It was April 2016, and Illinois wide receiver Mike Dudek felt hopeless. He had just torn his right anterior cruciate ligament in practice, nearly one year to the day after tearing it the first time, and was awaiting surgery.
Dudek, then a sophomore, sulked alone in his dorm room with the door closed and his leg elevated by pillows. He didn’t want to see anyone. This wasn’t how he imagined college would go — sidelined for a second consecutive season. A product of Neuqua Valley High School, he had broken Illini freshman records with 76 catches for 1,038 yards in 2014 and led all freshmen in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 79.8 receiving yards per game. Now he thought his football career and his dream of playing in the NFL were over.
“I questioned so many things,” he said. “It was tough to stay positive.”
And his uncharacteristic dismal attitude was deflating to see.
“He was on top of the world, freshman All-American, and he got knocked down and built himself back up and then got knocked down again,” offensive lineman Nick Allegretti said. “After that second one, he just kind of would hang out by himself. It was tough to see an outgoing kid beaten down.”
So, how does an athlete snap out of a self-doubting funk? For Dudek, it was three vanilla Long Johns from Dunkin’ Donuts, brought to him unexpectedly by Allegretti and quarterback Chayce Crouch, his roommates.
“It sounds dumb,” Dudek said. “But I was deep, I was down, and they helped just by doing that little thing. I didn’t ask, but they knew I love those, and that turned me around and got me going in the right direction.”
Recalled Allegretti: “There was a smile on his face. And that’s all we needed.”
Dudek faced a long road to recovery but was determined to finish what he started at Illinois. He relied heavily on his family, teammates, coaches and trainers to help him overcome the mental side of the injury.
“At first, you have so much anger, and you question a lot of things, like ‘Why me? Why this?’ You just bottle it up and keep it to yourself,” Dudek said. “But when I was doing that, I was the most upset. And once I started letting it out and asking for help, it got easier. It really was a full group effort, and it took a lot of people.”
Dudek said he felt exhilaration when he finally returned to the action last fall. In seven games, he made 24 receptions for 262 yards and one touchdown. He also returned six punts for 65 yards, averaging 10.8 yards per return.
Then, right when things were looking up, he faced yet another setback. Along with his knee not being fully healed, he broke a rib. The two injuries forced to miss the final five games of the season.
Frustration was an understatement. But his misfortunes have only fueled his determination for the upcoming season. Now a fifth-year senior in his final year of NCAA eligibility, Dudek is on a mission to play a full season.
“I’m 150 percent. I feel amazing,” he said. “I’m the most excited I’ve ever been for a season.”
One of the Illini’s leader on offense, Dudek also plans to up his NFL stock — though to do that, he notes, he’ll have to cut those Long Johns out of his diet.
“A lot of people call me crazy because I’ve been hurt a lot, but it is what it is,” Dudek said of his goal to still make it to the NFL. “All you need is one team to take a shot with you.”