CHAMPAIGN - Mike Dudek smiled during moments of his media availability on Friday, but the Illinois wide receiver admitted he's experienced some "down" moments since suffering his second ACL tear in a year.
"I'm not going to sit here and say everything's all right because there's been some down times," Dudek said, "but I'll fight through it."
But Dudek is trying to look ahead. And yes, he will continue to play football.
Dudek lifted weights (his upperbody) the morning of his April 12 surgery by renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews in Pensacola, Florida, and he's already started rehab on his once-again injured right knee.
"That's always my goal is to always come back and play football, especially for this team and my brothers out there,"Dudek said. "I definitely want to get back out there. It sucks watching them practice."
Dudek -- a Scout.com Freshman All-American in 2014 after hauling in 1,038 receiving yards -- isn't ruling out a return in 2016 either.
"If I can go this year, I'll go this year," Dudek said. "If I can't, I'm not going to be sad about it. I've accepted the fact that this is a very gruesome injury. It takes time to heal, especially with a player like myself where I do cut a lot, I do jump a lot, which you need a strong ACL for. I'm not putting a date on anything or anything like that."
Andrews told Dudek recovery could be as short as six months or as long as 12 months. Dudek sat out all of last season, partially to preserve eligibility. That's not a factor this year.
"Last year, a lot more tentative," Dudek said. "I did get surgery a month later too, so that definitely plays into everything," Dudek said. "Last year, my mindset was I don't want to burn a year for half the year. This year, my mindset's sort of, 'I just want to be out there.' I'm not going to push it. I'm not going to rush it by any means because you don't want something like this to affect you the rest of your career."
Dudek jogged off the indoor practice field late during the Illini's April 2 practice, the team's second of the spring. Because the tear was only partial, initial tests by team doctors suggested his knee may be fine. But an MRI later revealed the devastating news.
"It was a big shock to me," Dudek said. "But what are you gonna do?"
Dudek's family called Andrews just to see if there was a chance they could get an appointment at his institute. Luckily, Andrews had a spot in his schedule. They met with him on Monday, April 11, and Dudek went under the knife the next day.
"It wasn't a vacation by any means," Dudek said. "I was in bed for 15 hours a day after surgery. It was awesome meeting with him. He's actually been calling me, calling my parents, seeing how we're doing. It was cool. Growing up seeing his name on the ticker on ESPN, then to actually meet a guy like that, it was pretty sweet."
Dudek was quickly joined on the sideline by a familiar face. Redshirt freshman running back Dre Brown also suffered his second ACL tear in a calendar year.
"Man, when I found that out, I hurt more for him than I did myself," Dudek said. "It's tough, extremely tough. Especially for him. He hasn't even been on the field yet. He's tough. He's a tough guy. I just told him stuff like this happens. We just got to push through it. We just got to fight. There's a light at the end of the tunnel somewhere. I don't know where. We don't know when. But it's there. I'm going to push him. He's going to push me. It's good to have him back pushing each other."