Hudson excels on the gridiron, diamond

Erica Magda

Erica Magda

By Jason Grodsky

With his blonde locks of hair bouncing under his cap as he trotted out to center field, Kyle Hudson found himself in a familiar place on the night of April 15.

Hudson was back roaming the outfield of his hometown, Mattoon, Ill., playing in front of his family and friends he grew up with and playing for the team he grew up watching.

Although the outcome of his homecoming game wasn’t what he or the Illinois baseball team desired, a 13-3 loss to Eastern Illinois, Hudson said the experience and the atmosphere around his hometown was amazing.

“I was happy to have some of the guys on the team see where I came from,” Hudson said. “I never thought I would have the chance to go back and play another game.”

But Hudson doesn’t just patrol the outfield for the Illinois baseball team. In the fall and spring, the junior also dons an orange and blue uniform across the street at Memorial Stadium as a wide receiver for the Illinois football program.

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Being a two-sport student-athlete in college isn’t something new. Athletes at the college level have been seen suiting up for one sport in the fall, and then exchanging uniforms for another in the spring for a long time.

Hudson is following in the footsteps of athletes like Deion Sanders at Florida State, Bo Jackson at Auburn and Brian Jordan at Richmond.

While Hudson doesn’t quite put up the flashy numbers that Sanders and Jackson did on the gridiron and diamond, he’s excelling in both sports and quietly becoming a household name in the Big Ten.

Hudson’s football career got off to a blistering start at Illinois, leading the team in receiving in catches and yards as a freshman and sophomore. He saw his numbers fall off this fall, catching 12 passes for 127 yards as the Illini reached the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1984. But it wasn’t for a lack of effort.

And while his statistics dwindled on the football field, his production on the baseball field has spiked. This season, the Illini center fielder is hitting .420 with a team-high 47 runs scored and .526 on-base percentage.

“The main thing for me it to go out and compete,” Hudson said. “Ever since I was young I was taught to compete in everything I do. I just look at things as a great opportunity for me to go out and compete against some great athletes in both sports and showcase what I can do.”

Because baseball and football seasons come at different times of the year, it’s easy for Hudson to make the transition. But there does come a time every spring where the football team throws on the pads and helmets for spring practice during the middle of baseball season.

In the past two seasons, Hudson was typically forced to miss midweek baseball games to make practice with head football coach Ron Zook, as well as miss some scrimmages on the gridiron to play weekend conference series for the baseball team.

“He’s been amazing,” head baseball coach Dan Hartleb said. “It has been something he’s handled very well, and he’s a special person to be able to handle everything, including academically as well as playing two sports.”

As a freshman, Hudson played in only 35 games on the baseball field out of 56 games, last year he missed only five baseball games, and this season he has been able to be at every game. He credits the coaches for making things happen and allowing him to participate as much as he can.

“At times it gets pretty tough, but I get help from everybody,” Hudson said. “The coaches play a big part, and it’s been good working with both of them because they both understand the situation. This year, Coach Zook kind of let me loose and let me play all of the games and I appreciate that a lot.”

Going from practice to practice, and from lifting to games, all while taking classes in between does take a toll on Hudson at times, both physically and mentally.

His typical weekday schedule is something that most college students would look at and shiver. He starts at 6 a.m. and arrives at the weight room by 7 a.m. to lift with the football team, and after that he heads to class from 9 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. When he’s done with class, it’s on to the baseball field for practice or game preparation. On most nights he doesn’t get done until 9 p.m. if the baseball team has a game; he’s back home by 7 p.m. if it’s just practice.

Hudson doesn’t shy away from his hectic schedule; he actually prefers it, saying it “keeps me out of trouble.”

The never-ending season and schedule does wear him down a little bit, especially since this year was extended thanks to the team’s berth in the “Granddaddy of Them All.”

“It takes a toll on me a little bit, but once football season ends I get a couple weeks to rest my body and my legs,” Hudson said. “But it hasn’t beaten me down to the point where I can’t perform, and the trainers do a good job with me to keep me healthy.”

Nothing new

Dealing with the aches and pains is nothing new for Hudson.

He has been playing multiple sports throughout his life.

In high school, Hudson earned 15 varsity letters in four sports – baseball, basketball, football and track – and won the state high jump title in 2004 with a 6-foot-10-inch leap. His accomplishments earned him the honor of being inducted into the Mattoon High School Hall of Fame just one year after he graduated.

When he arrived on campus in 2005, he knew he wanted to continue his two-sport tradition and approached Coach Zook about playing baseball in the spring after his first season. Because his grades were good, and he was progressing well on the football field, both Coach Zook and Coach Hartleb agreed to give Hudson a shot.

