Sometimes when you write words for a living it is best to borrow from others. That applies in any discussion of character. John Wooden, architect of the UCLA basketball dynasty of the 1960s and 70s, once summed up character this way:
“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are … the true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”
No one was watching in 2014 when freshman Mike Dudek, an emerging star receiver on the University of Illinois football team, helped a couple of Illini student trainers at Memorial Stadium.
Well, almost no one. Derek Neal, associate director of athletics communication at Illinois, posted a photo Monday on his Twitter account, evidence one person was watching.
Still, of all the tweets, sound bites and quotes regarding Dudek following the news he will miss a third Illini season because of a knee injury, Neal’s revealed the most about Dudek’s character.
Dudek is shown pushing a large cart loaded with Gatorade coolers up a ramp into the locker room. There was a student manager tugging from the front and another alongside Dudek in the back. It happened following an Illini victory over Penn State.
Neal’s tweet read in part: “He had 11 catches for 115 in that game to help keep Illini bowl hopes alive. No one was around. They were struggling, so he helped out.”
Keep in mind this was before Dudek had his 2015 and 2016 seasons wiped out by knee injuries and, more recently, this season taken away by an injury suffered in the second half of Saturday’s opening win over Kent State.
Much of Monday’s outpouring for Dudek focused on how he has handled the adversity thrown his way — what a fighter he is and how positive he has remained with teammates, coaches, fans, etc. The tributes were heartfelt and made a reporter who was on the Illini football beat from 1988 to 2006 feel he missed out in not getting to know and cover Dudek.
All of the testimonies, from head coach Lovie Smith on down, illustrated how highly others think of Dudek. Neal’s tweet told you the most about who he is.
How many players would have jogged past the Gatorade cart and up the tunnel into a celebratory locker room on that November 2014 day? It may have been all but one.
Illinois had a number of high-character players in that aforementioned 1988-2006 stretch. Robert Holcombe was one, a record-setting running back whose senior year of 1997 ended 0-11. Not once did he complain. He took the ball, took a pounding and churned out 1,253 yards that season on his way to a school-record 4,105 for his career.
Howard Griffith was another. A walk-on, he became a standout running back and leader on John Mackovic teams that went 24-11-1 from 1988-90. Griffith was a team-first guy who later won two Super Bowl rings, primarily as a blocking back, with the Denver Broncos.
There were others. Kurt Kittner, a quarterback with a linebacker’s heart and mentality; Moe Gardner, a soft-spoken nose tackle who shed two and three blockers per play, then gave credit to everyone else; and John Holecek, the quiet, steady leader of a linebacker corps that also included Dana Howard, Kevin Hardy and Simeon Rice. The list goes on.
Dudek will not dominate the Illinois record book the way those players do. Injuries prevented it and that’s a shame. He will be remembered for what his career might have been.
Yet, he also should be remembered as a guy whose character stacks up with any to wear an Illini uniform.
We have the photo to prove it.