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Long Johns and ACLs: Mike Dudek enters training camp “feeling amazing”

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After several injury-plagued seasons, Dudek is healthier than ever.

Illinois v Nebraska Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images

For some people, it’s the little things that have the biggest impact on them.

A random act of kindness, like asking how someone’s day is, how they’re doing, if they want to hangout and go bowling later — Do people still bowl anymore? Not really sure. — are the little things can help a person who has been struggling with something in his life.

For senior wide receiver Mike Dudek, the little thing that helped him were vanilla Long Johns from Dunkin’ Donuts, brought to him by Illinois senior offensive linemen Nick Allegretti and former quarterback Chayce Crouch.

At the time in 2016, Dudek was struggling with the fact that he had built himself up from his first ACL injury, just to be knocked back down once again with the same injury. The second season-ending ACL tear caused him to question whether his football career was over and if he could achieve his dream of playing in the NFL.

Dudek was secluding himself from others as a result, and it wasn’t easy for Allegretti to witness. So the lineman ran to Dunkin’.

“It was tough. He was down. He was on top of the world, Freshman All-American, got knocked down, built himself back up, got knocked back down,” Allegretti said. “He would just hangout by himself. He wouldn’t come out much. It was tough to see an outgoing kid beaten down.

“We were just like, ‘I mean, I don’t know, he likes donuts.’ We were doing anything to put a smile on that kid’s face.”

Dudek said that Allegretti and Crouch bringing him those donuts was actually the turning point of his recovery. The little act of generosity was something that Allegretti had not put as much importance on as Dudek had. In fact, when asked about the story at Big Ten Media Day, Allegretti said he was surprised Dudek even remembered it.

When told that this act was what Dudek considered the turning point of his recovery, Allegretti looked down, began shaking his head with a smile on his face, and simply said, “damn.”

Dudek avoided reaching out to those around him after the second ACL tear, instead preferring to question everything he thought he knew up to that moment.

“At first, you have so much anger. You question a lot of things like ‘why me’ and all this and bottle it up and keep it to myself,” Dudek said. “But when I was doing that I was the most upset. Once I started letting it out and talking to people, asking for help, it made it a lot easier.”

Illinois v Northwestern

Dudek started reaching out to his roommates and family when he needed to take his mind off of football. Whether it was asking his roommates if anyone wanted to get ice cream or calling his mom to talk about school and their next family vacation, Dudek started to once again open himself up to others.

The combination of his family, coaches, teammates and donuts had helped Dudek over the mental hurdle of suffering back-to-back knee injuries.

This past season, however, came with more knee issues for Dudek, limiting him to just seven games for the Illini. But with his final training camp right around the corner, Dudek said he feels 150 percent.

“I feel amazing and I’m super excited for this season,” Dudek said. “I’ve been back for a year now, and this is the most excited I’ve ever been for a season to begin.”

Illinois head coach Lovie Smith said there are no limitations on Dudek heading into the season and expects big things from him under the team’s new offense, led by new offensive coordinator Rod Smith.

“Mike’s had an excellent offseason. Completely healthy now,” Smith said. “And our new offense that we’ll be running, he’ll have an opportunity to be the featured guy and be able to — we should see a lot of production from him. Again, he’s in excellent shape, and he’s going to have an outstanding year.”

So far this offseason, Dudek has seemed to look even better then he was during his freshman campaign, with Allegretti saying Dudek looks faster and stronger than before. He’s most pleased with seeing his friend back on the field and playing the sport he loves.

While it’s been an up-and-down career up to this point, working through three head coaches and a series of injuries, Dudek can’t help but focus on what he can take away from these experiences before he heads into his final season as an Illini.

“It was tough to stay positive with losing games and all that, but it helped me as a man off the field,” Dudek said. “Which is what I’m thankful for, just dealing with adversity and pushing through.

“And seeing the greater things in life.”

Big Ten coaches are believing in Lovie Smith. Do you?