CHAMPAIGN — When Mike Dudek talked to his father by phone Monday night, the conversation was largely about the start of the University of Illinois’ spring football practice.
They talk football often and for far too long nearly every conversation has centered to some degree on Mike Dudek’s knee. But near the end of Monday night’s chat, Dudek realized this conversation had not included a single reference to the serious injuries that had threatened to derail his college football career.
Mike Dudek was shocked. And relieved.
To understand how he juggled those emotions requires a look in Dudek’s rearview mirror.
After a stellar first season as an Illini wideout in 2014 — one in which he was named a True-Freshman All-American by ESPN.com — Dudek suffered a non-contact ACL tear in spring practice of 2015. That cost him the entire season and pushed him through the grueling rehabilitation regimen only a seriously injured athlete can know.
There was a sense of relief when he finally returned for the start of spring ball in 2016. But that came crashing down in a hurry when he tore the same ACL a second time, again in a non-contact drill. Devastated to learn he’d be without football for the second straight year, Dudek had to reach deep to find the inner strength to scale the rehabilitation mountain a second time.
He relied heavily on his faith, on his teammates and on regular conversations with his parents, Rick and Lynn Dudek.
Finally, he returned to the field in 2017 and it would not be an exaggeration to say that all eyes were on him and his knee every time he ran a pass route, every time he jumped to catch a pass and certainly every time he was tackled.
Crowds may have been small at Memorial Stadium last season, but most in attendance held their breath every time the muscular receiver was part of the action.
When he leaped high to snag a touchdown catch from quarterback Chayce Crouch in the first quarter of the first game of last season, there was a sense of relief when he landed in the end zone and immediately started to celebrate.
Although he avoided another serious knee injury, Dudek did miss five games last season because of two separate injuries. He finished the year with 24 catches for 262 yards working within an offense that used three quarterbacks and struggled to score points.
In the offseason, two quarterbacks left the program and the offensive coordinator was fired.
But when spring ball resumed on Tuesday, there was Mike Dudek zooming around the field like a jet, jumping, catching and looking in mid-season form.
That’s when he shared his surprise about the conversation he’d had the night before with his father.
“I was talking to my dad last night and he didn’t bring up my knee one time,” Dudek said. “Finally I said, ‘Dad, do you realize that you didn’t once ask me about my knee?’
“That was probably the first time in three years that he didn’t bring up my knee.”
Dudek was delighted.
“It’s a good sign,” he said. “I think we’ve moved past all of that. I feel really great, mentally and physically.”
Despite being listed at just 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, Dudek has built muscles on top of his muscles. He’s a fast, explosive, physically strong target with uncanny hands and a will to compete. That will hauled him up and down the Memorial Stadium steps more times than he cares to remember during both recoveries from knee surgeries.
If he holds together — and if a new offense can jump start his role as a pass-catching threat — he could once again be looked at as an NFL candidate.
Lovie Smith, his head coach, sounded like a man who didn’t want to jinx Dudek’s healthy start to spring ball. But he recognizes him as a weapon and an elder statesman on a young team that needs both.
“Mike is just a good player,” Smith said. “There are no limitations on him. It’s been a long time since he’s been healthy like this.
“This is valuable work for him in this new offense. We have big plans for Mike, not just as a receiver but as a returner also.”
With each successful practice, memories of the knee injuries seem to slide further and further into the background.
The day his father stopped asking about it was the best sign of all.