The only thing Mike Dudek can’t catch – is a break.
After blowing the doors off the college football world during his freshman season on the University of Illinois football team – 76 catches, 1,038 receiving yards, 6 touchdowns, and multiple Freshman All-American honors – Dudek is officially calling it quits after four consecutive season-ending injuries.
“I was an All-American, feeling on top of the world,” Dudek recalled. “I thought I was going to go to the NFL, play for ten years, and then never work again. Obviously life doesn’t work out that way.”
Dudek, a native of Naperville, Illinois, missed his next two seasons with torn anterior cruciate ligaments (ACLs), a knee injury that is all too common among athletes. He played in seven games in 2017 before injuries ended that season early for him. Then, poised for a major comeback as a senior in 2018, Dudek suffered yet another season-ending knee injury in the first game of the season.
“I like to say there’s always a greater thing out there,” he said. “Every setback in football allowed me to excel more in school.”
Dudek says it was after his second season-ending knee injury – a torn ACL in April 2016 – that he realized his Plan B might have to be his Plan A.
“One thing I really did was attack school with same energy that I used in football. I really looked at my fallback plan as two degrees from a top ten university. That’s a pretty good fallback plan,” he laughed.
Dudek says that ACL injury in 2016 is when he got a lot more serious about school. He earned his bachelor’s degree in marketing from Gies College of Business in December 2017. Then, with another year of eligibility left on the football field, Dudek searched for a one-year master’s program.
“I was really interested in doing the finance master’s program, but I had a couple friends who did the technology management program, and they said it was awesome. You get a little finance, a little accounting – you get all the business you’ll need.”
Dudek is taking 18 hours this semester. He will graduate in December 2018 with a master’s degree in technology management. He hasn’t yet decided where he’ll work after graduation. He’s considering possibly trying to work his way into the front office for a National Football League team. He says his dream job is to become a general manager in the NFL.
“I love sports. It’s been my passion my whole life,” said Dudek. “I obviously can’t play it anymore, but I’d like to use my degrees toward my passion.”
If a future in the NFL isn’t in the cards, Dudek says he’d like to work in wealth management.
“I’d like to work with money – with finances – just help people get on the right track,” he said. “I’d like to help people save money and set good retirement plans. Any way I can use my degrees to impact people.”
It’s an attitude Dudek learned from his parents; both were marketing majors themselves. He says his parents still come to every home Illinois football game, even though he’s not playing. It embodies the support they have always had for him.
“My dad always says, ‘When you lose one job – or get injured – it always opens up a new door for a different path. You have to stay the course, work hard, and it’ll pay off in the end.’”
The end is here. Dudek will never play another down of football. He will finish his Illinois career with 1,540 all-purpose yards, seven touchdowns, and – most importantly – two college degrees. He came to Illinois to learn the skills NFL teams want – and through his education at Gies College of Business, that’s exactly what he got.
“Between the undergraduate and graduate programs, you really touch on all aspects of business, whether it’s the numbers in accounting or finance, the marketing and sales, even supply chain management,” said Dudek. “You pair that up with my athletic background, it could be a perfect mix for a career in the NFL.”
Four years ago, Dudek seemed destined for a career in professional football. Although his body gave out, he never gave in. Don’t be surprised if he gets there one day; and instead of playing for a championship team, he could be building one.