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Raise a Glass: The Ballad of Mikey Dudek

This young man’s story deserves a salute

Penn State v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

In part to honor the 10th anniversary of The Rivalry, Esq./Off Tackle Empire and in part because it seems like something worth doing, introducing this new series that may or may not go anywhere, in which we raise a glass of Graham’s finest scotch to a player, person, coach, or group worth celebrating for all that’s great about Big Ten football.

This week, per the boss himself:

Caol Ila, 12 year.

You’ll find this respected Scotch in Johnnie Walker, but by itself it’s more than sufficient. Smells like if you lit a computer on fire, tastes sweet and fruited and light and smoky. Much like MNW, it’s got a lot of character.

Take it away, Thump. —MNW

It’s second and 10 from the Kent State 34 for the Fighting Illini, who find themselves unexpectedly in a tie game with the Golden Flashes. It’s not just the streak of 20 straight home opening wins that’s on the line, but the very future of the program. A loss here would be catastrophic to the excitement and buzz Lovie Smith is trying to use to build this program. Transfer quarterback AJ Bush has struggled with timing all day and it’s quite evident that he’s only been with these receivers for a month. Nevertheless, he has to come up with a go-ahead drive if a winner is ever to be built in Champaign.

Bush fires into the deep middle of the field. The pass is high and has missed the window for the receiver to catch it in stride without getting creamed. However, that receiver is Mikey Dudek, who goes up to bring it in at the 10 yard line before having his legs taken out by a diving safety as he lands. A few plays later, Illinois scores what would be the decisive touchdown. The Fighting Illini have won, but that would be Dudek’s final play of the season. It would later be announced that Dudek had suffered a season-ending knee injury, and not even to the knee that troubled him in 2015 and 2016.

It’s just unbelievable. Once again, Dudek was punished for giving everything he had for the Fighting Illini. Here he is being punished for making a superhuman effort to corral an errant Jeff George Jr. throw:

An unheralded recruit out of Neuqua Valley High School, Dudek exploded onto the scene in 2014 as a true freshman, catching 76 passes for 1,038 yards during Illinois’ improbable run to a bowl game. The Freshman All-American was poised to become one of the best Illinois players of the last 25 years and possibly one of the best ever, but a torn ACL in spring practice kept him out for 2015.

Dudek rehabilitated his knee and remained a positive influence on the team throughout the journey, and after Lovie Smith was hired in 2016, Dudek figured to be the face of the Illini rebuild. Shortly after the hire, Dudek tore the same ACL he’d worked so hard to repair, ending his 2016 campaign. Mikey never gave up and returned for a 2017 campaign with very little support on offense, providing the pivotal play in the season-opening win against Ball State with a punt return that set up a touchdown. Dudek only caught 24 passes in an anemic offense before a knee to the back by a Wisconsin defender pushed a broken rib into his kidney and lacerated it. This freak accident left his 2017 campaign done, and yet in spite of all this, he was back to full strength in 2018. His speed and quickness were somehow fully intact and his hands and playmaking instincts never went away.

And now he’s been dealt another season-ending injury. Here’s Scott Van Pelt with a segment on Dudek’s career:

There was so much more to Dudek than just his stats and his potential, however. The Champaign Room chronicled how all the hard work Dudek did to get back on the field inspired a 9-year-old Illini fan with cerebral palsy who’s undergone similar struggles to simply live his life. Among other Illini players, Dudek showed up to his elementary school basketball game in the weeks leading up to a life-threatening surgery.

The Illininet is littered with stories about Dudek’s character, the humble, supportive teammate for whom family is everything. He’s arguably been the face of Illinois football over the last few years despite only playing one full season in 2014. Though selfishly I wish he could produce more moments like this:

he is perhaps better defined by moments like this:

It’s just so unfair for his long and difficult journey back for this season to end like this. You may say that Illinois can’t have nice things, but Mikey Dudek certainly deserves them.

Here’s to you, 18.