Hall of fame

The January 2018 Decatur Public Schools Hall of Fame class, from left, Jerelene (Cummings) Ross, Ben Cooper, Tim Smith, Amber Jackson, Karen Roppa, Dawn Pitman, Bill Wolfe, Jim Minton, and the late Tony Austin's father Fred Austin and son Antonio Austin Jr.

DECATUR — Antonio Austin Jr. never saw his dad play football, but on Friday he got to see how much his dad’s accomplishments meant to the Decatur community.

Tony Austin, who died in 2006 in a tragic accident on Lake Decatur, was one of 10 athletes inducted in the latest Decatur Public Schools Hall of Fame class.

“Even though I was a little kid when he passed away, it’s good to be told about how great a player he was and it’s good to see that people still remember him,” Antonio said.

Of the other nine athletes inducted during halftime of Friday’s Eisenhower-MacArthur game at Eisenhower, eight were able to make it to the induction ceremony, with several traveling from as far away as Texas, Florida and Georgia to be there.

Here’s a look at the 10-person class — the fourth since the DPS Hall of Fame was established in 2016.

Tony Austin, Stephen Decatur

Austin rushed for more than 2,800 yards in his career at Stephen Decatur and was named the H&R Macon County Player of the Year in 1996 for his performance on both offense and defense.

Austin went on to play three seasons at MacMurray College, and later played for the semi-pro Decatur Bears.

Austin died while saving the life of his son during a family fishing trip on Lake Decatur in 2006. The Decatur JFL renamed Firestone Field after Austin in 2008.

“It’s a great honor that his legacy still lives on,” said Tony’s dad, Fred Austin. “Something I always tell kids is, ‘No matter what you do, be respectful throughout life, and the light will always shine on you.’ That’s reflected here today with Tony’s induction.”

Ben Cooper, Stephen Decatur

Cooper was Decatur's first state wrestling champion, winning the 154-pound title in 1965 as a junior. Cooper made state three times during his high school career, taking second as a senior in 1966.

Cooper, who was also a starting offensive lineman on the football team and a discus and shot put thrower in track, went on to wrestle at Southern Illinois. He was a three-time NCAA Division I Tournament qualifier, taking third in the nation his senior year in 1970 at 177 pounds.

“Being inducted into the hall of fame isn’t something you really think about, but to be honored and recognized for your accomplishments is a great feeling,” Cooper said.

Cooper later coached and taught at Carbondale, and helped establish the Carbondale youth wrestling program. He retired in 2004 from Valley View Public Schools in the Chicago area, where he was an assistant superintendent for human resources. He was his wife Gwen reside in Grayson, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta.

Jerelene (Cummings) Ross, MacArthur

Ross, a MacArthur grad, won Decatur's first track championship in 46 years by jumping 5-10 in the high jump at the state meet in 1984. She was also a standout volleyball player — she played both sports at the University of Florida. She placed third in the high jump with a leap of 5-9 at the Southeastern Conference Indoor Meet while at Florida.

“To be recognized for something I accomplished so many years ago … it’s a great celebration at this age,” Ross said. “I’m so honored.”

Ross lives in Peoria, where she’s a support analyst for Accenture.

Amber (Creason) Jackson, Eisenhower

Jackson was the 1993 and 1995 H&R Macon County Softball Player of the Year and was All-Macon County all four years of high school. She finished with a career batting average of .469, driving in 113 runs, scoring 140 and stealing 99 bases. She played in college at Ball State, where she was the starting shortstop for two years, then played six seasons of ASA Major Fastpitch Softball.

“This means a lot to me,” Jackson said. “This is probably the highest honor I’ve achieved. To be mentioned with so many names synonymous with Panther pride … I didn’t feel worthy when I was told, but I’m definitely honored.”

Three years ago, Jackson and her husband T.J. Jackson left Decatur and moved to the Florida panhandle, where she’s a stay-at-home mom.

