Illinois safety Donsay Hardeman injured his neck in the Ohio State game and required surgery to stabilize a sensitive area of the body. Spinal injuries are always considered severe since they can impact the spinal column and produce permanent disability, paralysis and even death.
For many months, Hardeman was unsure whether he would ever play football again. His injury healed well, but he didn't want to take any chances of reinjuring himself. Especially since he loves to hit opponents head on. He saw several spinal specialists. If they had been uncertain about his future, he wouldn't feel secure enough to play again.
After nine months of worry, Hardeman has the answer he was seeking.
"I have no restrictions. If we had a game tomorrow, I'd be out there playing. I feel brand new."
Needless to say, he is thrilled with the good report.
"Oh man, it's great. I think my last game was Ohio State. I worked out all spring and summer, and it's good to have an opportunity to be back out on the field."
Do you have confidence in your neck?
"Of course I do. If I didn't feel confident, I wouldn't be out here."
Hardeman faces a new challenge now. After so many months away from the game, he needs to reacclimate his body to its demands.
"I'm looking for getting back into the process of moving on the field. Db drills, getting back in the process of playing football again. Just getting back into the groove."
Illinois head coach Ron Zook has seen other players go through the same injury and recovery, and he is confident Hardeman will make the necessary adjustments and play well again.
"When #9 (Arrelious Benn) went by him, he looked slow (laugh). But he'll be fine. He hasn't played any football since November. You've got to play the game. You've got to get your timing back. He'll do the same thing.
"I've coached guys in the NFL who had the same thing twice, not the same part of the neck. I'm sure when we get out hitting that first time, he'll think about it. But he hasn't shown any signs of it bothering him so far."
Hardeman transferred from junior college and expected to see the field immediately. But arthroscopic knee surgery from an injury suffered in training camp kept him out of the lineup to begin the 2008 season. Once he did begin to play, he was sometimes overmatched since he was still thinking and not totally relaxed at the major college level.
"Last year was my first season," Hardeman reminds. "I was new to the defense. I couldn't really play like I wanted, taking gambles and a different approach to the game. Coming in this year, I know a lot more than I did last year. So I guess that's a good benefit for me."
Zook says Hardeman's struggles learning the defense are typical.
"With junior college guys, it's their second year when they really make a big step. Of course he missed the spring, and that didn't help him any. But he knows what's going on now. I see him making calls, I see him helping the young guys out. That obviously is a good thing. He'll be fine. We'll get the rust knocked off."
Hardeman couldn't play spring ball, but he made his presence felt. He became a team leader, inspiring the defense and encouraging his teammates. He played a major role in helping Illinois' young defenders rise up and face the challenge of playing against a potent offense every day in practice.
"For me, it was a different experience. That motivation rubs off on other people. If I have a down spirit, it rubs off on other people. I guess me being up helped them this spring."
That leadership has continued this fall.
"Coach Zook tells the veterans, if we come out with a sluggish practice, it's gonna rub off on the young guys. But if we come out anticipating a good practice, that rubs off on the guys. It helps them pick up the pace. Everybody is on the same pace."
Hardeman would have been the Illini's biggest cheerleader had he not been cleared to resume his playing career. But his ability on the field will combine with his leadership to help the Illini achieve their season goals.