Hank Illesic was just 17 when he joined the Edmonton Eskimos in time for their record-setting Grey Cup dynasty, but pro football didn’t force him to grow up quickly.
Life did that eight years prior.
Illesic, 58, was only nine years old when his father, Frank, died at age 43. The elder Illesic never saw his son play football, never relished any of his seven Grey Cup wins, time in the NFL or being named Wednesday for induction in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.
“When your dad dies and you’re nine years old, your life changes very quickly,” Illesic said. “It changes instantly when your father or mother dies.
“I think he obviously watched over me and must’ve guided me because I did have a very good career. His presence was there and absolutely has always been there.”
Stalwart offensive lineman Scott Flory, late centre/linebacker Tom Hugo, defensive lineman Brent Johnson and defensive back Barron Miles will also be inducted as players. Former quarterback Frank Cosentino was named as a builder while Paul Brule was honoured for his outstanding amateur career.
The inductees will be enshrined in September in Hamilton, boosting the Hall of Fame’s membership to 296.
The six-foot-one, 210-pound Illesic, an Edmonton native, joined the Eskimos from St. Joseph’s High School. He played 20 seasons, also spending time with the Toronto Argonauts, Hamilton Tiger-Cats and B.C. Lions as well as the NFL’s San Diego Chargers and L.A. Rams.
In 2005, he joined the former Ottawa Renegades’ practice roster but didn’t play. Illesic was a CFL all-star eight times while playing on a record-tying seven Grey Cup-winning teams (Edmonton 78-82, 1983 and ’91 with Toronto).
Illesic appeared in 261 career regular-season games and nine Grey Cup contests. He led the league in punting average six times and holds the Grey Cup records for most punts (64) and punting yards (2,735).
“I was blessed to be on the right teams,” he said. “Especially coming out of Edmonton.”
Illesic said the Eskimos made it easy for a 17-year-old to feel at home because he’d worked out with the team before eventually signing.
“As a teenager I’d go to practice every day and most of the players knew me,” he said. “I’d be catching balls for (kicker) Dave Cutler or (receiver) Garry Lefebvre so they knew me years before I played in the league.”
Of all his Grey Cup wins, the ’83 victory with Toronto is the one that stands out for Illesic. The Argos nipped the B.C. Lions 18-17 at B.C. Place Stadium to end a dubious 31-year championship drought.
Illesic missed his first three field-goal tries but made a 43-yard boot in the fourth quarter. It was a crucial score as Toronto eventually went ahead 18-17 on Joe Barnes’ late TD strike to Cedric Minter.
With the two-point convert being unsuccessful, Illesic’s field goal proved very important to Toronto’s victory.
“I almost single-handedly lost the game,” he said. “I missed the three field goals in a hostile environment.
“When you miss the first, the crowd takes credit for it, they believe they rattled you. So every time I stepped on the field, the crowd got louder and louder. But I did hit the last one and that was big because we ended up winning by a point.”
These days, Illesic is mentoring young kickers, teaching them both the physical and mental requirements of the game. Although he had to wait for his Hall of Fame nod, Illesic said he’s living proof anything is possible in the CFL.
“It addresses and acknowledges a special place in regards to Canadian football that even a 17-year-old in high school has an opportunity to be inducted into the Hall of Fame,” he said. “That’s what it means to me.
“My introduction and entry into the CFL was very unorthodox but it’s possible. And that’s what makes the CFL so special.”
Flory, 41, of Regina, was a nine-time all-star over 15 seasons with the Montreal Alouettes (1999-2013). The six-foot-four, 300-pound Flory was the CFL’s top lineman in 2008-09 and helped Montreal win three Grey Cups (2002, 09-10) before retiring. A former president of the CFL Players’ Association, Flory is the head coach at the University of Saskatchewan, his alma mater.
Johnson, 41, of Kingston, Ont., spent 11 seasons with the B.C. Lions (2000-11). The former Ohio state star was twice the CFL’s top Canadian (2005-06) and its outstanding defensive player (’06). A two-time Grey Cup champion, Johnson led the CFL in sacks twice (17 in ’05, 16 in ’06) and is B.C.’s all-time leader (89). His No. 97 jersey was retired in 2012.
Hugo, a Honolulu native, played seven seasons with Montreal (1953-59). He earned an incredible 12 all-star nods while registering 25 interceptions, returning two for touchdowns. Hugo died in 2004 at age 74.
Miles, 46, played 12 seasons with Montreal (1998-2004) and B.C. (2005-2009), registering 66 career interceptions, the second-most in CFL history. The six-time league all-star also holds the league mark for most blocked kicks (13) and played on two Grey Cup-winning teams.
He’s currently a defensive backs coach for the Edmonton Eskimos.
Hamilton native Cosentino, 80, was a 1960 first-round pick of the Ticats after playing quarterback at Western Ontario. He spent 10 seasons with Hamilton (1960-66), Edmonton (1967-68) and Toronto (1969), participating in five Grey Cups, winning two. He later coached his alma mater for five seasons, winning two Vanier Cups before leading York University to playoff appearances in 1984-85.
Cosentino has written 17 books on sports in Canada, including three on Canadian football.
Brule, a Montreal native, was a dominant running back/defensive back at St. Francis Xavier. He became Canadian university football’s first 1,000-yard rusher in 1966 and set a single-season record with 20 rushing TDs before establishing a new benchmark of 25.
He once scored eight TDs in a game and finished with 51 career touchdowns, which remains an all-time Canadian record.