CHAMPAIGN – Mike Dudek has a simple plan.
“As of now, I’m playing football until somebody tells me I can’t,’’ said the Illinois junior wide receiver.
He traveled through a “dark place,’’ and now Dudek is back and ready to contribute in coach Lovie Smith’s second season in town. It’s a big deal for an Illini program looking for help wherever it can be found.
Sometimes it’s hard for the rest of us to realize Dudek is already in his fourth year in the program and three years removed from one of the best seasons by any freshman in program history. The kid set himself up for an incredible career before a pair of devastating knee injuries left him out of action the last two seasons.
Imagine that. Tear your knee. Recover and return to practice, then tear the same ligament in the same knee again.
Dudek called himself “100 percent’’ with the opening of Illini fall camp a little more than a month away. The season opener is Sept. 2 against visiting Ball State.
“I’m more than ready,’’ he said. “My mental game has gotten a lot better as far as reading stuff on the field. I’m looking forward to taking off where I left off. I want to help win our team some games.’’
Twice tearing his ACL and missing the 2015 and 2016 seasons after earning freshman All-America honors in a record-setting year in 2014, Dudek sounded more serious, more focused and more determined. Rated as a three-star recruit out of Naperville (Ill.) Neuqua Valley High School, the 5-foot-11, 185-pounder is stronger and more defined than when he became an instant contributor in his first season.
More importantly, Dudek survived the ordeal.
If there’s a fan favorite on the Illini roster, it’s probably Dudek, who’s considered special because of his work ethic, attitude and leadership in the locker room. He also made it happen on the field by leading the Big Ten in conference play in receptions (50) and yards (716) in that remarkable freshman season. His 1,038 yards receiving was only the eighth 1,000-yard season by an Illini receiver in school history. Dudek also set a freshman school record with 76 receptions and tied the school record for a freshman with six touchdown catches.
“I’m pushing through it 14 months post-surgery and it will be 15 months in July,’’ Dudek said. “I see the greater good in what happened. It made me not only stronger on the field but a stronger man off the field. It gave me a life lesson I can take with me for the rest of my life.’’
It won’t be known until this fall if he has retained all of his natural abilities. With those great hands, quickness and the leaping ability, he was a playmaker and arguably the most entertaining player over the last few years. There won’t be any way to know if the injuries have diminished his talent until the first snaps in the regular season.
Nevertheless, he made it through the gauntlet to get back on the field. The two tears were different experiences.
“The first time, I was screaming, and I could barely walk,’’ Dudek said. “They kind of knew right away. The second time, I felt a little pop. I didn’t think anything of it. I actually jogged off the field. The trainers said it looked good, but they were waiting for the doctor.’’
Dudek passed the test with the trainers, but the team doctor scheduled Dudek for an MRI. The gloom began to form.
“At that point, it was uh oh,’’ Dudek said. “That can’t be good when you have an MRI. It was only partially torn. That’s why the trainers thought it was OK. The tests they do still worked with a partially torn ACL.
“When I got that news, it was my worst nightmare. I don’t wish that on anybody. (The two injuries) took a toll on me.’’
Coaches, teammates, support staff and family kept him going. Teammates were always there. Roommates Chayce Crouch and Nick Allegretti kept an eye on him, but it was up to Dudek to fight through it to get back on the field.
“There were times when I was in what people call a dark place,’’ Dudek said. “I started to question a lot of things. Now, I generally know my purpose in life.’’
Run, turn and catch the football.
Perhaps this time, Dudek is taking it a little more conservatively and reading his body a little better.
“About 12 months out, I started to feel like my normal self,’’ he said. “They wanted to make sure after the last time it happened that we took our time the second time around. I’m full go, cleared 100 percent. Some things I lay off, knowing my body. If swelling starts to happen, which is extremely common, I have to shut it back a little bit.
“I’m full go. I’m getting ready for August and the first game in September.’’
With Crouch on the mend from a shoulder injury, the roomies are working themselves back toward game shape. They throw twice a week, and it’s the first time they’ve both been healthy and ready to contribute as starters after living together four years as teammates.
“We have a chemistry off the field,’’Dudek said. “That helps on the field.’’
Dudek, senior Malik Turner, plus youngsters Ricky Smalling, Carmoni Green and Kendall Smith are players to watch this fall, Dudek said, as the Illini desperately look for key contributors for an Illini offense that ranked next to last in scoring offense in the Big Ten a year ago.
“If we get things going early, we can be a special group,’’ Dudek said.
The Chicago kid is also geared up to play for Lovie, who led the Bears to the Super Bowl when Dudek was a little leaguer in the burbs.
“It’s definitely moving in the right direction,’’ Dudek said. “Coach Smith and a lot of these coaches, they’ve coached at the highest level. Coach Smith brought the Bears to the Super Bowl. That speaks for itself. He has a blueprint. We have to buy in. We have to trust his plan.’’
He will graduate this year with a marketing degree, then go into grad school. Yet the plan right now for Dudek is simple. Play football as long as he can.
John Supinie is a columnist for Orangeandbluenews.com. During the day, he’s an Audi Brand Specialist at Green Audi in Springfield. Call or text him at 217-377-1977 if you’re looking for an Audi, Volkswagen, Toyota or preowned car. Ask for the Illini deal.