CHAMPAIGN — Nearly overlooked in the University of Illinois’ recent game at Iowa was the college debut of a player who has had both his pain threshold and patience tested like few others.
How long has Dre Brown been waiting to get on the field for the Illini?
Longer than the 981 days wide receiver Mike Dudek was out of commission. So long that when he arrived on campus in 2015, Tim Beckman was still the head coach. Long enough to have endured two torn ACLs, two sprained MCLs, a stress fracture and four surgeries.
Brown has been waiting so long he’s finally come to the conclusion that all the disappointment, setbacks and rehabilitation he has experienced are actually a blessing.
Find another athlete who is thankful for four surgeries and an agonizing 30-month rehabilitation program.
“I’ve learned a lot about myself,” said Brown, who is technically a redshirt sophomore. “I came here as a 17-year-old early enrollee who was adjusting to college life and I’ve realized this life isn’t all about myself. It’s about serving others and with a lot of maturity I’m really thankful for these injuries because I don’t think I’d be who I am without them.”
Brown arrived in Champaign as one of the top recruits in Beckman’s 2015 class. Born in Decatur with parents who met while attending Millikin University, he grew up in DeKalb and rushed for 1,936 yards and 23 touchdowns for DeKalb High School in 2014.
Brown was seen as an Illini up-and-comer at running back, a guy who was backing up Josh Ferguson, then was ticketed to share time with Ke’Shawn Vaughn.
But that’s before the injuries piled up and Brown’s ability to withstand enormous disappointment was put to the test.
His first surgery came in the spring of 2015 when he tore his ACL. That wiped out what was supposed to be his freshman season. Then he tore his ACL again and had surgery in April of 2016. Another lost season.
Two arthroscopic surgeries were required for “cleanup” work and this past June, just as he could nearly taste his return for the start of training camp, Brown was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his shin. “They said I did it over-training,” he said.
Brown’s faith, which he talks openly about, has helped guide him through the ordeal.
Family has also helped.
His father, Aaron Brown, was a Decatur MacArthur football player who died when Dre was 8 years old. His mother, Michele Hill, moved to San Diego and was there when he underwent his first ACL surgery.
Because Brown’s injuries and those of Dudek so closely coincided, Brown said his mother became close friends with Dudek’s mom and the families shared the recovery process together.
“My mom is my rock,” Dre Brown said. “She’s always been there for me. She and Mikey’s mom became close and I think of Mikey as a big brother. He’s a very positive individual. It was great to push each other through our recoveries. I don’t think I’d be here today without him.”
So while Dudek, who also had two ACL surgeries, made it back for the start of training camp in August, Brown’s stress fracture delayed his return until last Saturday.
He got back on the field rather inconspicuously, as part of Illinios’ kickoff return and kickoff coverage special teams.
This week he plans to be on the field when the Illini play host to Rutgers (11 a.m., BTN).
“Now I’m trying to work my way back,” said Brown, who hopes he’ll have a chance to get back in the running back rotation at some point. “I’m just now finally getting to play and I’m already looking to graduate next summer.”
Brown’s plan is to accumulate more degrees and keep playing the game he loves until someone tells him he has to stop.
“He’s been through a lot,” head coach Lovie Smith said. “He’s had a long road to recovery.”