Walk-on program a fundamental part of Wisconsin's success
Wisconsin has a knack for turning walk-ons into college stars and NFL draft picks
AD Barry Alvarez saw the model work at Nebraska and brought it to Wisconsin
Many of the walk-ons are from Wisconsin and only want to play for the Badgers
Tears streamed down Ricky Wagner's round face as he sat in Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema's office and looked down at the paperwork. The quiet 6-foot-6, 320-pounder had achieved his dream, going from walk-on to scholarship player for the Badgers.
"[Wagner] will be up for the Outland Trophy next year and he sat there in that chair and he bawled like a little baby," Bielema said this offseason.
Wagner beat the odds to earn a scholarship from one of the country's top programs, but his story is increasingly common on the Madison campus. Bielema and predecessor Barry Alvarez have developed a fruitful walk-on program that takes crops of mostly local kids and cultivates them into on-field contributors, and sometimes stars.
The Houston Texans drafted defensive end J.J. Watt, a former Wisconsin walk-on, with the 11th overall pick in last year's NFL draft. Mark Tauscher was a Badger walk-on before starting 132 games at right tackle in 11 seasons with the Green Bay Packers. Former walk-on Jim Leonhard, a 5-8 athletic freak, led the country in interceptions and became a team captain for the Badgers before carving out a seven-year NFL career with the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets.
Since 1993, the Badgers have seen 10 former walk-ons play in the NFL, not including fullback Bradie Ewing, whom the Atlanta Falcons took in the fifth round of this year's draft. Since 1998, nine different walk-ons have served as team captains, and in four of Wisconsin's last five Rose Bowl appearances at least one walk-on has been a captain.
For the most part, Wisconsin's non-scholarship crew is made up of players who turned down offers at Division II schools. Coming out of high school they were two inches too short or two steps too slow to play major college football.
In last season's Rose Bowl, nearly 20 percent of Wisconsin's starters came through the walk-on program. Wide receiver Jared Abbrederis tallied 346 all-purpose yards in Pasadena. Then he returned to Madison and received a scholarship.
Alvarez, the current athletic director and the architect who transformed the football team from a doormat into a perennial Big Ten power, is the first to admit the Badgers' walk-on program is unoriginal.
"I really stole the idea from Nebraska," said Alvarez, who played for the Cornhuskers in the late 1960s and then coached high school football in the state for the first half of the 1970s.
Nebraska's walk-on program is perhaps the most storied in college football. With that model in mind, Alvarez built a Wisconsin brand that mirrors what he saw in Lincoln. Both schools are the only Division I programs in their respective states. Unlike in other Big Ten states such as Michigan and Ohio, where high school prospects have a variety of in-state options, the destination is predetermined for those who want to stay close to home and play big-time college football in Wisconsin. In some cases, that means walking on.
"Those kids are here for the right reasons," Alvarez said. "They're never homesick. They want to be here. They want an education. They love football and they send the right message to the rest of the players."
Walk-ons who play into starting spots or even second-string roles often display extra drive.
"They erase mistakes all the time," said Bielema, who was a walk-on in his playing days at Iowa. "In general (they) carry that edge or that chip on their shoulder that puts them through the tough times."
That push to prove they have what it takes leads to some extraordinary feats that become locker room legends. Ethan Armstrong, the projected starter at outside linebacker for the 2012 Badgers, was a walk-on during a memorable strength and conditioning session on a sunny May afternoon two years ago.
Players were grouped in fives, connected side-to-side at their waists by a chain. The drill: In stride, walk up and down the 39 rows of bleachers in Camp Randall Stadium's upper deck while splitting 175 pounds of sandbags three ways. Seventeen reps, and some groups had already quit. Strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert asked if the others wanted to stop.
"No," answered Armstrong, who was shouldering a 100-pound sandbag.
A teammate carrying the 50-pounder was gassed. Armstrong turned to him, "Give it to me," he said. "I'll take it." Armstrong's crew climbed the upper deck five more times before calling it a day.
"It was one of the single most impressive feats of fatigue tolerance I've ever seen," Herbert said. "From a work ethic standpoint to a walk-on standpoint that's what you want to see."
Armstrong and other walk-ons have to prove their mettle whenever opportunities arise. Abbrederis was a track star and first-team all-state quarterback at Wautoma High. At Wisconsin, he started as the scout team quarterback. Calling signals in the spread offense, Abbrederis showed he was a playmaker with speed. But when given a chance at receiver in practice, Abbrederis played tight.
"I was just trying to impress the coaches," Abbrederis said.
Once he focused on having fun, things starting going Abbrederis' way, including playing time and passes. Last year, Abbrederis led the team with 933 receiving yards and ranked third in the country in punt return average.
"I never thought I would have done this well," Abbrederis said. "Not because I didn't believe in myself. But just being a walk-on, it's hard to make it."
For natives like Abbrederis and Watt, an unyielding desire to be a Badger is as fundamental as breathing. Watt, the Texans defensive end, had a full scholarship to Central Michigan, where he started at tight end as a freshman. But in the fourth grade, he'd told his teacher he was going to be a Badger. He left Central Michigan after one year to become a walk-on at Wisconsin, never considering transferring to another school.
"There is no greater feeling than going out there on a Saturday, playing in Camp Randall Stadium and knowing you represent the whole state of Wisconsin," Watt said.
Ethan Hemer played alongside Watt on the defensive line. Ask Hemer why it's so important to be a Badger and his head tilts to the side as his eyebrows scrunch downward.
"Where are you from?"
"Here's the best way I can explain it," Hemer said. "When you're younger you'd watch the Badgers on TV and you would see success. I watched the back-to-back Rose Bowls. Small town kids across the state get the tradition here. There's a reason why our walk-on program is so well known. It's because kids want to work hard and they want to be a part of this."
Coming out of Medford High, Hemer turned down scholarship offers from Miami of Ohio and Eastern Michigan. In Madison, he started for a season and a half, including two Rose Bowls, before getting a scholarship in January. Playing for Wisconsin means so much to him that he's unfazed by having played ahead of scholarship players while waiting for the all-expenses-paid education.
"I heard once that if you get a scholarship out of high school it proves you can play high school football," Hemer said. "But if you can earn one when you're here, it proves you can play college football."
Jerry Barca is a producer of the documentary film Plimpton! He is also the author of a book about Notre Dame's 1988 national championship team, which will be published by St. Martin's Press in the summer of 2013. You can follow him at @jbarca on Twitter.