CHAMPAIGN — It didn't take Colton Rahn long to pick out his favorite player on the Illinois football team.
His father, Jason Rahn, took him to a game when receiver Mikey Dudek was a long-haired freshman for the Illini — before any of his three knee injuries cost him nearly three full seasons.
Dudek turned in one of his better performances of the year that day on his way to tallying more than 1,000 yards receiving as a freshman. Colton, a 9-year-old with cerebral palsy from Tuscola, was instantly a fan.
Now Colton and Mikey are on a first-name basis.
It started with a tweet that Rahn sent in February, searching for support for an ensuing eye procedure for Colton. The Illini football team responded to the tweet, and a bond between the players and coaches and Colton was formed. The players have attended one of his basketball games -- and cheered for him like he does for them -- and they've coached him in flag football.
"He's like a little brother to all of us now," Dudek said.
"Strong like Mikey'
In his sophomore season -- a year after he became Colton's favorite player -- Dudek suffered the first of back-to-back torn ACLs, ending both seasons.
To come back from injury, Dudek needed physical therapy. Colton could relate — by the time he was 15 months old, he was going to four different physical therapy sessions twice a week.
"He asked what happened," Rahn said of Dudek's injury, "and I told him. He said, 'Well he'll be back, right?' I said, 'Well, not this season. He's got a bunch of work to do.'
"Colton, while he processes a little slower is actually very smart. His words to me were, 'So he's going to have to work like I do at physical therapy to get back.'"
That made Colton like Dudek even more. Knowing his favorite player was going through physical therapy motivated him to push through his.
"He helped me very much," Colton said. "He told me physical therapy would be OK, and I would be good. I was trying to be strong like Mikey"
The two have kept in touch during Dudek's time in Champaign. Colton sent Dudek a video in August on Twitter, wishing him a happy birthday.
Every time Colton attends a fan event or a game in Champaign, he finds Dudek, who wears a camouflage bracelet on his left wrist that reads "#ColtonCourage."
When Colton and his dad flipped to the Big Ten Network in August to watch the Illinois preview special, Colton immediately found the bracelet on Dudek's left wrist.
At the Fan Appreciation Night on Aug. 18, Dudek and Colton took a new photo to, as Dudek told him, "update his profile."
"Knowing what he's going through, it's tough," said Dudek, who is out for the remainder of the season with a knee injury. "You see him day in and day out just battling at such a young age. I learned a lot from him, and for him to say the same about me is pretty special for the both of us."
'One of my heroes'
Colton was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at 13 months old. He had a blood clot in the left side of his brain, which based on his brain development, doctors deduce happened either right before or right after birth, Rahn said.
"Basically he had a major stroke," he said. "The left side of his brain is dead. Under an MRI it's completely dark."
Rahn said doctors were frank with the family: Colton would never be able to walk, talk or feed himself.
But for Rahn and Colton's mom, Katie Parker, that wasn't good enough.
"I don't believe in, 'This is all I'm able for,' or, 'This is all you're capable of as a person,' in general," Parker said. "I'm one of those people who believe they call it practicing medicine for a reason. You can know the typical of what someone should be by diagnosis, but there's nothing to prove that's going to be them."
Colton responded to the rigorous therapy sessions. He knows just how much work it takes to do things other kids can do, and though doctors put a limitation on Colton, he hasn't put any on himself.
"To say that he is one of my heroes is not an understatement," Parker said. "There are plenty of times that giving up would be the easier way to go."
As soon as he was old enough, Colton was playing football, soccer and basketball all over the Tuscola area.
"We've typically kept Colton pretty sheltered because some of the negative things that can be said about children with cerebral palsy, but then we realized he really is an inspirational story," Rahn said. "He does everything the doctors said he'd never do."
On a Friday night in February, Rahn sent out a tweet asking fellow Illini fans to send positive wishes to Colton, who was undergoing eye surgery the following morning.
"Ok fellow #Illini fans. Need some help," Rahn tweeted. "My 9yo who is a HUGE #Illini fan is going for his 2nd eye procedure (from his cerebral palsy) on Tuesday and he is scared to death. Can I get some messages of support to read him? Thanks! #ColtonCourage#CPWarrior"
Soon, the responses started pouring in -- more than 191 responses in total.
"Colton. No need to be afraid when family is there for you Be strong and know you have a lot of people thinking of you," former Illini football coach Bill Cubit tweeted. "Thinking of you and family."
Special teams coach Bob Ligashesky also replied with: "Colton, Fighting Illini are with you! Admire your courage! We all be thinking about you! Looking forward to hearing from you when you get out!"
Illinois head coach Lovie Smith and the team planned to visit Colton in the hospital, but a snow storm put a halt on the trip.
Then, a week later, Colton was on the bench for his youth basketball game when he noticed he had spectators -- a lot of them. More than 30 members of the Illinois football team were in attendance.
Late in the game, Colton checked in, came off of a screen and buried what turned out to be the game-winning shot.
