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Watch now: Former football player turned astronaut Mike Hopkins remains indebted to Illinois
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Watch now: Former football player turned astronaut Mike Hopkins remains indebted to Illinois

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Mike Hopkins, Illinois

Former Illinois football player Mike Hopkins is a NASA astronaut and has spent 333 days in space.

CHAMPAIGN — When Mike Hopkins' football career at Illinois came to a close, like many former players he embarked on a new journey away from the field — and away from Earth.

Hopkins' job — one that's often named when little kids are asked "What do you want to be when you grow up?" — is literally out of this world.

The 52-year-old is a NASA Astronaut and US Space Force Colonel. He's done five spacewalks and touched down in the Gulf of Mexico from his most recent mission May 2. But long before he began floating above the planet, Hopkins' feet were on solid ground as a walk-on defensive back beginning his college career at Illinois in 1987.

He returned to his alma mater last week, and while the updated football facilities don't look anything like they were when he played, it still feels like home.

“They gave me a chance," Hopkins said while standing in a front of his framed No. 19 jersey in the Memorial Stadium press box. " ... When I came out of high school, I wasn’t recruited anywhere. Zero. Zero recruiting visits. Zero offers anywhere. When they said, ‘Yeah, we’d welcome to have you come try out with us,’ that was a start. Then to see where it went from there and to have that opportunity to actually get some playing time. When I came on the team, I didn’t even think I was ever going to see the field other than practice. To have it go from there and actually get to play, get to be a full-time starter, get to have the privilege of being a captain blows your mind away that that happened for me."

Since his playing days, Hopkins said he's kept up with the program, even from space. He learned of coach Bret Bielema's hiring last December while on a mission, and he was thrilled to finally make it back to Champaign to see him and his team compete right before his eyes.

"Kind of cool because we actually played against each other at the same time," Bielema, a former Iowa defensive lineman, said last week. " ... His story, to come here and accomplish the things he's done on the football field, but then to accomplish what he's done professionally in his life ... (He's) a guy that's walked in outer space. Been on some missions and some things in the bigger picture that's just really cool."

Hopkins was recognized as an honorary team captain last week during the Illini's 24-14 win over Charlotte. Prior to the game, he said he enjoyed meeting with current players and discussing the similarities between a successful football program and a successful spacewalk.

The two couldn't seem more different, right? But Hopkins said the key lies in the details.

"I kind of came back to some of those things with the spacewalk and what it takes to get through a spacewalk because there's really a lot of parallels between that (and football)," Hopkins said. "During the course of a spacewalk, there's over 700 things we do, steps that we have to go through. You just have to focus on one step at at time, and that's where (the players) are, right? ... Hopefully it meant something to them. It meant something to me so I hope it was a positive message."

Team captain and fifth-year cornerback Tony Adams Jr. said Hopkins' visit was as impactful as it was interesting. However, Adams is pretty sure he won't be following — or floating — in the footsteps of his fellow defensive back.

"Nah, nah, none at all," Adams said of his future space travel, laughing. "It was nice meeting Mike finally in person. We got to talk to him before. Great guy, loves the university."

As for the advice Hopkins offered about taking things step by step, Adams said it falls right in line with what the coaching staff has told players all season.

"Trust the process," Adams said. "Things haven't been great, but they getting better."

Hopkins has spent 333 days in space during his career. He isn't sure if he'll make another trip out of the atmosphere, but one thing he is sure of is his gratitude for the Illini.

Without Illinois football, Hopkins said he wouldn't be where he is today.

“Quite frankly, that has been a driving force for me throughout my career in the Air Force, now with the Space Force and with NASA as well," Hopkins said. "I tell people all the time, believe it or not, I’ve been able to go out the door and do five spacewalks and what I learned here at the University of Illinois helped me through those spacewalks playing football.

"It’s something special that means a lot to me.”


Follow James Boyd on Twitter: @RomeovilleKid

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