Illinois junior rebounds from injury to pay dividends
CHAMPAIGN – If Rebecca Patrick wanted to erase most of 1999 from her memory, you couldn't blame her.
The Illinois junior was in a horrific automobile accident that hospitalized her boyfriend, and she suffered a season-ending knee injury within a matter of months.
But for someone with strong faith and a seemingly endless positive outlook, there were no signs of self-pity or frustration. Patrick made the most of some bad situations.
"I learned so much, and I changed so much from that experience," said Patrick, who goes by Becca.
Patrick said she learned a lot about love – love for her sport, her teammates and former Illini quarterback Kirk Johnson, who's now her fiancee – from both incidents.
Though sidelined last season, Patrick was part of the team. And she's helped anchor a revamped defense for an Illinois squad that surpassed its Big Ten wins record and is shooting for more.
"It's very nice to have her back," teammate Megan Kolze said. "She's a phenomenal person on and off the field. She's awesome to have back there."
Off the field, she's a jokester and "just a really nice person," teammate Sue Hodson said.
On the field, she's a quarterback of sorts of the Illini's four-woman defense, which is improving since switching from a three-woman backfield. Patrick directs traffic for fellow defenders Kolze, Hodson and second-team All-Big Ten performer Heidi Holtzman.
"She always talks to us, and she's always there," Hodson said. "She has a strong voice. You always know where Becca is."
Her voice was heard even more last year. On Aug. 23, 1999 – four days before the season opener and a day before her 19th birthday – Patrick tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee.
Patrick, who had started all 18 games her freshman year, had surgery a few weeks later and was done for the season. So she spent her time encouraging teammates and, at times, coaching from the sideline.
"She wasn't afraid to tell older players something she saw," coach Tricia Taliaferro said. "She's always been a leader, and she communicates well. It's not telling them to do something, but suggesting it."
Patrick said she pushed herself too hard while rehabilitating the damaged knee and injured a shinbone, setting her recovery back to March 2000.
But she reported to camp this fall healthy and with a new outlook.
"Just being on the sidelines and wishing so much that I was out there gave me a different kind of hunger," Patrick said. "Now I look so forward to going to practice every day. I've never loved it more than I love it right now. I love being out here, and I love my position. I love my players."
If the injury brought her closer to her teammates, the accident last May certainly tightened her bond with Johnson.
Returning from a long trip from Fort Collins, Colo., to Champaign by way of Louisville, Ky., Patrick was driving Johnson's Mercury Mountaineer westbound on I-74 near Fithian when it went off the road and rolled seven times before landing 75 yards into a cornfield.
Patrick's nose was smashed and bloody, and Johnson suffered broken ribs and a sore shoulder. Patrick was by his side for four days in the hospital.
"Something like that can break or make a relationship," Patrick said. "That really drew us closer together."
Patrick met Johnson, who now runs Billboards in Motion in Urbana, during a spring break Athletes in Action trip her freshman year and they hit if off.
Patrick visited Johnson and his family for a week this summer. On July 8, walking on a beach in Destin, Fla., Johnson popped the question.
"He'd been planning it for months," said Patrick, who will become Mrs. Johnson next June. "It was very romantic."
There's less romance and more determination when she talks about her team's important weekend. The Illini host Purdue on Friday and Indiana on Sunday.
The Boilermakers are tied with Illinois in the standings and are among a pack of six teams fighting for second place behind Penn State. They're also one spot ahead of the Illini in the regional rankings.
"It's a huge weekend for us, and that's what we've been talking about for a while," Patrick said. "We've never won four games in the Big Ten, but we're not satisfied. Four wins aren't good enough for us. If we play like we're capable, we can win the rest of our games."