Becker's back in the saddle

Becker's back in the saddle

He could be preparing for his first semester of physical therapy school, a three-year program with a select list of candidates.

He could be driving his scooter to pick up fast food. Pigging out while watching soap operas, then taking a nap.

Instead, Zach Becker spends quality time each day in the training room at Memorial Stadium. The helpful staff, led by Chris Brown, works on his multi-surgerized feet and recently repaired ankle. One of his teammates who will remain nameless (OK, it's Nathan Scheelhaase) jokingly calls him "RoboCop."

Less than three months after his last surgical procedure, Becker also has weightroom sessions, position meetings and practice. Lots of practice. Fifteen sessions.

The obvious question: Why?

"I have never quit anything in my life," Becker said.

Good thing. New coach Tim Beckman has plans for the fullback/tight end.

"He's been great," Beckman said. "It's been great to see him perform as a running back for us. It's also been great to see him do some outstanding things on special teams."

Zach Becker could live without college football. He just chooses not to.

Every moment on the field is a continuation of a dream for Becker. He wasn't a five-star recruit. More of a five-scar player. He is the guy from the smaller school who walked on to the Big Ten team despite the protests of some around him.

They didn't know about his willingness to fight. They didn't understand how much it meant to him to play at Illinois, the school he rooted for all of his life.

And, boy, were the doubters wrong. He got on the field immediately, playing fullback and on special teams in 2008. As a sophomore, he played in all 12 games at fullback, tight end and on special teams. In January of his sophomore year came the ultimate payoff: a scholarship.

Becker was at church services with his family when he was approached by then-Illinois coach Ron Zook. The coach had a "present" for Becker. His family knew immediately it meant the long-hoped-for scholarship.

"My mom was wanting to hug him," Becker said. "It was a sense of accomplishment that all my work had paid off and been recognized."

***

Marla Becker and her daughter Nikki stood in the corner of the end zone at Memorial Stadium, next to Grange Rock. Tears pouring down their cheeks.

"I can't believe it happened again," Marla said to herself.

With 9:30 left in the first quarter of a blowout game against South Dakota State, Zach was playing the game he loves. At 9:20, he was on the ground with a season-ending broken ankle.

"It was a pretty devastating day," Marla said. "We were ready for a big season, and it looked like he was going to have a big season."

"How much pain and agony can one kid go through?" said Bill Becker, Zach's dad.

He remembers every bit of it.

"It was an outside zone play, and I was locked up with a linebacker," Becker said. "One of their guys came up and tried to tackle the running back and rolled into the side of my leg when it was planted in the ground. My leg twisted and my ankle twisted."

Besides the broken leg, Becker ripped a ligament off the inside of the bone and tore tissue in his shin.

Sitting in the stands, Marla Becker's phone buzzed. It was trainer Nick Richey.

"It's not good when the trainer calls you from the field," she said.

The family jumped in the car and raced the ambulance to Carle Foundation Hospital. The first moment he saw them, Zach insisted he needed to be back at the stadium for the end of the game.

And he was. Casted and on crutches, Becker returned to the sidelines in the second half. He couldn't stand the thought of being away from his teammates.

"He was all about getting back there to the team," Marla Becker said. "That's the kind of thing I want to see in my kids is that commitment to what they are doing. That really meant a lot to me."

Surgery was scheduled two weeks later on a Saturday morning in Indianapolis. Dr. David Porter, a consultant with the Colts, Purdue and Indiana, performed the surgery and got it done in time for Becker to return for the Illinois-Western Michigan game.

Becker needed to have his leg propped up after the surgery, so he went to the game in the family's motor home.

"He watched from inside the motor home, which was really hard," Marla Becker said. "That was as close as he was going to be able to get to the game."

***

Out of all the pain came some gain. Missing the rest of his senior season meant Becker had a chance to play in 2012. Getting a medical hardship waiver was a lock. Coming back was up to Becker.

It didn't take Becker very long to make the decision to play again.

His last surgery was after the season. He is getting better every day.

"Overall, I'm feeling good about the progress," Becker said.

Of course, his family hopes the injuries are over.

"I want him to be able to leave his college career on a good year," Marla Becker said. "I'm glad he's coming back."

***

Surgery has become routine for Becker. During his Illinois career, his right foot has been worked on three times and his left twice. And three more operations on his right ankle.

"I joke with people that I could probably do the surgery on my own," Becker said.

There had been other mishaps before he came to Illinois. Broke his collarbone playing youth football. Hurt his head playing high school basketball. But never his feet.

Becker has a theory on his foot issues: the reduction of sports in college. In high school, he played football, basketball and baseball. Because he was constantly changing sports, there wasn't the constant stress on one part of the body.

"Different kinds of movement," Becker said.

But after switching to strictly football in college, his legs and feet started to take a pounding. Repeating the same actions over and over had to play a part.

"I never had any (foot) pain in high school," Becker said.

He accepts the latest injury as a fluke accident, just part of playing football. He's about due for a healthy year.

"Sooner or later, you've got to have some good luck," Becker said.

Becker admits he has thought about being a student only.

"It crossed my mind a couple of times," Becker said. "There have been plenty of points in the last couple of years where it hurts to take a step. It's hard to play football when every single step is pain."

Then, the competitive part of Becker takes over. He would "go crazy just sitting around."

***

Becker has been a good patient, Illinois trainer Brown said.

"Zach's definitely had to overcome many obstacles when it comes to injuries and illnesses and the challenges that have been associated with them," Brown said.

"He's a good kid. Even on his frustrating days, he's always pleasant and always upbeat."

Brown and former trainer Richey (now at Bowling Green) were with Becker for all of his surgeries. They would transport him to the hospital and to appointments.

