Part of the Big Ten championship Illinois football team in 2001, former offensive lineman Dave Diehl is now going into his tenth season with the New York Giants in the NFL. He played with a minor injury this past season but doesn't see his NFL career ending in the near future.
"I'll play as long as I can. This past season was my first surgery I've ever had while playing. I just love being around this game and love playing this sport. I'm doing something that's a dream come true."
Being back at Illinois brought back a lot of memories for Diehl, who bleeds Orange and Blue and isn't afraid to show it.
"Each and ever day, I realize how precious it is and push myself even harder. It's hard to believe that I'm already going into my tenth year in the NFL. It doesn't seem like I was that far away from this university."
Diehl had an opportunity to share his passion for Illinois with the current team before the practice. Even with all of his accomplishments in the NFL, he stays humble and knows it wasn't an easy road to get where he is today.
"One of the things I told these guys was that where my foundation started was at this university. The accomplishments that I earned as a professional are all the groundwork of the things I accomplished here by being dedicated, working hard, having perseverance and continuing to push myself.
"I was no silver spoon. I was a guy who started my last year and became a fifth round draft pick. I had to work just like everybody else to get where I am today."
One of the highlights of Diehl's visit back to Illinois was his opportunity to visit with former teammate and close friend and now Illinois offensive line coach Luke Butkus. Butkus may be young when it comes to coaching, but Diehl knows first hand he has what it takes to succeed, especially at Illinois.
"I actually can believe it. When Luke was playing, snapping the ball and making all the calls for us when were were up there at the line, his knowledge of the game is unbelievable. His ability to identify defenses for all of us doesn't surprise me. We've just crossed paths while I was playing and he was coaching, working his butt off."
Diehl of course was excited to hear about Butkus's return to Illinois, but he was equally excited for the University of Illinois.
"When I heard that he got the job here, I was very proud of him and his accomplishment. But moreover, I was excited for the university because they got a guy who's going to work his (tail) off to do whatever he can to make this the best offensive line in the Big Ten."
While spending time with Butkus, Diehl also got to meet new head coach Tim Beckman. Much like Butkus, Beckman's enthusiasm and intensity stood out from the start.
"I got to meet him. He's enthusiastic and brings a lot of intensity. He's getting these guys excited and ready to go out here and work. He gets these guys to come out here and practice like a champion, believe in themselves and believe in what we're doing here. I think from what I've heard and seen so far, I think the program is headed in the right direction."
Some things at Illinois have changed since Diehl took the field, but even ten years later, some of the things that mattered most to him still remain.
"Obviously the stadium is a lot better. This is a lot nicer than when I played here. I still can't believe it's been 10 years since I played here.
But coming back here, walking through the stadium, even though I've won two Super Bowls, some of the times and experiences I had here and friendships with guys like Luke Butkus and Tony Pashos, guys that will be brothers for life, it's just awesome to come back being a proud Illini."
In just the short time he spent on campus with Butkus and the rest of the coaches and players, Diehl has strong optimism about the future of Illinois football.
"I hope that they're going to come out and compete as hard as they can each and every time. Getting to know the coaching staff and getting to meet them today, I'm excited about the direction they're putting the program in, the message they're sending, and of course Luke.
Luke's a guy I know that's like a brother to me, and his attitude, character, and determination to make this the best group possible is why I'm here."
One main reason Diehl returned to Illinois was to assist Butkus, but as proud an Illini as any, Diehl wants to pass on the legacy he helped sustain during his time as an Illini athlete and help build a legacy.
"I've always said I'd come back and do anything I can. I'm going to watch film and see if I can help these guys with their technique. It wasn't long ago that I was in the same position as these guys, striving to do what I could to be a better competitor and better football player.
Each practice and each rep you take is a chance to get better. I hate to use the cliché, but you're either getting better or you're not.
Diehl restates the obvious regarding his feelings about the U of I.
"Being a proud Illini is something I'll have 'til the day I die."