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The Long, Fabled History of the Den of Defensive Ends

(Photo courtesy of Purdue Athletic Communications)
George Karlaftis, Purdue Defensive End from 2019- 2021, in action against the Iowa Hawkeyes

In these cynical times, from politicians who think lying is no big deal to college basketball transfers being publicly offered $800,000 and a car to sign with a new school, it was nice to see that tradition still means something.

George Karlaftis shed a tear in a video produced by Purdue Athletics Communications when informed during a Zoom call with another Boilermaker All-American that he was the newest member of the Den of Defensive Ends.

“It’s cool to see your career culminated in being an All-American,” said Ryan Kerrigan, who is Purdue’s most recent first-round NFL draft pick and an All-American who has played with Washington and Philadelphia. “We’ve had a few good defensive ends come through Purdue and we’re excited to see you carry the torch now.”

Karlaftis is now the 13th member of the Den and the second from West Lafayette High School. Chike Okeafor, who enjoyed a long NFL career, was one of Karlaftis’ mentors in high school.

“Chike is the one who taught me how to play the game,” Karlaftis said. “To be able to see my name next to greats like (Kerrigan) and Drew Brees and Rod Woodson, just to name a few, it’s an honor to say the least.”

Karlaftis became emotional while revealing that it was a dream of his to earn membership in the Den.

“That was one of my goals when I came in here, and that’s incredible,” he said. “The tradition of defensive ends and defensive linemen at Purdue is elite and rivals any other college. It’s an honor to be mentioned in the same conversation as all these guys. … An elite fraternity that’s for sure.”

Playing in 27 games over his Purdue career, Karlaftis earned All-Big Ten honors following all three seasons as a Boilermaker. He was a second team honoree as a freshman and sophomore before becoming a consensus first team selection in 2021, collecting first-team All-America honors as well.

While Purdue football is best known as the Cradle of Quarterbacks, former athletics department official Tom Schott coined the Den of Defensive Ends in 2004.

Starting back in the late 1940s to the mid-1950s with future NFL players Leo Sugar and Lamar Lundy, the Den of Defensive Ends gained the bulk of its membership during the Joe Tiller era. Since 1999, 10 Purdue defensive ends have gone in the NFL draft, with Anthony Spencer (2007) joining Kerrigan as a first-round selection.

Here’s a chronological look at the Den of Defensive Ends.

Leo Sugar (1949-51) – A consensus All-American and first-team All-Big Ten selection in 1951, Sugar played nine seasons in the NFL with the Chicago/St. Louis Cardinals, Philadelphia and Detroit. He earned Pro Bowl berths in 1958 and 1960. Sugar, who died in 2020, was inducted into the Purdue Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Fame in 2006.

Lamar Lundy (1954-56) – The Richmond native was the first African-American to receive a football scholarship at Purdue. A giant in his time (6-7, 250 pounds), Lundy lettered three seasons in basketball as well as football. He is the only Boilermaker to be named Most Valuable Player in basketball and football in the same season (1956). Lundy chose a career with the Los Angeles Rams over the NBA, joining forces with Deacon Jones, Merlin Olsen and Roosevelt Grier to form the “Fearsome Foursome,” to this day regarded as one of the most dominant defensive lines in NFL history. Lundy was inducted into the Indiana Football Hall of Fame in 1975, the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 1990 and the Purdue Hall of Fame in 1996. Lundy died in 2007.

Keena Turner (1976-79) – Turner thrived under College Football Hall of Fame coach Jim Young in the “Junk Defense” created by assistant Leon Burtnett, earning two first-team All-Big Ten selections.

“I was fortunate to benefit from it, which had me in the rush sometimes and dropping back in coverage at times,” Turner told the Lafayette Journal & Courier’s Tom Kubat in 2008.

With Turner leading the way, the Boilermakers went 19-4-1 in his final two seasons capping off with the school’s only 10-win season in 1979. Turner played 11 seasons with the San Francisco 49ers and earned four Super Bowl rings. He was inducted into the Purdue Hall of Fame in 2006 and earned his degree in 2021 alongside youngest daughter Ella.

Chike Okeafor (1994=96, 1998) – Like Karlaftis, Okeafor came to Purdue after leading West Lafayette to a state championship. He spent Joe Tiller’s first season at Purdue under suspension but when he returned in 1998, Okeafor teamed up with Rosevelt Colvin to form a powerful 1-2 pass rush. Okeafor went on to play 11 seasons in the NFL with San Francisco, Seattle and Arizona.

Rosevelt Colvin (1995-98) – A three-year starter, Colvin still holds the Purdue records for sacks in a season (15 in 1998) and career (35). The two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection earned two Super Bowl rings with the New England Patriots. Colvin’s 10-year NFL career included stops in Chicago and Houston. His daughter, Raven, plays volleyball at Purdue. Myles, a junior at Heritage Christian, has committed to play basketball for the Boilermakers.

Akin Ayodele (1999-2001) – Ayodele had a strong debut season at Purdue after transferring from Coffeyville Community College, recording 11 sacks and 19 tackles for loss. He recorded nine sacks as a junior and a senior, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors in 2001. Ayodele spent nine seasons in the NFL with Jacksonville, Dallas, Miami and Buffalo.

Sean Phillips (2000-2003) – The converted tight end started 49 consecutive games. Phillips recorded 14.5 sacks as a senior, earning first-team All-Big Ten and second-team All-American honors. His 33.5 career sacks rank second to Colvin in school history. Phillips recorded 81.5 sacks in an 11-year NFL career that was spent mostly with San Diego.

Anthony Spencer (2003-06) – As senior, Spencer was second in the nation with 26.5 tackles for loss and paced the Big Ten with five forced fumbles. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and departed Purdue with 21 career sacks. Spencer was a first-round pick by Dallas in 2007 and spent all but one of his nine NFL seasons with the Cowboys.

Ray Edwards (2003-05) – Purdue outrecruited Tennessee for Edwards’ services and during his three seasons Edwards recorded 16 sacks while dividing time with fellow Den members Cliff Avril and Rob Ninkovich. He collected 33 sacks in a seven-year NFL career with Minnesota and Atlanta.

Rob Ninkovich (2004-05) – One of the best junior college transfers to suit up for Purdue, Ninkovich’s eight sacks as a junior ranked second in the Big Ten. Eight more sacks came as a senior. Eight seemed to be Ninkovich’s lucky number as a Boilermaker. That number also was his career sack total against Indiana. Cast aside by New Orleans and Miami, Ninkovich found his niche in New England with 46 career sacks and two Super Bowl titles in an 11-year NFL career.

Cliff Avril (2004-07) – The Jacksonville, Fla., native was almost unstoppable as a junior and a senior, recording 30 of his career 35.5 tackles for loss and 12.5 of his 13 career sacks. Those numbers helped him earn a third-round draft pick from Detroit. Once Avril escaped to Seattle in 2013, his pro career took off with a Pro Bowl berth in 2016 and a Super Bowl XLVIII victory. He retired in 2017 with 74 career sacks and 30 forced fumbles.

Ryan Kerrigan (2007-10) – Purdue’s first unanimous All-American since Mark Herrmann and Dave Young in 1980, Kerrigan graduated with a Big Ten and FBS record 14 fumbles forced. Kerrigan matched Sean Phillips’ 33.5 career sacks. He was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year in 2010. Selected 16th overall by Washington in the 2011 NFL Draft, Kerrigan started every game until injury sidelined him in 2019. His 95.5 sacks rank first in Washington team history.

– Kenny Thompson is the former sports editor for the Lafayette Journal & Cou¬rier and an award-winning journalist. He has covered Purdue athletics for many years.