"They've been great," Becker said. "We've probably gotten closer than we wanted to because of all of the injuries. They are on a first-name basis with my family. They give me support mentally and help me out physically, getting me back on the field."

The training staff talks to the athletes about the mental side of being hurt. The injuries will heal. It's important to keep a positive attitude. The trainers set goals for the athletes.

Families and friends also play a role. Becker has a strong support system, Brown said.

"Zach's not a guy we have to push," Brown said. "He's got a lot of interpersonal drive to get better."

Becker's teammates appreciate the effort he has put in to return to the field.

"Just seeing Zach come back from it, you know how much this means to him," Scheelhaase said.

Scheelhaase said most players would have called it a career after the latest injury.

"He's definitely unique when it comes to that fight that he has," Scheelhaase said.

Becker will help the Illini on the field, Scheelhaase said. He has been producing during the spring drills.

***

Becker's first two productive seasons were followed by two where injuries kept him mostly off the field. He played in three games in 2010 and two in 2011.

There's a chance Becker might get hurt again on the field. Off the field, he's not taking any chances.

If his buddies want to play pickup basketball, Becker will watch. No jumping over cars like Blake Griffin. No reckless horseplay.

"I either won't play at all, or if I do play I won't run hard," Becker said. "I won't jump. It's always in the back of my mind. When I'm not playing, it's like, 'Don't do anything stupid.' "

On the field, Becker said, he can't hold back.

"If you do that you're going to wind up getting hurt again," Becker said. "You've got to get over it."

***

Becker is the top student on the football team and has the hardware to prove it. Starting in his second year, Becker has earned the team's scholar-athlete award every time.

"It's just another chance to compete," Becker said. "Once I won it the first time, I didn't want anybody to take it."

He has been an Academic All-Big Ten performer and would like to join the school's list of Academic All-Americans.

Becker's dad Bill promises that Marla played a major part in Zach the student.

"He definitely gets all of that from his mother," Bill Becker said.

Zach knew early in life that school was important to his parents. Nikki Becker, who graduated last May with a nursing degree, was just as good or better as a student than Zach.

"My mom would always really get on me about schoolwork," Becker said. "We would always get the allowance for A's. It's been there for a long time. They made it a habit in me.

"I would say the grades are more effort than anything. I just study for hours and hours and hours."

While Bill is thrilled by his son's work on the field, Zach's classwork brings the biggest smile to his face.

"I am so proud of him with what he's done with his grades," Bill Becker said. "To be able to accomplish everything, it's just awesome."

He was a good enough student in high school to draw interest from Princeton. He scored a 27 on his ACT, but the coaches at Princeton wanted him to take it again and bump it a couple of points.

"I was very fired up about Princeton," Marla Becker said.

The chance to play at Illinois overwhelmed thoughts of the Ivy League for Becker. He didn't relish the idea of playing far from home, either.

"He grew up bleeding orange and blue," Marla Becker said. "That's where he wanted to be. That was the only place he wanted to be."

The kinesiology major could have finished his degree in May. But it would have required a heavy load of classes. Instead, Becker is spreading the classes out over this semester and next.

He plans to attend physical therapy school starting in 2013. The application process is ongoing. Possible options include Bradley, Northwestern, Illinois-Chicago and Washington University.

"It's so competitive getting into the schools now," Becker said.

His time as a football player and on the injured list should be a boost to his career. Becker will be able to share his experiences with future patients.

***

Bill and Marla go to every Illinois game, home and away. They have four of their own season tickets, plus the four Zach gets as a member of the team.

But there are more than eight Becker followers each Saturday. Playing so close to his St. Joseph home helps.

"It gives you something else to play for," Becker said. "I feel like I'm representing the smaller schools."

Of course, his teammates see him as the "country kid." For the record, the family lives just outside St. Joseph. No cows or pigs at their place.

"I've taken some of the guys to my house and when they see combines and cornfields and tractors and dogs running loose, they're like, 'Where are we?' " Becker said. "We have a pond in the backyard. Nothing hickish."

He enjoys going home for high school football games. He'll talk to the young kids, answering questions about the Illini and his playing days with the Spartans.

Ten years ago, Becker was that kid hanging out at the St. Joseph-Ogden games.

"I'd always look up to the high school players," Becker said.

***

Because of his limited playing time in 2010, there is a chance Becker can play in a sixth season. It will be up to the school to apply and up to the NCAA to say "OK."

If Mom gets a vote and all goes well in 2012, you will see Becker back on the field in 2013.

"I would love it if he would come back for another year," Marla Becker said.

Becker isn't going to plan that far ahead.

"I just want to get one healthy year in first," Becker said.

Take five

Fullback Zach Becker is only one of the players to keep an eye on during Saturday’s spring game. Here are five others to watch:

JOSH FERGUSON, Tailback

Healthy again after missing most of the 2011 season, the former Joliet Catholic star has been running like a guy who wants to take the first pitch against Western Michigan.

JEREMY WHITLOW, Receiver

Scout team Player of the Year on offense in 2011, Ohioan is in the hunt for significant game action. Having a big day in front of a crowd will only enhance his status.

TED KARRAS, Offensive guard

Seventh member of his family to play in the Big Ten, including great- uncle Alex (Iowa) and dad Ted (Northwestern), he is competing with Tyler Sands for the starting guard spot opposite Hugh Thornton.

ASHANTE WILLIAMS, Star

That’s the new name for the position manned by Trulon Henry and Nate Bussey in the past. First-year coach Tim Beckman has been raving about the senior, who missed time last season because of a suspension.

JUSTIN DuVERNOIS, Punter

After his struggles in 2011, many figured the Floridian would fall behind Ryan Lankford. But changes to his technique have brought positive results. He’s been booming the ball in practice.

Categories (3):Illini Sports, Football, Sports

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