Every generation of college football fans have a player that has made a lasting impression upon them. Usually, this happens when the program has enjoyed an era of excellence on the field. However, for Illinois fans, the last decade of Illinois football has been abysmal and hasn’t really given fans much to want to remember. Except former Illinois wide receiver, Mike Dudek.
Mike Dudek attended Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, Illinois. Dudek was not a highly recruited player out of the state of Illinois. In fact, his first offer came from North Dakota State, a power house program in the NCAA Division I Subdivision. This is was a great moment for Dudek, but he knew he wanted to play for his flagship university saying, “I told my parents, if Illinois offers me, I’m taking it.” Then a few weeks later, Illinois offered him. I asked him what it felt like to have his dream come true. “It was one of the proudest days of my life.” Dudek said.
It seemed like Dudek carried the momentum of his dream offer into his senior season. He was electric, recording 2,361 yards of total offense while adding 23 TDs. It didn’t end here. Dudek also took home the Upstate Eight Conference Player of the Year award and 1st Team All-State honors from the News-Gazette and Chicago Tribune.
Understanding his athletic potential, Dudek enrolled early at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in January 2014. And on his first day on campus, he was ready to work saying, “My parents always told me, the harder you work, the more success you will have. So, I wanted to come in early and get the reps. That way I could show that I was committed to the program and my teammates.” Dudek came in to college hoping that he could make a difference to the program. Little did he know, he would soon emerge as one of the top wide-receivers in the B1G Conference.
As most freshman do, Dudek started his freshman season on the bench. By his fourth game, Dudek had accumulated 249 receiving yards and 3 TDs. This led to his first collegiate start against the Nebraska Cornhuskers. While Illinois fell 45-14, Dudek’s strong start to the season continued. He led Illinois’ receivers with 6 catches and added 90 receiving yards. Looking back on it, Dudek said he treated his first start like any other game saying, “At that time, I didn’t really understand the magnitude of it. And now that I look back on it, I wish I would’ve appreciated it more.”
His following game, against the Purdue Boilermakers, was one of the best performances in Illinois football history. In fact, it seemed like he could do whatever he wanted to do on the field. By the end of the game, Illinois had lost 38-27. However, a bigger storyline was established. Mike Dudek had accounted for 8 catches and 200 receiving yards. This performance effectively put the spotlight on Mike Dudek’s career.
Dudek continued to play at a high level through the end of the year. He grew up on the field and became a go-to receiver. Additionally, Dudek helped secure wins with big performances against Penn State and Northwestern, on the road to the program becoming bowl eligible for the first time since the 2011 season. Dudek was ecstatic to participate in the bowl game despite Illinois falling to Louisiana Tech. “It was a blast. It goes back to something that Coach (Mike) Bellamy would say to me about creating lifetime relationships and memories. It’s something I’ll never forget,” Dudek said.
His first year was a success. He broke the Illinois record for receiving yards by a freshman with 1,038 yards. The record was previously held by Arrelious Benn in 2007. Furthermore, he accumulated many other accolades, including a second-team All-B1G selection and being named to numerous freshman All-American squads. I asked Dudek about how he managed to stay focused during his successful season. “My parents always did a good job of keeping me grounded. They told me to play the game and the rest would take care of itself,” Dudek said.
Struggling to Stay Healthy
Dudek was surrounded by the “hype train” heading into the 2015 off-season. Many Illinois fans were wondering if he could be the next Illini great in the NFL. After all, Dudek started drawing comparisons to former Patriots wide-receiver, Wes Welker, because of his elusiveness and ability to create separation. Everyone was so excited to see him play in spring practice. Unfortunately, he ended up picking up a non-contact injury, in his right knee, and was set to miss the 2015 season.
“My knee popped. And I knew it was my ACL,” Dudek said. The news broke and Illinois fans understood what they had lost. For Mike, it was just about going through the process and hoping to come back even stronger. The rehabilitation process was a 6-8 month period of grueling exercises that would test even the best of athletes. He said that he would have two hours of rehab in the morning and then another session in the afternoon. His strong work ethic allowed him to return to the team ahead of the first 2016 spring practice. Unfortunately, lightning struck twice and Dudek had suffered a non-contact injury, yet again, in spring ball.
Dudek tore his ACL in the same knee as his previous injury and would be out for the 2016 season. The second round was even harder for Dudek saying, “It was really tough going through it all again. I nearly gave up and quit. But, I knew I wasn’t the kind of guy who usually quits.” Dudek had a different approach to this injury. “After the first injury, all I wanted to do was get back on the field. So I worked hard and did extra reps to get back as quickly as I could. When I had the second injury, I just wanted to focus on learning as much as I could on the sideline,” he said. He took longer than the 6-8 month period to make a comeback from the injury, simply because he wanted to make sure his body felt ready to play football again.
Dudek successfully made his comeback to the Illinois football program ahead of the 2017 season. He wasn’t the same Mike Dudek from his freshman season, but he still made a significant impact. In seven games, Dudek caught 24 passes for 262 yards and a touchdown. He missed five games due to an injury he sustained against the Wisconsin Badgers. He had broken four ribs and had a lacerated kidney. It seemed that the injury bug would never leave Dudek’s career.
One Last Go Around
It had been a year since Dudek’s last knee injury. And the possibility of Dudek being fully healthy for the first time since the 2014 season gave Illini fans plenty to be optimistic about. Illinois would take on Kent State in their first game of the season with Dudek set to be a focal point of the offense. The game started off well for Dudek, catching 3 passes for 31 yards and a touchdown. It was a back and forth contest heading into the fourth quarter. Tied at 24, Illinois quarterback, AJ Bush, threw a dart to Dudek for 24 yards, setting up the eventual game winning touchdown. However, Dudek hobbled off the field.
No one thought much of it at first. But the news came out that Dudek had suffered a knee injury as a result of the tackle. Dudek tore his ACL in his left knee and had suffered his third season ending injury of his career. I asked Dudek what was going through his mind at that point. “When it happened, I didn’t think it was my ACL. I thought it was something else. After the MRI, it confirmed it. I just about had it at that point. And I told my parents that I was done. Everything happens for a reason and I was going to support my guys no matter what,” he said.
Despite playing his final snap of his football career, Dudek’s presence was felt around the Illinois football program. He stayed on the sideline with his teammates and continued to cheer them on. Mike was the type of player that you wanted in your program. He would work hard everyday, was someone who would put his team ahead of himself, and ultimately gave the program everything he had. He will never be forgotten.
There will always be a question about what if, in regards to Dudek’s football career. What if he never suffered his first ACL injury ahead of the 2015 season. Would he have had a career in the NFL? It’s fun and at the same time, sad to think about the potential that his football career had. However, it has worked out in the end. Today, Dudek is a Client Service Associate at Mariner Wealth Advisors. “It’s definitely different. My days aren’t as long as they were in college. But, I’m definitely enjoying it,” he said.
Expectations for the 2019 Season
Dudek is still in contact with fellow Illini players and staff. He said they have a group chat going. Dudek plans on attending most of the home Illinois football games this year with his friends and family. Maybe some Illini fans can meet the Illinois great at one of the games? All the more reason to get out to Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois.
As for the 2019 College Football season, Dudek is predicting a very successful season. In fact, one of the best seasons in a long time for Illinois football. “I think it’s gonna be a great year for the Illini. I’m picking Illinois to go 12-0. And you can quote me on that,” Dudek said. His prediction might be too optimistic, however, it is great to see him in such high spirits after his football career at Illinois.
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