Deep Ball Over The Middle
That's it right there. That's the last college football moment for Dude K. He went up for that deep ball over the middle, #7 went for the tackle (not #7's fault), another knee injury occurred, and now his career is over. And I'm absolutely sick to my stomach for him.
He's in the air, doing what he does - getting elevation for a pass across the middle and snagging it before any DB can get a hand on it - and then it's all over. How can life be so cruel to someone? Four season-ending injuries in four consecutive seasons? Is that the most unfair hand dealt to any Illini player in history? To have it happen to this perfect player - this guy who would somehow grab every single deep ball over the middle - is so unfair. He loves playing the game and his body (and luck) won't let him play it.
It takes me back to another moment. A moment nearly exactly like the photo above. It happened in 2014, three head coaches ago. Darius Mosely had pushed DaeSean Hamilton into Christian Hackenberg, forcing Hackenberg out of bounds a half-yard short of the game-ending first down, forcing Penn State to punt. Not many people remember this moment because not many people were there. The season had fallen to 4-6, Penn State was coming to town, and another home-for-the-holidays would be delivered on a cold November day that nobody cared about. I've always said that if you want so see the core of the Illini fanbase - the 'you can make me quit' brigade - look at the 13,700 or so (actual attendance, not paid attendance) who showed up that day to watch another bowl elimination.
Except that it didn't happen. Wes Lunt was back from injury, but Wes Lunt was ineffective, so backup-his-entire-career Reilly O'Toole came in to give the offense a spark. He did spark, and the game was close late in the fourth quarter, and then Darius Mosely pushed DaeSean Hamilton and Penn State was forced to punt with less than two minutes to go. I interviewed Mikey Dudek about that moment this summer, and I'll let him take it from there:
"I remember during the Penn State game that year we were losing with like a minute to go and Reilly threw me a deep ball over the middle. Well, he came up to me before that play and he made up this new signal where he said "if I give you this signal, run this route". It wasn't even in the playbook. We never even told the coaches anything about that. But it ended up working out. So now, whenever he sees me, he'll give me the little signal and it's like our inside thing."
"Those were great times. I'm looking forward to it this year - I want to get the team back to a bowl game."
And now he can't. I mean, just think of how cruel that is. Fights through a season-ending injury in spring practice in 2015 only to suffer the same injury his second practice back the next spring. So he misses all of 2016 as well. He returns to football after missing two full years and, after seven games, a freak play where a safety's knee broke a rib from behind ends another season. And then, after fighting back from THAT, he gets one more game (and one more deep ball over the middle) until the angle where he lands and the position where the safety grabbed his legs gave him yet another season-ending knee injury. Unconscionably unfair.
But I want to go back to that moment. A few plays after that Penn State catch where he and Reilly O'Toole called their own play, David Reisner put the ball through the uprights to beat Penn State and the bowl hopes were still alive. Recording my From The Stands from the field, I started to tear up and my voice quivered. It seems so stupid - a fairly meaningless game to move a downtrodden football team from 4-6 to 5-6 - but it meant so much to those guys on the field and you could sense it standing around them. A quarterback who was the backup for four seasons, a freshman receiver with the innate ability to go get that deep ball over the middle, and a season was saved. After the destruction of Northwestern the following week - led by O'Toole and Dudek - a bowl game was achieved.
Most in the college football world scoff at that bowl appearance. Even Illini fans. Whenever I mention "the last five Illinois coaches have made a bowl in Year Three", someone will invariably respond "sure, but Beckman only went to the Heart Of Dallas Bowl". I get that. It was no Rose Bowl or even a MicronPC.com bowl - but it was theirs. They dug deep, beat Minnesota, Penn State, and Northwestern, and got to celebrate in Dallas the day after Christmas. Scoff if you want - you can't take that away from those guys. They somehow pulled it off.
To think that that was the final highlight of Dude K's career though - please do not put "well he could technically apply for a sixth year next year" in the comments, the man has suffered enough - is just so gut-wrenching. I mean, he had other moments - the punt return to beat Ball State last year, the punt return to set up the winning drive on Saturday, followed by the catch above - but the 2014 season was his final moment in the Big Ten spotlight. He and Reilly invented a signal and put their team in a bowl game.
And when I pressed him in that interview, he didn't want to talk about that team. He wanted to talk about his family. I asked him about his personal highlight from that season. Making that bowl game? Being named Freshman All American?
That's an easy one for me. It's when I scored at Northwestern. My family is all from the Chicago area, so I probably had 30 to 40 friends and family members in the crowd at that game. They were all sitting in the south endzone, and that's where I scored. I remember turning around and looking at all of them - honestly it was a moment I'll never forget.
That's who we're losing. That's the player who has had to suffer four consecutive season-ending injuries. That's the irreplaceable guy the coaches have to replace for a fourth straight season. THAT'S the guy cheated out of a college football career.
Is it about us? No, of course not. The natural fan reaction is "he's irreplaceable!", but that's just our selfishness. The fact that we have a big hole at receiver now means nothing - the fact that life has asked Mikey Dudek to walk this path is the only thing. I'm sure we'll get lost in "man, we could have really used Dudek on that drive" later this season - and, honestly, that's a testament to who he was as a player - but right now, having just learned this news, all we can do is grieve for him and the 30 friends and family who were in the stands at Northwestern that day. I cannot imagine their emotions today.
All I can do, really, is share my own. And I'm telling you that my heart breaks for this kid. No one should be asked to walk this path. No one should have to deal with four consecutive (sometimes freakish) injuries. No one should have the thing they love stolen from them. I'm sick to my stomach as I type this.
I ran into Reilly O'Toole in Lot 31 before a game back in 2016. And, as corny as it was, I told him I wanted to thank him on behalf of this fanbase for that November surge in 2014. It might have meant nothing to the college football world, but it meant everything to us. He had persevered through 3.5 years as the backup and then lead our Illini to a bowl game. Mostly by putting it over the middle, knowing this tiny kid from Naperville would somehow go up and get it.
So I guess all I can do is say the same to Mikey. Thanks for your inspiration, Dude K. It's been a pleasure to write about you. No joke, I have tears in my eyes right now. I wish you the best in life. Whatever the world throws at you...
Go up and get it.