Senior defenders anxious to make an impact after rehabilitation.

Sept. 25, 2005

AUDIO - Media teleconference with Coach Ron Zook

by Jenna Lawfer, Illinois Sports Information

There's no greater silencing effect on a football field than the sight of a fallen player lying on the turf without any sign of returning to his feet. There's no greater fear for an athlete than experiencing an injury that could potentially put an end to his dreams of success. Unfortunately, injuries are accepted as a reality in football because of the high level of intensity and the physical contact involved.

Even though injuries seem commonplace on the field, there is no common cure to aid an ailing player. Battling through an injury can be one of the most trying feats not only against a player's body, but also his mind. Being within reach of one's goals, only to see them slip away, would be enough for any positive thinker to slip into a slump.

Senior defensive duo Ryan Matha and Travis Williams are very familiar with the everyday struggles and emotional rollercoasters that accompany an injury, as they both have fought back from the trial in their Illinois tenure.

In 2002, Ryan Matha suffered a knee injury that instantly ended his sophomore season after marking up 10 tackles in his first seven games and developing a promising momentum that could have carried him through the season. When trying to prove yourself on a team of 100 guys, there is no opportune time to get hurt, and unfortunately, Matha's injury couldn't have come at a more crucial point in his football career.

"The timing was tough for him, just coming off his first season start against Purdue the previous week," said former Illini football player and friend Matt Sinclair. "A lot of people didn't expect such a small sophomore to come in and play like he did. He was just about to earn everything he had been training so hard for in the off season, and after he hurt his knee, one might begin to wonder if it was all just a waste of time."

However, Matha never adopted this mindset and instead, refocused the worries of 'Will I ever play again?' to statements of 'When I get back on the field...'"

Travis Williams has gone through rehabilitation and is working to get into the starting lineup in the defensive backfield.

Unlike Matha's abrupt interruption, injury crept slowly upon defensive back Travis Williams as he battled through the first five games of 2004. It was a reccurring hip injury that eventually sidelined him, after recording an impressive 27 tackles in just five games. However, even the talented Williams felt the pressure of replacement as he began to realize he needed the break.

"I was worried about my position as soon as the injury happened," explained Williams. "There's always someone behind you waiting for their opportunity. That's how it was when I was a freshman, so I know how it is."

Even though the odds were against them, giving up football was never an option for either of these talented and determined Illini. Both worked day and night to build back the strength and technique they would need to succeed on the field once again.

While depending on trainers and other staff to help redevelop their bodies, Matha and Williams had to rely on the support of their teammates and their own determination to keep their minds positive and focused on the prize.

Matha quotes a combination of determination and a hint of boredom that motivated him to cut his projected two-year rehabilitation program to only nine months.

"My knee made me miss a lot of things the team was doing because I was filling my time with the boredom of rehab and therapy," said Matha. "It was tough to just watch from the sidelines. I worked hard until I could prove that I deserved to be out there again."

"He's one of the hardest working and most perseverant kids I've ever known," said Sinclair of Matha. "He's not going to take 'no' for an answer, and that's why he's good on the football field. He refused to believe that things aren't going to go his way. Anytime you have a mindset like that, you're going to be successful."

Williams returned to practice at the beginning of the summer and realized the players who participated in spring play have the advantage of tempo on their side. However, Williams credits his faith as the motivation he needed to stay on track.

"After being out a year and a half, you just get restless," Williams said. "Never coming back was a worry because I had done so much damage to my hip over the course of time. I just kept faith in God and prayed that He would help me return to the field."

Fellow senior Morris Virgil has played with Williams on the defensive side of the ball and watched him struggle through his injury.

"Travis has always looked at life positively, but it was hard, even for him, to get hurt coming off a season when you're the third-leading tackler on the team," said Virgil. "He's kept his head up, and now that he's back, I know his opportunity will come to get out there and show everyone he's the best guy for the job. Until then, I'll get through this with him because I believe in him and he's done the same for me."

Matha and Williams are now faced with the responsibility of proving their abilities to the Illinois coaching staff every day in order to ensure or boost playing time. Matha, a three-year starter, recorded four tackles, a sack and a blocked kick in the first two games, while Williams had three tackles.

It's a heartbreaking realization that everything an athlete has worked for throughout his career can be taken away by one play lasting a matter of a few seconds. One wrong twist or turn can shatter the dreams they have been building for years.

But Matha said dwelling on that fact doesn't help anything.

"Getting hurt on the field is the still the last thing on my mind," said Matha. "I'm worried about making tackles and winning football games. Injuries are part of the game and are bound to happen. You can't be out there worrying about it or you won't be doing your job."