Ball State Illinois Football

Illinois wide receiver Mike Dudek makes a touchdown catch over Ball State safety Armani McNulty earlier this year in Champaign. Finding a way to get the ball to a talented receiving corps more frequently is among the changes the struggling Illini need to make.

BRADLEY LEEB, ASSOCIATED PRESS

He scored the season’s first touchdown, was knocked flat when he failed to signal for a fair catch and made the day’s most thrilling play: a 52-yard, game-changing punt return.

Playing for the first time in nearly 1,000 days, he was nervous, excited, thankful and oh, so wonderfully sore.

But you’d have needed an electric sander to remove the smile from the face of Mike Dudek after Illinois rallied to eek out a 24-21 victory over Ball State in the season opener Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

Dudek doesn’t mind you knowing that when the clock hit zero — as Jamal Milan blocked a potential game-tying 54-yard field goal — some tears spilled down his cheeks over on the sideline.

“I got kind of teary-eyed thinking about where I’ve been and all my teammates and coaches who have had my back throughout this long and grueling process,” he said.

Long? When he stepped onto the field Saturday, it had been 981 days since the last time he wore the Illini uniform in a real game.

Grueling? Think about it. Think about the first ACL tear, the realization for a kid who truly loves football that he’d miss an entire season while running stadium steps, rehabbing in solitude and watching while everyone else got to play. Then suffering the same injury a second time and having to relive the same nightmare rehabilitation for another year.

When he talks about it now and thinks about those late-night conversations in which his mom told him he could do it, it nearly chokes him up.

Illinois football fans haven’t had that much to feel proud of in these recent years of losses, coaching changes and rebuilding. But Dudek gave them that as a freshman in 2014 when he electrified people with his acrobatic pass-catching, after-the-catch running and special teams plays.

He was undersized, under-valued and overlooked. Then he racked up more than 1,000 receiving yards and was recognized as a freshman All-American. He became an Illini cult hero.

When he finally got onto the field Saturday, he admitted that he had butterflies the size of bald eagles.

“I was definitely really nervous,” he said. “I’m sure my dad and probably my mom was even more so.”

More than 30 family members and friends formed a Dudek contingent who gathered to witness his return to the game and he did not disappoint.

Perhaps the coaches did in only getting him the ball twice on pass receptions. Shameful. But the first of those was a 16-yard touchdown heave from Chayce Crouch that got the Illini on the scoreboard.

The real thriller would come much later, with the game on the line.

Dudek zig-zagged 52 yards on a punt return that got the crowd into the game, set up the go-ahead touchdown and will be the must-see highlight from Saturday’s victory.

“I thought they were going to punt it high and pin us down,” he said of the ball he fielded at the Illini 13. “But when I saw the ball hit, I knew it was coming right toward me and that’s something we practice all the time, catching it off one bounce.

“When I saw that, I knew a big play was going to come.”

Dudek avoided the first wave of tacklers — “I knew those were their fast guys,” he said — and worked his magic all over the field.

“I thought I was going to score,” he said.

He didn’t, but four plays later Illinois would find the end zone to take a lead that would hold up.

As he walked off the field, after he’d wiped away the tears and prepared to join his teammates celebrating with the Marching Illini, AD Josh Whitman spotted No. 18 and asked how it felt to be back out there again.

“I told him I felt pretty sore,” Dudek said. “But it’s so great to be sore. It’s something I haven’t felt in a while.”

Sore again. Back again. Making plays again.

After 981 days, it seems like Mike Dudek hasn’t missed a beat.

​Follow Mark Tupper on Twitter: @MarkTupper

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