Mike Thomas might want to call in the pest control company -- the Illini have a huge bug problem. And these aren't the type that live under your bed or in the cracks of your walls. No, this bug is the worst of them all: the injury bug. It has been individually well-documented just how many Illinois football and basketball players have been bitten, but when you compile them all into a comprehensive list it is even more (depressingly) astounding. Take a look:
|Suffered torn ACL, out for season||Mike Dudek||football|
|Suffered shoulder injury, week-to-week||Josh Ferguson||football|
|Suffered torn ACL, out for season||Dre Brown||football|
|Suffered foot injury, week-to-week||Justin Hardee||football|
|Suffered torn ACL, out for season||Patrick Nelson||football|
|Suffered foot injury, out for season||Teko Powell||football|
|Suffered torn labrum, out for season||Reggie Corbin||football|
|Suffered torn ACL, out for season||Tracy Abrams||basketball|
|Suffered foot injury, week-to-week||Jalen Coleman-Lands||basketball|
|Suffered torn meniscus, out 6-8 weeks||Leron Black||basketball|
|Suffered concussion, day-to-day||Jaylon Tate||basketball|
Suffered thumb injury, out 8 weeks
*Update: RB Henry Enyenehi and FB Tim Clary both suffered injuries after this was published
So the real question here is why? Why is it that in the past calendar year Illinois athletics has suffered more devastating player injuries than any other school in the country or any other year in recent memory? There isn't a straightforward answer, but there are a lot of theories:
The Curse of the Chief
OK, this explanation is a little bit more preposterous than the ones to follow, but try telling that to a large portion of the Illinois fan base. Similar to the Cubs' billy goat, many believe this curse is a legitimate thing that has continued to rear its ugly head ever since the University decided to get rid of their mascot back in 2007. The Chief has made many unofficial appearances since his removal, but until the "Chiiiieeeeef"-chanting fanatics get their mascot back, many will blame him for the teams' various struggles:
@MarcusJ_NG beginning to think this "Curse of the Chief" is real— Zach Youngblood (@zcyoungblood) October 20, 2015
The curse of the chief is real. Bring him back.— PissedOffChief (@PissedOffChief) September 2, 2015
The curse of the Chief. We got rid of Illiniwek and built our programs over a native american burial ground.— Ian Gold (@Einsane) July 28, 2015
The Tim Beckman Allegations
Obviously this explanation only applies to the football injuries, but it is still something to consider. The majority of the allegations surrounding ex-Illini head coach Tim Beckman were related to the manner in which he treated player injuries and medical issues. Could some of these lengthy, out-for-the-season injuries sustained while Beckman was still in charge be the result of the way he was coaching his players? It seems unlikely but it can't be ruled out entirely. Also, one thing the current football staff has to consider is the way they are handling the players' health throughout the season. Given all that transpired that led to Beckman's dismissal, you can bet that Cubit and company are going to be extremely thorough and cautious when it comes to dealing with player injuries.
Just Dumb Luck
Look, let's be realistic here: there is probably only one reason for the slew of injuries that have hit Illinois athletics: just dumb luck. John Groce described almost every one of his players' injuries as "freakish," and football wideout Mikey Dudek said that he was running a route he has run a thousand times when he slipped and tore his ACL. Josh Ferguson's injury occurred during a game, and Justin Hardee's foot broke in a non-contact practice drill; things like that happen. But when they begin to pile on top of one another it begins to feel like an insurmountable hole to climb out of.
So now let's try and climb out of that deep and dark ditch I just buried us in and take a look at the positive side of things. The football team is currently sitting at .500 and, although this past weekend's loss to Penn State was embarrassing, they are in a position to reach bowl eligibility if they can win two of their last four games. I don't care if it's the Little Caesar's Bowl or the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, it would still be an amazing accomplishment to reach the postseason considering where this team was at (without a head coach) one week before the regular season started. The basketball program is a slightly different story, as they suffered the brunt of the injury blows, but there are still things to be optimistic about. None of the injuries are of the season-long variety, and most everybody will be back by the time the conference season rolls around. If the team can hold serve and only drop a few contests before 2016, they might be in a good shape. Freshmen Aaron Jordan and DJ Williams will be thrown right into the fire, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing; they are very talented players who could have an immediate impact on this team. And of course the team still has Malcolm Hill, who is one of the best players in the Big Ten.
The injury bug has bit Illinois and sunk its gnarly teeth deep into their skin, but it has outlasted its stay and cannot continue forever. There are still positives to take away from this experience, and hopefully as the calendar begins to leave 2015 in the past, the Illini will be able to leave their harrowing list of injuries there too.