Thousands of high school football players throughout the state of Illinois will open pre-season practice beginning on Monday, according to Illinois High School Association rules.
No one is more eager to get started again than Evanston junior Mike Axelrood.
Months removed from knee surgery for a torn ACL, Mike hopes for a full recovery so he can anchor the ETHS secondary from his safety spot like he did a year ago.
This is not the first time Mike has had to deal with adversity. Last summer, he had minor surgery to repair cartilage in his other knee. But that setback did not keep him down, and he bounced back last fall to become the first ETHS sophomore in at least 30 years to be named to the all-Central Suburban League South division team while helping the Wildkits finish 6-4 overall.
The 6-foot-1, 185-pounder ranked third on the team in total tackles (43 solos, 7 assists), notched an interception and also led the squad with 14 catches for 149 yards on offense, including two TD receptions.
Now he’s ready to contribute more on both sides of the ball despite being forced to watch a month of summer sessions of 7-on-7 football from the sidelines.
“I felt like I had a good year last year, but I have a lot more I want to accomplish,” Mike said. “The first thing is that I want to be more of a leader. Last year I was kinda quiet and I let the others lead. And, of course, I want to make more plays. There’s always room for that on both sides of the ball.
“We know we need to get more picks [interceptions] this year. I think we were all a little timid because we were young and we just didn’t want to get beat. This year, from what I’ve seen, we’re breaking on the ball faster and I think we should all make more plays.”
Evanston totaled just four interceptions last year, which was the first varsity season for not only safety Mike but cornerbacks Trenton Bertrand and Malik Ross. If Mike can get back to 100 percent physically, that unit could emerge as one of the best in the CSL South this time around.
Mike suffered his knee injury back on March 5, playing wide receiver in a spring 7-on-7 session. And Head Coach Mike Burzawa marvels at the speed of his recovery so far.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone come back that fast from that type of injury,” said the veteran coach. “He just shattered that knee, but his mental toughness is something that’s really special. He’s a young man who wants to play college football some day, and he’s so serious and cares so much about getting back on the field. He’s really working hard.
“We just want him to get healthy and get strong no matter how long it takes. He’s a kid who always strives for perfection (4.3 grade point average) and we still haven’t got the answer to where he’s at his best. As a freshman the coaches all said he was one of the top four receivers in the program and he’s been lights out for us as a free safety, too. He reads the (opposing) quarterbacks well and has great ball skills and great instincts, things you just can’t coach.
“His toughness is really exceptional, too. He wants to come downhill and tackle people and he can still get back deep and break up passes. We had to go slow last year with three sophomores in the secondary, but this summer it was different even without Mike in there. We want to disguise our coverages better and create more turnovers, and I think we’ll be able to do a lot more back there because now they all have the experience.”
“The doctor told me I wouldn’t play football again for at least 6 months, so I’m back at least a month early,” Mike noted. “I did physical therapy seven times a week and my track coach (Don Michelin) helped me a lot working out 4-5 times a week in the pool. I’ve just started recently doing more lifting, and I’m trying to get faster, too.
“I’m confident that I can be the player I was before I got hurt. This injury is an opportunity for me to prove that I won’t quit, that I don’t give up. I know I’ll be fine because I know the amount of time and work I put in. The hard part was watching my teammates at practice and not being able to do everything. Now, I just have to stay patient and trust the process.”