After the 2021 season, there was a time when Illinois quarterback Art Sitkowski couldn’t fully use either of his arms. Doctors told him to rest his right arm in a sling after shoulder surgery, and his left arm was placed in a tough cast to repair a broken wrist.
Sitkowski suffered the fractured left wrist near the end of Illini’s dramatic nine-overtime win on the road against No. 7 Penn State at Beaver Stadium. But what made the injury even more painful for the New Jersey native was that it looked like he might have secured the starting quarterback job.
Head coach Bret Bielema and then-offensive coordinator Tony Petersen decided to start Sitkowski against Brandon Peters, who had been struggling since returning from a shoulder injury in the season opener against Nebraska.
Sitkowski’s energy and control of the huddle helped him secure starting position, but before the end of the game it was Peters who threw the game-winning pass to wide receiver Casey Washington to the back of the endzone for a 20-18 thriller.
“It was tough,” Sitkowski said of that day in late October in Pennsylvania. “It was a really tough day. The best part is that we won. That’s the biggest thing. I’m sitting in the locker room and my arm is literally like this and I see Coach B walking through these doors and he’s happy. Coach Petersen (also). It was a great day, but it was a tough day.”
A few days later, Bielema revealed to the public what everyone already knew by just looking at Sitkowski’s wrist. It broke and the rest of his season would be over as he was due for surgery. However, what was also revealed about Sitkowski came as a shock to everyone – including the Illini squad.
Sitkowski had played all season with a torn labrum in his right throwing arm. The injury to his shoulder occurred while he was still at Rutgers but was not properly diagnosed. When he transferred to Illinois in the summer of 2021, Illinois team doctors were able to determine the full extent of the injury.
“They told me what was going on, what needed to be done,” Sitkowski said over his shoulder of his conversation with doctors. “Coach B gave me all the information I needed to make a decision and it was up to me. I wanted to play but we knew I would need an operation to play at the level I want to play 100%. It was tough, but it’s something I had to do.”
The determination Sitkowski showed through weeks of “pain” in his right shoulder is a great example of why he won over many of his teammates and coaches a year ago.
They routinely talked about how his energy helped motivate offense, and it fueled the sense of belief in the roster that Sitkowski was the guy destined to be number one quarterback last season.
Now he’s greeted every morning by a sticky note in his room with a little doodle on it, motivating him as he continues his rehab after the two off-season surgeries that nearly five months later prevented him from being a full participant in the Spring exercises to his first procedure.
“I have this mountain on my wall, and it says the best view comes after the hardest climb,” Sitkowski said. “Well, I’m climbing this mountain. Can’t wait to see the view when I’m done.”
The current mountain top that Sitkowski is trying to climb doesn’t allow him to throw the ball in practice. Instead, he has to work individually with wide receivers on the arm and only throw a certain number of passes at a certain distance.
In practice, that means he has to go through mental replays as he watches Syracuse transfer Tommy DeVito, who leads the offense through various drills.
“Obviously, there’s nothing quite like being out there with the live bullets,” Sitkowski said. “But when you get that close, you gain a lot of knowledge. Also, in the briefing rooms, I learn how Coach (Barry) Lunney coaches the quarterbacks, he coaches the entire room, not just one person. Gaining those coaching points, those teaching points.
Control what I can control. All I can control right now is my prep, my arm, my body and rehab and everything in my lower half, my core. Being in there like I’m there – I literally do everything the same except throw the ball.”
Still, it’s frustrating for a kid who’s extremely competitive and loves football more than anything.
“It’s frustrating, it really is,” Sitkowski said. “I’m surrounded by really great people in this building, great coaches, great players, great managers. You keep me positive. I know what the end goal is, and that is to be ready for fall camp. I will be ready for fall camp.”
Sitkowski is in the early stages of what he called an “11-step process,” all orchestrated by Illinois team doctors. They determine how quickly he can throw 100% again and how many yards he can throw the football.
“I want to go, go, go,” he said. “But (team doctor) Jeremy Busch is doing a good job of slowing me down. He knows me mentally better than anyone in this building. He’s doing a really good job.”
So every morning, Sitkowski will continue to wake up, look at the scrawl on his sticky note in his bedroom, and still remember one thing.
“Just keep climbing that mountain,” he said. “If I get to the top, it would be a great deal.”