When the clock hit zero, the team stormed the court and hoisted Colton on their shoulders.
"It was like a movie," Illinois running back Reggie Corbin said. "The fact that he made the game-winning shot, that was crazy. I loved to see that and how hard he plays."
The relationship between Colton and the football team was more than Rahn ever expected when he sent out the initial tweet.
"I knew I would get some messages from a lot of Illini fans, because it is a really good fan base," Rahn said. "Did I think there would be messages from Dion Thomas, almost all the players on the team, and Bill Cubit? It kind of blew up."
Love of football
If there's anything Colton loves, it's football.
When Rahn was a youth coach, he took Colton to games with him -- and on Friday nights, it's Tuscola Warriors football. Before the Warriors take the field, Colton plants himself next to the massive rock in the back of the end zone to watch the players come in.
Colton, though, won't be one of those players. He still has a blood clot in the main artery of the left side of his brain, making the risk of head injury high in a contact sport.
"Football has always been his love, but having cerebral palsy, it's not a game he'll ever be able to play," Rahn said.
But flag football doesn't involve contact. Rahn brought an NFL Flag Football program in Tuscola. He had 71 players in the inaugural season, including Colton.
Colton started playing soccer in kindergarten because the risk of injury in that is fairly low for him. Parker had some concerns for bitty ball basketball, but had a connection with Colton's coach to alleviate some of those nerves. When the opportunity to play flag football came up, there were more nerves, and, truthfully, neither Rahn nor Parker have completely put those aside.
"Colton tries so hard to keep up with the other kids that he doesn't realize he has limits, and we've always told him he can do whatever he wants," Parker said. There's always a fear of injury that will never go away. His ultimate goal is he wants to get well enough that he can at least play for the (Tuscola) Warriors. I don't know how I personally feel about that. I'm glad it's a few years away."
Before the flag football season started, Rahn got a message from Tre' Stallings, Illinois director of football player development: Several Illini players were interested in making the drive from Champaign to Tuscola to coach in the flag footbal league.
"Some things naturally happen," Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. "We live in the world. Some people are dealing with different challenges throughout. "Players are human. When they see someone, and like them, and just become a friend. It's like you do becoming a part of the team.
"We want our guys to be in the communities as much as anything. We didn't set that up or encourage the guys."
Rahn already had coaches in place, but they agreed to cede their spots in favor of Corbin, linebacker Del'Shawn Phillips and Illinois linebacker-turned-receiver Justice Williams.
"We all really love helping kids, and to know Colton and how much he loves Illinois football and hanging out with us and everything he's going through ... to be able to give back to him and all of his friends was really something incredible," Williams said.
Colton was shocked the first time the Illini players made the 30-minute drive from Champaign, clad in basketball shorts and fresh out of workouts.
"I did not know," said Colton of being surprised at his coaches. "They came and taught us a lot of good plays. It was good when they decided to coach my team, the Seahawks, and we went undefeated."
Even on days when they were exhausted from summer training camp, Colton made them look forward to their jobs as flag football coaches.
"No matter what I'm going through in life and whatever the challenges may be that I'm facing, I can always still put a smile on people's faces, and that's what Colton does," Phillips said. "He's a bright kid, a funny kid. Every day I came to practice after a tough summer workout, he knew how to brighten up our day."
'Passion is amazing'
Once the season started, Colton got the nod as the Seahawks' starting center. Corbin said Colton played so well -- one bad snap in more than 100 -- that if there were a re-draft of teams, Colton would be the No. 1 overall pick.
"I got a chance to be around Colton when I coached him, and his passion is amazing," Corbin said. "I see his passion in myself. When I look at him, I'm like, 'Man, this is crazy how much he loves the game.' He was always the first one at practice. He stayed after, he was always snapping.
"Nobody would expect him to go out there and play flag football, of course. Then to go out there and start, nobody expected that either," he continued. "The fact that he was snapping and was the best center -- the best center -- when I say he was the best center in the league, we had one bad snap. He doesn't know this, but it's because the ball was wet."
Rahn said his son responded to the coaching of Corbin and Phillips.
"Reggie never really treated him any different," he said. "That was big. We didn't even tell him how to treat him. It was Reggie's team. We let him go with it. He found Colton a spot, and he had Del'Shawn work with him for a good day on how to snap it and from there on it was good to go."
Corbin said he was impressed by Colton's talent on the football field, but it was his heart that was truly inspiring.
"When his dad said that he has tough days and things like that, he never came to practice and said, 'Hey Reggie, he's feeling this type of way.' Never," Corbin said. "Even when it got hot and they were talking about him possibly having seizures, he stayed in the entire time. He kept his mouthpiece in, snapped, was never tired. He never complained.
"That's something I looked at for sure. Like, 'If you don't complain about that, how can I complain about my life?'"
This article is written by Joey Wagner from Herald & Review, Decatur, Ill. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.