“I decided that I wanted to play two sports in high school, and I made up in my mind that wherever I went to college I was going to try and do it,” Hudson said. “One of the first things I told Coach Zook when I got here is that I wanted to play baseball as well, and he and Coach Hartleb both made it possible.”

Hudson credits not only his coaches, but the team’s training staff and academic advisers for making this possible. To him, he feels the communication and flexibility of everyone involved is what makes it work and realizes that it would be easy for Hartleb or Zook to expect his full-time devotion to their team.

“The situation with Kyle is easy because he comes to practice every day and works extremely hard and comes to the field with a great attitude,” Hartleb said.

“Above and beyond anything else, he’s got great ability and helps with the ball club in any way possible. He’s somebody that, throughout your career, you don’t find or see come through a program often with that kind of integrity. The effort he’s put forth in both sports has pleased everyone and made it easy on everyone.”

Missing out on practice for baseball and football was something that bothered Hudson in his first year. At times, he felt he was missing out on an opportunity to bond with his teammates in one sport while he was at another.

But his attitude and his teammate’s ability to understand what he was doing helped him get over those feelings.

“I was kind of worried what my other teammates were thinking and out doing while I was at one sport,” he said. “But now everybody understands what I’m doing, and my teammates have been great, and they realize that I’m going to be gone every once in a while. It’s good to have teammates like that who can accept and appreciate what you can do.”

The same attitude that helped him push through some tough moments paid off when he was hitting ninth in the batting order his first two years and at the beginning of this season.

But he didn’t complain, and was rewarded this season with the opportunity to hit lead-off.

“His first two years, he wasn’t able to be at practice a lot because of football spring workouts and that was something he had to adjust to and that’s why we batted him in the nine spot,” Hartleb said. “We started him in the nine-hole again this year for basically the same reason, but he’s been able to move up and now leads off and really sets the table for us.”

“White Lightning”

Setting the table is something Hudson has done very well this season.

His .526 on-base percentage leads the Big Ten, and his 32 steals put him nine away from breaking the team’s single-season record for stolen bases, set last season by Shawn Roof.

At 5-foot-11 and 165 pounds, Hudson relies on small ball to get the job done. Since he doesn’t hit for great power, tallying only eight extra base hits this season, he gets on base in whatever way he can, either by walking or making use of his acceleration and agility to leg out an infield hit.

Once on base he puts his “White Lightning” nickname to the test, using his electric speed to move around the bases.

“My speed is my biggest thing in both sports,” Hudson said. “In baseball I can create a lot of opportunities, whether it’s beating out an infield hit or bunting or stealing. In football my speed is big when it comes to route running and being able to catch and especially breaking away after the catch.”

At one point this season, he led the nation in stolen bases per game and right now is averaging .84 per game. He’s only been caught eight times in 40 attempts. In fact, Hudson says his coaches get mad at him when he isn’t running.

“Kyle has raw speed and has learned some things from an instincts standpoint that have allowed him to be successful,” Hartleb said. “For the most part he has the green light to run whenever he wants. The best base stealers are the ones who have confidence and know they have the green light to go and take advantage of it.”

Hudson knows his speed is the biggest asset he brings to the table and came into this baseball season with an emphasis to improve on it, wanting to focus more on getting better reads off the pitchers and getting good jumps.

In relation, his speed has helped him on the defensive side. He hasn’t made an error in center field this year and is one of most sure-handed outfielders in the entire Big Ten.

All the intangibles that Hudson brings to the table may put him in a difficult situation this summer, with a possible call from the professional level looming.

With his production decreased on the football field and his eye-popping statistics in baseball, he could be faced with the decision of moving to the professional ranks if he is selected in the Major League Baseball amateur draft in June.

“I think Kyle has a future in baseball, I can’t speak for his future in football beyond college, but he has great speed and a lot of intangibles that would lead him to the next level on the diamond,” Hartleb said.

Hudson was clocked at 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash, and his speed has caught the attention of baseball scouts that usually will take a chance on a player who can motor around the base paths and the outfield.

Even if he is drafted this summer and chooses to play minor-league baseball during the summer, he could still return for football this fall. But missing out on summer workouts and not participating in seven-on-seven passing sessions could diminish his contribution on the football field.

If he is drafted, he’ll be forced to make a decision that would affect his career and ultimately decide what he will do his senior year. But as of right now, Hudson hasn’t given much thought to his future quite yet and isn’t sure how things will turn out, making it hard to answer questions on the subject.

“I’ve thought a little bit about my future, but I mostly just focus on the season at hand,” Hudson said. “When the time comes around, I definitely will take a look at it and my opportunities and possibilities when they arise.”

While Hudson has had to tried to answer questions about his future and about being a two-sport athlete, there is always one question he can never seem to escape: which sport is his favorite?

But he knows the answer to that one will always be the same.

“Whichever one is in season is the one I like to do at that time, and that will always be my answer.”