Dual-sport athlete Kyle Hudson ‘excels’ on gridiron, diamond

By Courtney Linehan

A day after football held its first full-padded practice on April 1, Kyle Hudson hurt. He felt the beating his body had taken in the three-hour Saturday session. His muscles ached.

But while his football teammates took the off-season off day to rest and recover, Hudson was back on the field, deep in the middle of Illinois’ baseball season. Hudson – a wide receiver on the gridiron and center fielder on the diamond – is doing something only a handful of NCAA Division-I athletes manage: competing in two varsity sports. It’s an arrangement Hudson said allows him to remain involved with his first love while pursuing a game where he’s shown surprising skill.

“It would be hard for me to choose one or the other,” Hudson said. “I want to compete in both of them as long as I can.”

His coaches want to see the 19-year-old continue to succeed on both fields, too. In high school, Hudson collected 15 varsity letters in four sports: baseball, basketball, football and track. He won the state high jump title in 2004 with a 6-foot-10-inch leap. Less than a year after graduating, he is already in the Mattoon High School Hall of Fame.

Baseball coach Dan Hartleb and football coach Ron Zook agree Hudson has impressive speed and overall athleticism that make him stand apart.

“Those are things you can’t teach,” Hartleb said.

As a true freshman on the Illinois football team, Hudson led Illinois’ wide receivers with 469 yards, including seven catches of more than 25 yards each. He was named the team’s Rookie of the Year and Most Outstanding Wide Receiver.

But on the baseball field it’s Hudson’s small ball that makes him shine. At 5-foot-11 and 165 pounds, he doesn’t get many deep hits. But with his quick movement and impressive agility, he can outrun an infielder’s throw on offense and get big stops on defense.

“In the outfield he’s a very sure-handed center fielder, and at the plate he creates so many opportunities because of his running speed,” Hartleb said. “When he’s on base he just creates havoc, puts pressure on the defense.”

Hudson mentioned playing both sports when he first met Zook, but seriously approached both head coaches about the possibility at the end of the 2005 football season. Because he had good grades and showed promise to produce for both teams, the coaches agreed to give it a chance.

Because Hudson first signed to play football, and that is the team through which he earns his scholarship, his first priority is on the gridiron. He’s had to miss several baseball games and practices due to his participation in spring football workouts, but says he’s happy to have the opportunity to stay involved in baseball. But he will be moving to the Z slot for the 2006 season, and Zook said that he wanted to make sure the first-year player did not fall behind.

“I think what he’s doing is pretty special,” Zook said. “When you’re playing two sports at this level, it’s pretty impressive. It shows you a little bit about the type of athlete he is.”

While he’s had to miss some of each sport to participate in the other, Hudson often makes it to everything – although it means busy days and little free time. During the baseball preseason, when the football team spent mornings in the weight room, Hudson would lift before class, go to school, then head to baseball practice. He said the afternoon baseball workouts made it hard to put on weight for football, but that he expects to make up the difference this summer.

Eventually Hudson may miss more preseason football to devote time to the in-season baseball team, but he knows that the downside of playing two sports is that there will always be time conflicts. He says he just tries to make the most of the time he has, devoting himself to both sports.

“I knew football alone was going to be so much of my time,” Hudson said. “To add baseball on top of it, I knew I’d have no time to do anything else. I knew it would be a big commitment, but I’m willing to take that and work to do my best in both sports.”

Hudson attributes his ability to balance the two sports to communication and flexibility from the coaching staffs. He said he understands that either Hartleb or Zook could require full-time commitment to his team, and that he appreciates the understanding with which they approach his unique situation.

“One side could be selfish and make me be there all the time,” Hudson said. “I think it has a lot to do with the coaches being workable, and I appreciate them for that.”

A benefit of the dual-sport life is that Hudson knows he has the opportunity to take either game to the professional level. As a kid he told his parents he wanted to play in the NBA, and he almost went out for golf – another favorite sport – when his stepfather offered him any set of clubs if he’d play that instead of football. Hudson says he wants to pursue both games as far as his ability can take him and that it is too early to say which is more likely to stick.

But so far, Hartleb said, he is doing both just fine.

“Some athletes try to play two sports and are mediocre in both,” Hartleb said. “I think Kyle’s shown that he can excel in two sports.”