Here's the catch

Here's the catch

CHAMPAIGN — He's feeling better. Much better.

If the Illinois football team had a game today, Mikey Dudek would be good to go.

"I'm all cleared, healthy now," Dudek said.

The receiver, who first joined the Illini way back in 2014, has to wait until Sept. 1, 2018, against Kent State.

Given his history, the time figures to fly by.

Dudek missed the 2015 and 2016 seasons with torn ACLs. He returned this season and didn't take long to get involved. His first catch against Ball State went for 16 yards and a touchdown.

Dudek remembers the final minutes against the Cardinals. He started to reflect on all he had been through.

"It was very emotional," Dudek said. "I was sitting down on the bench, thinking about everything. I started tearing up a little bit."

There were other moments. Like the time BTN interviewed his parents on the sidelines during the Western Kentucky game.

"I didn't know that was going on," Dudek said. "Just hearing them talking about me, it made me thankful for everything."

Dudek finished the season with 24 catches for 262 yards and a touchdown reception from roommate Chayce Crouch.

Dudek wasn't able to play in five of the last six games. He suffered a rib-area injury against Wisconsin on Oct. 28 after a hard hit by the Badgers.

"It had nothing to do with my knee," Dudek said. "The injury was not horrible at all."

Dudek spent a night in the hospital. Then, he needed four weeks off.

"It was actually kind of nice. My rehab was to just lay in bed, get in a hot tub and cold tub," Dudek said. "The best thing for me was just rest."

Dudek was hoping to return to the field for the final game or two.

"That was always the plan," Dudek said. "But I did not want to rush things and make things worse in the long run.

"I always want to try to get out there. I hadn't practiced. I hadn't worked out in a month. And my body was not where it needed to be to play. I was still in pain."

The pain went away in early December.

"I'm all good now," Dudek said.

Long way back

There were oodles of Dudek family members and friends at the Ball State game.

"It's a moment I'll never forget," Dudek said. "That one sticks around because of the path I took to get there. I knew all the hard work I did to get to that point to make it happen."

He wasn't always sure.

"I knew physically I would be able to do it, but mentally I didn't want to go through the second rehab process," Dudek said. "The first one was horrible. After that, I told myself 'I'm never doing this again.' "

But he had to do it again, suffering a second torn ACL during Lovie Smith's first spring.

"I'm like 'Are you kidding me?' " Dudek recalled.

The second time, he learned a lot about himself.

"I'm thankful for it," Dudek said. "I wouldn't trade it for anything. It's helped me in ways I couldn't have imagined, just dealing with stuff off the field. It allowed me to grow as a man."

He has two years of eligibility remaining, though he will have to apply for a sixth season after 2018.

He is going to treat 2018 like it is his final year.

"Go through all the senior stuff," Dudek said. "Then, I'll see where things are at and maybe take my sixth year, maybe not."

Support group

His parents, Rick and Lynn, played important roles in Dudek's return. So did his older brother, Danny.

"He's always been in my corner from Day 1," Dudek said. "When I saw a lot of success, people will get jealous and treat you wrong because they kind of want what you have. He never did that. When I got hurt, he was there for me."

His roommates, Crouch and offensive lineman Nick Allegretti, were helpful.

"We are extremely close," Dudek said. "We're always there for each other. When Chayce got hurt, we were there for him too."

Dudek's girlfriend — Illinois basketball guard Jaelyne Kirkpatrick — "kept me calm, getting my mind off football, off my knee.

"Just being there for me. She knows that I take a lot of pride in football. When things aren't going my way, she knows how to deal with it."

Dudek returns the support. He sits courtside at the women's basketball games and brings his teammates whenever possible. Dudek asked what he can do to help build the crowds.

"Those girls work hard," Dudek said.

It's a team thing

As a freshman, Dudek helped the Illini earn a bid to the Heart of Dallas Bowl. He had seven catches for 73 yards against Louisiana Tech.

"That was one of my favorite weeks of college so far," Dudek said. "We still talk about it. I'm in a group chat with a bunch of those guys, Reilly O'Toole, Ted Karras, all them."

The Illini haven't been back to the postseason again. In 2017, Illinois went 2-10, losing its last 10 games. So, what is the goal for 2018?

"I want to get better," Dudek said. "It's simple. I don't want to put any statistical thing on there. I'm excited going into this offseason, being a leader on the team.

"I'm ready to accept the challenge to turn this thing around. It's been way too long, way too many losing seasons. The games we win next year will all be won through our preparation in the offseason."

The 22-year-old is surrounded by freshmen. No team in the Big Ten used more first-year players.

He has a message for the young guys: "When you do start to see success, don't stop there," Dudek said. "Keep wanting more. Keep grinding for more."

Dudek has high hopes for freshman receiver Ricky Smalling, who led the team with 510 yards and tied Malik Turner with 31 receptions.

"I thought he did really well," Dudek said. "Ricky and I are super close. He's hilarious. He had a great year."

With so many freshmen playing, it meant reduced time for some of the older players. After the season ended, eight upperclassmen announced plans to transfer.

"Those were decisions a lot of them had to make for their future just to create a better opportunity for themselves," Dudek said. "Not every place is for everybody unfortunately. I just want them to go to a place where they can be happy and successful. If they didn't think that could be here and they wanted to go somewhere else, I'll support them. I wish they would have stayed. It's been tough seeing all the guys leave. We're going to rally around what we've got."

Immediate plans

Dudek will graduate this weekend. He starts his master's program next semester.

School has not always been Dudek's favorite.

"Honestly, I used to despise school so much," Dudek said. "I wasn't a big school guy. I get good grades."

When he got hurt, Dudek changed his mind.

"School gave me an outlet to clear my mind and not think about football or my injury," Dudek said. "I like school a ton now. A couple events in my life changed that."

With his degree in hand, Dudek could have become a college football free agent. He could transfer to any school and play right away.

It is not going to happen.

"This is home for me," Dudek said. "I want to be the reason this thing turns around. I want to accept the challenge."

What needs to happen?

"I think our whole culture around this building, we've got to get the winning mindset back," Dudek said. "When you lose 10 games in a row, it's going to be down. It's going to be sad around the building. We've got to forget that quick. Winter workouts will start in January, and we've just got to hit it and know that we can be good."

Spring practices start in early March.

"I think they are going to hold me out of spring ball again just because I got hurt twice in spring ball," Dudek said, "and I really, really hate spring ball."

Dudek will be at all of the practices. His role is still to be determined.

"We've touched on it briefly, Coach Smith and I," Dudek said. "I listen to him. He knows what he's doing."

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Moonpie wrote on December 15, 2017 at 7:12 am

Good luck with that turnaround with Lovie Dovie Debacle Man at the helm.

PaxtonIllini wrote on December 15, 2017 at 8:12 am

A feel good story about a seemingly nice kid and you have to chime your Illini venom-laced .02 in. Can you just sit in your Mommy's basement quietly, please!

rocko wrote on December 15, 2017 at 3:12 pm

I think Mommy kicked him out.  Even she can't stand the fool.