fellow Illinois Hall of Famers Dana Howard, the program's all-time leader in tackles (595), and Simeon Rice, the school's all-time leader in sacks (44.5). John Holecek, the team's fourth all-time leading tackler (436), was also a member of this talented quartet that was nicknamed "Linebacker U."
All four players continued their careers in the NFL, with Hardy and Rice being selected second and third, respectively, in the 1996 NFL Draft.
"A lot of times I felt like I was the odd man in the group, and I say that because you know when I got here, Dana and John Holecek were already here and they were already kind of making a name for themselves and being honored in the Big Ten, whether they were Second Team or First Team All-Big Ten," Hardy said. "Simeon was the (Big Ten Co-Freshman of the Year), and so I'm looking at this group like, 'Man, you got three of the four that are getting all these honors and you're the fourth one,' and so that really drove my desire, just to make sure that I wasn't the weakest link."
Howard is already a College Football Hall of Famer, and earlier this year Hardy, Rice and former defensive tackle Moe Gardner — another member of the 2020 Illini Hall of Fame Class — were named to the 2022 College Football Hall of Fame ballot. They'll find out if they've been inducted early next year.
Hardy said it would be "icing on the cake" to join another esteemed brotherhood.
"Just being mentioned and nominated and being on the ballot for the College Football Hall of Fame is really humbling," Hardy said. "If it was to happen, I can't even describe how I would feel, but once again it's very satisfying because you work hard and at the time, you don't really understand. You're just out there playing the game, but you're working hard because you want to be the best that you can be. And then being here and looking back and looking at all of the accomplishments, it's very surreal, and I'm just happy to be in this position."
Last month, Michelle Bartsch-Hackley helped Team USA win its first Olympic gold medal in women's volleyball.
This month, she's headed to the Illinois Hall of Fame.
"I think putting this together for us has been really cool, and even just starting this Hall of Fame here (in 2017) is really special and to be inducted in the first few classes is also really cool," Bartsch-Hackley said. "I'm not sure if there's any words (to describe this year), but it's been really cool."
Bartsch-Hackley, a 6-foot-3 outside hitter, played for the Illini from 2008-11. She was the 2008 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, named back-to-back First Team All-Big Ten in 2010 and 2011 and led the program to an NCAA Tournament runner-up finish in 2011, which is its only appearance in the national title game.
Since then, the 2012 grad has enjoyed a successful professional career that recently culminated with an Olympic gold medal. Bartsch-Hackley is one of three former Illini that helped Team USA make history. She played alongside 2018 alumna Jordyn Poulter, while 2005 graduate Erin Virtue steered them from the sidelines as an assistant coach in Tokyo.
Poulter and Bartsch-Hackley were named Best Setter and Co-Best Outside Hitter of the Olympics, respectively.
"It's been a weird, long 10 years (since I played in college), and I think everyone always sees the success of all of the medals and things that you win, but there's always ebbs and flows," Bartsch-Hackley said. "It's still really cool to be recognized for all of the accomplishments, and it's always fun to be back on campus."
The full list of Illinois greats who will be enshrined in the university's athletics Hall of Fame are as follows: Bartsch-Hackley (volleyball 2008-11), Tal Brody (men's basketball 1963-65), Vanessa DiBernardo (women's soccer 2010-13), Gardner (football 1987-90), Hardy (football 1992-95), Derek Harper (men's basketball 1981-83), Leo Johnson (men's track and field coach/football scout 1938-65), Gia Lewis-Smallwood (women's track and field 2000-02), Ray Nitschke (football 1955-57), Bob Richards (men's track and field 1945-47), Art Schankin (fencing athlete/coach 1956-58/1973-93), Jenna Smith (women's basketball 2007-10), Garland "Jake" Stahl (baseball/football 1899-1903), Adam Tirapelle (wrestling 1998-2001) and Don Tonry (men's gymnastics 1956-59).
🏈 16 NFL stars with Illini roots
Geronimo Allison // WR
James Crawford // LB
Clayton Fejeldem // SAF
Josh Ferguson // RB
Justin Hardee // DB
Michael Hoomanawanui // TE
Ted Karras // OG
Matt LaCosse // TE
Corey Liuget // DE
Whitney Mercilus // DE
Hardy Nickerson Jr. // LB
Carroll Phillips // DE
Dawuane Smoot // DE
Akeem Spence // DT
Jihad Ward // DE
Tavon Wilson // FS
Follow James Boyd on Twitter: @RomeovilleKid