When Mike Prior ’85 first put on an Illinois State uniform, he never thought much about playing professionally.
The Chicago Heights native was just glad a school gave him an opportunity to continue his passion for athletics. In fact, the appeal of being able to play both football and baseball at the University stood out most to Prior.
“I loved playing sports and I loved doing things,” Prior said. “And I was committed to that.”
Prior turned that devotion into decoration, becoming one of the most heralded athletes to ever compete in the Missouri Valley Conference. The league voted him into its Hall of Fame as a member of its 2020 class and will induct him at a ceremony this March in St. Louis.
He was an All-American defensive back with a league-record 23 interceptions over the course of his career that spanned the 1981–1984 seasons. He also starred on the diamond for the Redbird baseball team and is still the program’s all-time leader in batting average at .388.
Though Prior was drafted in the fourth round of the 1985 Major League Baseball draft, he opted for a career in the NFL, where he was taken in the seventh round. He had an interception for Green Bay in the 1997 Super Bowl to help the Packers knock off the New England Patriots.
Prior has been paying it forward since his pro career ended in 1998. Prior is the youth football commissioner for the Indianapolis Colts, an organization he has served for the past 16 seasons.
“In anything you do in life, you try to be well-rounded,” Prior said. “That’s what I believe in.”
His office is heavily involved in the community and runs camps and clinics at grade schools to promote playing football in a safe, positive manner.
“I think a lot of it is enjoyment and having good and safe coaches,” Prior said. “And that’s where we come in. It’s educating these coaches on how to have good practices and make it fun for the kids.”
Andy Matis has worked alongside Prior since 2013.
Now the Colts’ youth football manager, Matis said you would never know Prior was a Super Bowl champion by talking to him. Instead, Prior is driven by the future of the sport.
“I think he’s good at expressing the values that football instills into its players,” Matis said. “He’s good in his actions and his words on the positive value that football brings.”
Todd Reeser ’85, a former Redbird baseball player and assistant athletic director who now leads the athletic department at Columbus State, first met Prior at the 1981 Illinois’ East-West Shrine Game honoring the top high school football players in the state.
Reeser played baseball with Prior at Illinois State and was his workout partner during the fall months. The two would often do a football lift together and would then throw batting practice to one another.
While Reeser saw Prior’s competitive side often, he said Prior is tremendously humble. As someone who works with young athletes himself for a living, Reeser said Prior has always possessed traits that positively resonate with kids still shaping their sporting careers.
“Obviously he has some credibility, but it wasn’t about that,” Reeser said. “He’s just a nice guy who is friendly with people.”
Illinois State helped prepare Prior for his old job and his current one.
“My experience at ISU helped me tremendously,” Prior said. “It taught me time management, being on schedule, those kinds of things. Don’t get down when adversity hits you and strive to be the best person you can be.”
That person is now enshrined as one of the best athletes the Missouri Valley Conference has ever seen.