‘I could’ve cried’: Andre Curbelo reflects on injury, recovery, return

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Photo Courtesy of Illinois Athletics

Andre Curbelo shoots a floater during No. 17 Illinois’ game against No. 4 Purdue at State Farm Center on Monday. Curbelo looks back at his journey from his injury to his return to the line up after missing 11 games.

By Jackson Janes, Sports Editor

On Monday, Andre Curbelo made the walk from the Illini bench to the scorer’s table, the same short walk he’s made countless times before. 

This time was different. 

After an 11-game absence, Curbelo made his long-awaited return against No. 4 Purdue in front of a sold-out State Farm Center crowd and was greeted with a loud ovation that fans have been eagerly awaiting for weeks.

“I could’ve cried,” Curbelo said. “I was crying on the inside, just happy tears, just so proud and so thankful to be back on the court.”

Having last played on Nov. 23 against Kansas State, Curbelo did not seem to skip a beat against No. 4 Purdue, recording a season-high 20 points on 53% shooting, six rebounds and three assists while playing 26 minutes and recording zero turnovers in the Illini’s 96-88 double-overtime loss.

The journey to return to the court wasn’t easy for the 2021 Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year. Though he’s had concussions in the past, this one was the most severe.

“It was scary, man,” Curbelo said. “I mean I’ve had concussions before, but nothing like this one. It’s scary when you don’t really have a lot of answers and you don’t have a lot of knowledge of what’s going on.”

Head coach Brad Underwood deflected questions pertaining to Curbelo’s status for weeks, though he recognized the difficult journey the Puerto Rico native has had to get back on the court after his impressive freshman campaign and early-season setback.

“He wants to win, he wants to compete, he wants to play, and yet there’s tremendous appreciation for what he went through, the tremendous challenges he continues to go through, the severity,” Underwood said. “My hat’s off for him having the passion to want to get back and compete and to fight through some things that weren’t easy.”

Known for his high energy and charismatic personality, Curbelo was unable to be on the court physically, but that didn’t stop him from being a presence on the bench.

The sophomore guard routinely ran onto the court to help guys up off the floor, had conversations – some more friendly and two-sided than others – with referees and remained vocal in huddles and on the sidelines.

Continuing to give his all despite not being cleared to play, Curbelo admits he grew frustrated with the length of the recovery process and that he got headaches “literally every single day.” 

“It was tough emotionally not being able to be out there with my guys,” Curbelo said. “Definitely one of the toughest times of my life. … It was such a tough time that I was frustrated almost every day, getting headaches literally every single day, but I battled.”

While Curbelo played 26 minutes against Purdue, he still needs to get back to full fitness. Underwood admitted postgame on Monday that he had not planned on playing Curbelo for as long as he did.

But with the crafty guard now back in the rotation, the Illini, who have seen Curbelo and potential National Player of the Year contender Kofi Cockburn play limited minutes together, look geared up to finish the conference schedule, defend their Big Ten tournament title and make a deep postseason run.

“I was dying to be out there with the guys,” Curbelo said. “So many great expectations coming in for the team, personally, for other guys, too, so I was just very excited for this year, and I still am and I still believe things that I said before the season. 

“I believe we’re that team; I know it for a fact.”

 

@JacksonJanes3

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