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University of Illinois running back Dre Brown (25) makes a one-handed catch during fall training camp. Brown, a redshirt junior, is in his first training camp with the Illini after suffering back-to-back season-ending injuries.

CHAMPAIGN — There was a moment in the winter of 2016 that Dre Brown questioned everything.

It was after back-to-back torn ACLs suffered in his first two years as a running back at the University of Illinois.

Brown, a 5-foot-11 running back from DeKalb, had to jump over the hurdle in winter workouts, a perfect symbol of his collegiate football career. 

“I couldn’t think of doing it physically," Brown said Tuesday at Illinois training camp. "I was like, ‘Man, if I can’t jump over hurdles, how am I going to be able to play Division I football?’ Eventually, I jumped over the hurdle and now I can clear them with ease."

Brown played in his first college game on Oct. 7 last season at Iowa with two torn ACLs (2015 and 2016) and four surgeries in his rearview mirror.

“I would describe it as a blessing," Brown said of his process to return to football. "Going through those injuries taught me a lot about myself in life and stuff that down the road when I’m a father — I’m already a husband now — and potentially grandfather, that I can instill wisdom on people around me and even kids."

The Iowa game was an 11 a.m. Big Ten battle, the same kind of games that Brown grew up watching on Saturday mornings after torching defenses Friday night for DeKalb High School.

“It was honestly a dream come true," Brown said. "My father, he passed away when I was little, his favorite team was Iowa and I remember he always had Iowa gear on."

Brown circles back to lessons learned working on his grandfather's farm in Farmersville, Ill.; if he had more time, he would be back at the farm helping his grandfather.

Brown learned things he'll never use again in his life, like how to test water levels. But his grandfather also instilled faith in Brown, and reminded him how things have a way of working themselves out.

“My grandpa is really a wise due," Brown said. "The way he goes about his work, you never see him complaining. I kind of learned that like, ‘Hey, you have a job to do. You don’t need to complain about it, just get the work done.’"

Now Brown is in the deep mix at running back and participating in his first training camp as an Illini. He's competing for touches with Mike Epstein, Ra'Von Bonner, Reggie Corbin and Jakari Norwood. 

Offensive coordinator Rod Smith said the backs are "probably the deepest group."

“Dre has been doing a very good job," Smith said. "He’s been steady. He might be as steady as any of them right now. He’s doing a good job."

No longer does Brown have to watch from the sideline with receiver Mike Dudek, who suffered the same injuries at the same time.

There is no more of Dudek and Brown pushing each other at 6 a.m. rehab sessions to keep going, even when they felt like quitting.

“It was crazy," Dudek said. "We both had the two back-to-back, literally at the same time as one another. It was wild, but it was good to have him there with me. He’s a brother to me now, and we’ve been through a lot of stuff together."

Now Brown has lessons from two grueling years on the sidelines.

“I realized how strong I was," he said. "I was stronger than I thought. When something like that happens with injuries — back-to-back ACLs, which is obviously devastating — you learn who you are as a person now that you don’t have football.

"I’ve developed other interests and I’m thankful I have great family and friends that picked me back up every time I was down. I couldn’t have done that by myself."

The process to return to the football field was a grind for Brown, who was born in Decatur with parents who met while attending Millikin University. He grew up in DeKalb and rushed for 1,936 yards and 23 touchdowns for DeKalb High School in 2014.

But it wasn't all bad.

After his second ACL injury, Brown met his now-wife, Lindsay Brown.

His injuries meant he wasn't traveling with the Illini on road games. Instead, he hopped in the car after a Friday practice and drove 3 1/2 hours to Marion, Ind., to watch Lindsay play volleyball for Indiana Wesleyan University.

It was a luxury that wouldn't have otherwise been afforded had Brown not been sidelined.

Their relationship blossomed and the two were married this past May.

“That’s tough duty to do that," Illinois head coach Lovie Smith said of Brown's injuries. "You have to be a mentally tough guy, disciplined, know how to fight through adversity, all of those things. Of course with Dre, his personal life.

“When your personal life changes like that and you meet the woman of your dreams and the person you get to spend the rest of your life with, it puts a different perspective on life that way, too. It’s good for our program."

NOTES: Quarterback MJ Rivers took reps with the second team on Tuesday in practice. ... AJ Bush lead several impressive drives that were capped with touchdowns. ... Vederian Lowe moved back with the first team unit on the offensive line after Jake Cerny took reps with the first team at left tackle on Monday. ... Defensive backs Dawson DeGroot and Jartavius Martin each came up with impressive interceptions. 

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Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25

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Reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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