Follow Asmussen on Twitter here
CHAMPAIGN – He'd never been hurt. No breaks. No sprains. No tears.
But the pain in his neck was real. It wasn't as obvious as a torn ACL or separated shoulder. But it was real.
So real, that Martez Wilson's 2009 season ended barely after it started. So real, that the herniated disk required surgery.
Wilson watched from the sidelines as the Illini finished 3-9.
"It was one of the toughest things I've had to do in my whole life," Wilson said. "To sit out, it was so stressful just because you love the game with a passion. It was devastating.
"I wanted to be out there, enjoying the tackles and the celebrations."
The devastation lasted a while. It affected Wilson away from the sport.
"School was a little rough," Wilson said. "I was in class thinking, 'I can't play.' But I still managed to have a good school year."
By the eighth game, Wilson had gotten over it.
"I decided I better start focusing on next year and getting better," Wilson said.
Six months after the injury, Wilson is about to return to the field. On Tuesday, Wilson's recovery will hit another milestone as he puts on his practice uniform.
There is a simple restriction for Wilson: no contact. If his progress continues, contact will come later.
"I feel comfortable doing almost everything," Wilson said. "In my opinion, I think I can go out and tackle and play at full tilt. But the coaches are taking precautions. They don't want me to go out and there and reinjure myself."
Wilson isn't going to argue with the coaches or his doctors. If he can't hit a running back or take on a blocker, he will find a way to learn the defense. Mental repetitions are a big part of his spring plans.
"You've got to do what you've got to do," Wilson said.
The pain in his neck is gone.
"It doesn't hurt at all," Wilson said. "My recovery is very good. The trainers made sure I'm well every day. Surgery did me justice."
He's thankful for his doctors, trainers, coaches and teammates, who checked up on him during his recovery.
"It was a team thing," Wilson said. "I'm glad I have the support."
As player/patients go, Wilson is easy, said Illinois football head athletic trainer Nick Richey.
"Wonderful," Richey said. "He's a kid that ultimately his biggest motivation is getting back onto the field.
"There are a lot of people who I think, in the same circumstances, would question their desire to play football. That would question their desire to do the right things. That would question their desire to be a part of the team even though they are doing something that is taking them off the field. He is not one of those guys. He has wanted to be around. He has wanted to be a part of the team. He has wanted to be a leader."
Wilson's injury isn't the same as a torn ACL or separated shoulder, which bring their own set of concerns. But when the neck is injured, the questions become more about life and less about sports.
"The initial reaction to having a neck injury is 'How serious is it? Is it going to end my career?' " Richey said. "The answer (for Wilson) is 'No.' He's recovering very well. He's doing great."
Richey said Wilson's doctors are pleased with his progress.
"At this point in the game, nobody has any concerns about Martez," Richey said.
Wilson is willing to do anything to help with the progress. He has been wearing a bone stimulator, which provides an "extra boost," Richey said.
"He does everything the right way," Richey said. "He's kind of a freak, to be honest with you. He's built from a different set of tools than most people."
Richey said he doesn't think Wilson will be hesitant to make contact when it's allowed.
"He's been able to resume his whole weight room workout," Richey said. "He's been able to resume his full conditioning workout. The only thing he's not able to do right now is hit anybody. Other than that, he's got zero restrictions. He's going to be the same old Martez. He's going to be stronger probably."
No question, Wilson was missed on the field in 2009. He had moved to a new position, middle linebacker, and was expected to take the tackle-eating role previously held by J Leman and Brit Miller.
He got off to a good start, piling up nine tackles against Missouri. Then, he was done.
Wilson's teammates are thrilled to have him back. If the defense hopes to improve on last year's numbers (91st nationally), the middle linebacker needs to have a big season.
"With Martez back, it just adds another dynamic player," defensive end Clay Nurse said. "It adds another weapon to the defense. We can do some things with him."
Nurse, Wilson and the rest of the Illini defenders have a new coordinator, Vic Koenning. There will be changes.
"We can be very improved," Wilson said. "I think we can be one of the top defenses in the nation. If we play every play with emotion and integrity, I feel we can be a top 25 defense."
There's been plenty of chatter about Wilson playing the Bandit, a cross between an outside linebacker and end that is part of Koenning's defense. Wilson is staying at middle linebacker.
"I just want to get out there and make plays," Wilson said.
Change of plans
Wilson's original college career path was:
1) Contribute as a freshman. Check.
2) Start as a sophomore. Check.
3) Star as a junior. Declare for the NFL draft. No check.
"That was a possibility," Wilson said. "I think this is going to work out better for me. I've got an opportunity to start again. I'm still playing my junior season. I will also be finished with college. I think it worked out for the best."
One of the guys from his recruiting class, Arrelious Benn, made the early NFL jump. There were other juniors in the country who are about to become pros, guys Wilson played against in all-star games and got to know during recruiting visits.
"It was tough because I know I could have been one of the guys in that group," Wilson said. "But there is more motivation for me."