David Dakin, Lakeview

Dakin, a 1974 Lakeview graduate, was one of the best basketball players in Lakeview history. He was the H&R Macon County Player of the Year as a senior, averaging 22 points per game. He averaged 17 points and 14 rebounds in his career.

Dakin was the lone athlete not represented at the induction — he lives in Norway and bad weather kept his family from coming — but he sent a letter of appreciation.

“I want to thank my family, in particular my parents Herb and Alice, for their support to pursue my interest,” Dakin said. “Also, my older brother Pete and his friends — he introduced me to sports and was kind to include me in his pickup games. Despite being knocked around a bit, I still had great fun.”

Jim Minton, MacArthur

Minton, a 1982 MacArthur grad, was the H&R City Player of the Year in 1982, batting .532 while playing catcher and also pitching for the Generals' sectional finalist.

Minton still holds the highest batting average in MacArthur history, and was also a standout for the Decatur American Legion team.

Minton also played quarterback for the Generals’ football team. After high school, he played for the 1994 and 1995 national champion Decatur Pride fastpitch softball team.

“Being inducted … it means I’m old,” said Minton, laughing. “But it’s pretty amazing. It’s a chance to look back and think about the great teams I was a part of.”

Minton, a retirement planner in Decatur and former WSOY broadcaster, is currently the president of the Decatur Athletic Council, helping with fundraising and improving public school sports. He’s currently working on a book called, “Just Call Me Dad: 13 Principles for Better Dads, Better Kids, and a Better World.”

Dawn Pitman, Eisenhower

Pitman, a 1986 Eisenhower grad, was the H&R Macon County Basketball Player of the Year in 1985 and '86, and also a standout volleyball player for the Panthers, winning an H&R Macon County Volleyball Player of the Year Award. She went on to play basketball at the University of Nevada-Reno, where she's a member of the school's athletic hall of fame.

“It was overwhelming when I was inducted into my college hall of fame, and this was even more exciting,” Pitman said. “I love being able to come back and remember all those times and be honored like this. It’s exciting.”

Pitman lives in Dallas, where she’s worked for 20 years as a juvenile probation officer.

Karen Roppa, MacArthur

Roppa, a 1966 MacArthur grad, wasn't able to play sports in high school because they weren't offered to girls, but Roppa was a standout softball and basketball player. She played both sports at Illinois State, where she was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1980, and is also in the Amateur Softball Association Hall of Fame (1990). She was later an official for 20 years.

“I feel like I’ve come full circle,” Roppa said. “Everything I’ve done since I graduated from MacArthur — I’ve had a blessed life.”

Roppa was a teacher in Plainfield for 35 years and is now retired and living in Naples, Fla.

Tim Smith, Eisenhower

Smith, a 1979 Eisenhower grad, was a standout baseball player at Eisenhower, then went on to play at Mercer College, where he led NCAA Division I in home runs as a senior with 24. He was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in 1983, spending five years in their system until an injury ended his career. He's spent the last 26 years as a batting practice pitcher for the Marlins. He was part of the team in 1997 and 2003, earning World Series rings.

“It was a lot of great teachers and coaches — I wouldn’t have accomplished what I accomplished without them,” Smith said. “It was why I had success and it’s why I became a teacher and coach.”

Smith resides in Miami and has worked at W.R. Thomas Middle School teaching history for 31 years in addition to his duties with the Marlins.

Bill Wolfe, Lakeview

Wolfe, a 1965 Lakeview graduate, was an all-state player as a senior for the first undefeated Decatur football team. He played in college at Indiana, where he was a two-year starter, and became the first Decatur athlete to play in the Rose Bowl in 1968.

Wolfe was also an outstanding student — he was valedictorian and received a Rhodes Scholarship.

“I’m being honored for just having a lot of fun so many years ago,” Wolfe said. “It was something I really enjoyed, and this is just the icing on the cake.”

Wolfe is retired and currently resides in Naperville, where he’s lived for 30 years.

A special coaches class will be inducted at the Eisenhower at MacArthur boys basketball game on Feb. 20.

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Sports Editor

Sports editor for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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