Asmussen | Dudek living life with no regrets

Asmussen | Dudek living life with no regrets

CHAMPAIGN — Barring a change of heart, Mikey Dudek has played his last snap of football. And the Illinois senior receiver is OK with it.

While making a crucial 24-yard catch against Kent State in the 2018 season opener, Dudek got hit in the left leg.

"I've watched the play probably 500 times," Dudek said Wednesday ahead of Saturday's critical Big Ten home game for the Illini against Purdue. "Deep ball over the middle late is never a good outcome for the receiver. I just went up and wanted to make a play for my team and wasn't thinking about anything else besides catching the ball."

Knowing the outcome, he would do it again. Receivers catch passes. It's their job.

It was the last of Dudek's 104 career receptions.

Having missed two full seasons with torn ACLs on his right leg, Dudek knew something was wrong.

"My knee just felt weak," Dudek said. "There wasn't much pain, it just didn't feel right."

Dudek informed trainer Jeremy Busch, who told him he was done for the rest of the game.

"I was fine with that," Dudek said.

But he wasn't fine with what he heard the next day. During a meeting with Busch and team orthopedist Robert Bain, Dudek received the bad news.

An MRI showed he had torn his LCL (lateral collateral ligament).

"I didn't even know I had one of those," Dudek said.

He also damaged his ACL.

"I wasn't expecting to hear those words," Dudek said. "It kinda hit me by surprise."

He immediately called his parents, who were understandably worried. They wanted to make sure he was fine.

"I wasn't as upset as I thought I would (be)," Dudek said. "Knowing that I'm most likely done with football, it's kind of a little easier to cope with being that I don't have to go through the long rehab process that I've done so many times. That will just drain you physically and mentally."

Of course, the 23-year-old Naperville native wants to play. The game has been a huge part of his life.

"I want to be out there," Dudek said. "Gamedays are super hard for me. I'm excited for the guys, but I want to be out there, competing with them, battling with them. Now, I've just got to do it from the sidelines (and) take on a different role."

Turn the page

Football is not good for knees. Three injuries in four years for Dudek prove it.

"At some point you've got to listen to your body," Dudek said. "I want to be able to run around with my kids when I'm older."

Dudek's incredible freshman year, one of the best in school history when he caught 76 passes for 1,038 yards and six touchdowns, was followed by four seasons ruined by injuries.

"If that was my last snap, I'm thankful for my whole career in football," Dudek said. "It's been everything and more than I could have imagined. As crazy as it seems, the injuries help define who I am and make me a stronger man in the end."

Media members had been asking to talk to Dudek after the injury. On Wednesday, he met with a group of seven reporters after the team's morning practice. Receivers coach Andrew Hayes-Stoker playfully grabbed Dudek and asked "Are you coming back?

The answer, as it turns out, is "probably not."

He took a moment to reflect on his career, which started three head coaches ago.

"I'm so blessed to be able to come out here, have a year where I was (freshman) All-American, on top of the world," Dudek said. "For most, it might seem like a downfall from there, but it really wasn't. In the end, I'm leaving here with two degrees from one of the top business schools in the world. I've set up so many friendships. I learned so many life lessons.

"In the end, I'm standing here today, I'm breathing, I'm internally healthy. I can't be mad about too much."

What's next?

If he sticks with his plan to stop playing, Dudek won't require surgery on his left leg.

"Basically, it will kind of heal on its own," Dudek said. "If I were to want to play again, I would probably need to get surgery. I'm staying away from that, trying not to get cut open again."

He's got a heavy load of classes. And will also stay involved with the team. The young receivers miss him on the field, but will benefit from his leadership and experience.

Usually, a leader by example, Dudek had decided to become more vocal with the receivers. That will still work.

"They're doing well," Dudek said. "Obviously, there is always stuff you can clean up. I'm proud of those guys."

Illinois is 3-2 and halfway to bowl eligibility. The last time the Illini made it to the postseason in 2014, Dudek was the star.

He isn't surprised by the success this season.

"It's everything we talked about ever since last year," Dudek said. "Us seniors, the upperclassmen, we wanted to change the course of this program. I felt like we did that in the offseason. We're not anywhere near where we could be and where we're going to get to be."

One of those other seniors, offensive lineman Nick Allegretti, has been Dudek's biggest supporter.

"Nick's one of my best friends," Dudek said. "Him and I have been living together for five years. He's seen me at my highest moments and he's seen me at my lowest moments, too. If it wasn't for him, I don't think I would even be standing here today. I probably would have given up a long time ago if I didn't have his support. I'm forever grateful for friendships like that."

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmusen@news-gazette.com.