CHAMPAIGN -- Roughly half of Illinois' football team gathered in Memorial Stadium's massive weight room on April 18 for a heavy workout.
As Illini players benched and hang-cleaned and squatted absurd amounts of custom-designed weights, their whoops and exhortations reverberated through the room.
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"We're always doing a lot of yelling and firing each other up," said senior nose tackle Craig Wilson.
Then freshman defensive lineman DeJazz Woods, trying to max out on the bench press, couldn't quite hoist the bar on his second rep. His spotter couldn't provide enough help either.
That's when starting defensive end Whitney Mercilus, a junior from Akron, Ohio, noticed their struggle and rushed over. In his bid to keep the 400 pounds from clanging down and making a racket -- a pet peeve of the strength coaches -- Mercilus hushed the whole room.
"It was complete silence," Wilson said. "Everybody stood back and was, like, 'OK, we see him over here ... and we see his finger over here.' "
In his unsuccessful bid to ease the weights back into place, Mercilus caught his left index finger between plates. The pinch severed his finger at the first knuckle.
"It was unfortunate for me," Mercilus recalled with a chuckle. "Actually, I didn't feel anything when it happened. Anything. But when I saw it, I freaked out. 'Yo, this is not normal to look at.'
"You're looking at your own bone. The flesh around it. I saw the tendon hanging out. It was just an open wound right there. The tissue was just hanging there. It was crazy."
Wilson remembered Mercilus screaming. Not shrieking. Screaming.
"It was more like someone in a rage," Wilson said. "We saw blood dripping and everything. We were yelling for the trainers.
"It looked like he was going to pass out for a second, but something registered in his head to go to the training room. So he just sprinted out. If you would have blinked, you would have missed him running out there. I was like, 'Wow.' "
That might not have been the biggest wow moment of the ordeal.
Doctors couldn't reattach the tip to the rest of Mercilus' finger. He received stitches to sew up his shortened digit, but never asked how many.
Yet the next morning, with Illinois' spring scrimmage just four days away, Mercilus tried to show up at Memorial Stadium as if nothing happened.
"He came in and dressed," Wilson said. "He didn't put any pads on, but he dressed up like he wanted to go out and play. We were like, 'What you doin', brother?'
"He had a positive attitude the whole time. That's what stood out to me. Not only is he strong physically, but he's strong mentally."
Mercilus smiled and shrugged when asked about the accommodations he has made.
When typing, he has learned to tell his middle finger to reach the keys his index finger used to tap. He discovered it's not as easy to pick up coins from tables.
Oh, and his menacing surname suddenly isn't the first thing people notice when they're introduced to the 6-foot-4, 265-pound redshirt junior.
" 'Wow, your name is really merciless?' " he said, relating the usual conversation. "I tell them, 'Yeah, it is.' 'That's a cold football name, man.' "
He boasts the explosiveness and the desire to live up to the name. He plays the same as ever, especially after Illinois trainers inserted a splint into the index-finger portion of his left glove to allow him to get into a normal three-point stance.
"Nothing has changed so far," Mercilus said. "I'm expecting a breakout year, definitely. Trying to get my name out there. Hoping to do something big for the team."
In limited action behind Clay Nurse in his first two years, Mercilus produced 6.5 tackles for loss and 2 sacks. He forced a fumble in Illinois' Texas Bowl rout of Baylor.
"I look for Whitney to have a big year for us," said head coach Ron Zook. "We're going to be better, in my opinion, at that position than last year."
• You can follow Lindsey Willhite's college reports via Twitter@WillhiteHerald, and check out his Joe Sports blog at dailyherald.com.