The Daily Illini

Two years and four knee surgeries later, Dre Brown made it

Illinois head coach Lovie Smith stands on the sidelines during
the game against Western Kentucky University on Sept. 9.

Illinois head coach Lovie Smith stands on the sidelines during the game against Western Kentucky University on Sept. 9.

Quentin Shaw

Quentin Shaw

Illinois head coach Lovie Smith stands on the sidelines during the game against Western Kentucky University on Sept. 9.

By Jacob Diaz, Staff writer

The moment that Dre Brown stepped across the sideline onto the field at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday has been years in the making.

Listed as a running back, Brown lined up on special teams for the Illini in their loss at Iowa. It may not have been how he had imagined it, but Brown will always remember the moment he made his college football debut.

“It was crazy, it was a childhood dream come true,” Brown said. “I’ve always watched the 11 a.m. Big Ten games on Saturdays, so being out there was just a blessing.”

Brown is one of many Illini players to play in their first college football game this season, and while that first moment on the field is special for all players, for Brown, it means something more.

Brown arrived at Illinois as a 17-year-old early enrollee and a three- or four-star running back recruit, depending on who you asked. Like any freshman, Brown expected to spend his first college season working hard to try and find some playing time.

And two years and four knee surgeries later, he finally found some.

“I didn’t know what to expect going into it, and the nerves started kicking in right before the game,” Brown said. “A lot of people wouldn’t expect, after two ACL tears (and) four surgeries that I’d even be here, so I was like, ‘whatever happens, happens. Let’s just let the chips fall into place.’”

“A lot of people wouldn’t expect, after two ACL tears (and) four surgeries that I’d even be here.”

A long list of setbacks

Brown rushed for over 4,000 yards and 55 touchdowns in high school, leading to all of the major recruiting services listed him as a top-50 running back recruit nationally, and a top-10 recruit overall in the state of Illinois.

But before Brown even had the chance to hear the crowd at the annual spring game, a tear in his right ACL had brought a premature end to his first season.

So Brown spent the next year recovering from surgery and building up his strength for his return, but faced a crushing setback when he tore his left ACL, and again knew he would miss the season well before it began.

It was so devastating to Brown that he said there were multiple times he considered abandoning football altogether during his recovery.

“All I had to do was sign a piece of paper,” Brown said. “With my injury situation, I could just be a regular student. I’d still get my scholarship, I’d get it all paid for.”

But Brown never signed.

He said he always thought there was something more for him to do in football, and this being his only opportunity to play collegiately, Brown decided to stick with it.

Brown’s teammates were there for him every step of the way, supporting him as he walked the path back to the field. Many of them have dealt with their own injuries and could relate to him, but one teammate in particular was there for Brown, because he was dealing with exactly the same situation.

Twice-bitten teammates

Brown tearing his two ACLs two seasons in a row was incredibly unlikely.

What is even more unlikely is that Brown’s teammate Mike Dudek did the exact same thing, in the exact same two seasons.

After his breakout freshman season, Dudek tore his ACL in spring ball the same semester that Brown tore his. He tore his ACL again just weeks before Brown re-injured himself.

The two bonded over their shared rehabilitation sessions.

“(We were) waking up every morning and going to rehab together for what was really two years straight,” Dudek said. “It was tough, but we were there for each other. To have someone there to motivate me, to push me, it was good for the both of us.”

Unlike Brown, Dudek played for Illinois for an entire season before suffering his first injury, so while the two were sidelined, Dudek was able to provide Brown with some perspective.

“I look up to (Dudek) as a big brother,” Brown said. “He’s always a very positive individual. It was great to push each other, and really I don’t think that I’d be here without him today.”

Brown’s teammates motivated him, and Brown’s efforts to recover from his injuries motivated the rest of the team.

Christian DiLauro, senior offensive lineman, said watching Dudek and Brown train inspired him and the rest of the team to push themselves in the offseason.

“When you see guys like Mike (Dudek) and Dre (Brown) going through what they had to go through,” DiLauro said, “and come back every day with a smile on their face despite the adversity, it gives you that motivation. I can’t be out here complaining when they’re out here doing the same thing, and they’ve had a tougher path.”

The prospect of the duo returning to the field has been something head coach Lovie Smith has talked about since Big Ten Media Days over the summer. And while one last roadblock — a stress fracture in his foot that kept Brown out of training camp and the first four games of the season — delayed the excitement, the team was finally able to see it happen Saturday.

“Having him out there definitely lifted us,” Dudek said. “To show that adversity that he went through, to battle back. And while I’m sure he’d say he did it for the guys, the team, it was definitely victory for him.”

Redemption and grace

The man that made his college football debut Saturday is a vastly different person to the one that first arrived on campus as a 17-year-old recruit.

“I’ve learned a lot, especially coming in here as a 17-year-old early enrollee,” Brown said. “Adjusting to the college life, I kind of realized that this life isn’t all about myself. It’s about others and serving others.”

One sacrifice Brown had to make is he had to change his number from 27 to 25. But in a twist of fate, Brown found meaning in his new number that relates directly to his life.

“From my faith background, I was looking up the significance (of the number),” Brown said. “And 20, 20 is the number of redemption I believe, and five is the number of grace. So with my story it’s kind of cool how I got that number, because in my story it’s redemption and grace.”



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