UW students today do not know of an empty Camp Randall Stadium. They cannot remember a day when student tickets didn’t sell out and the Wisconsin football didn’t have the potential for a successful season every year. Alvarez’s 1990 football team revitalized the glory of Wisconsin football, and the former head coach and current athletic director took the walk-on tradition of his alma mater, Nebraska, and made it uniquely Wisconsin.
As UW captain Joe Panos said during the Badgers 1993 season, “Why not Wisconsin?” The walk-on tradition at the University of Wisconsin is vital to the success of the Badgers for the past 25 years.
Former Badgers walk-on and current assistant football coach at Brookfield High School, Joel Nellis and writer and editor for Bucky’s 5th Quarter, Jake Kocorowski, detail the history of the walk-on tradition at UW in their book Walk-On This Way: The On-Going Legacy of the Wisconsin Football Walk-On Tradition.
I met Jake Kocorowski at the first ever Badger football game I covered for Sconnie Sports Talk, the Badgers season opener against LSU at Lambeau Field. We shared our link to the Polish culture (Jake even hosts a sports podcast, the Kielbasa Kings Sports Extravaganza), and he gave me some useful pointers as I entered my first season as a football beat reporter.
It was in that first LSU game that one current walk-on Jack Cichy would lead in total defensive tackles with eight as well as one tackle for a loss and one forced fumble. Senior captain and walk-on from my hometown of Milwaukee, Wis. would run for 44 yards.
This year’s 10-3 Wisconsin Badgers football team embodied the mentality of the walk-on program, the overachievers as Nellis and Kocorowski calls the walk-ons.
The two Badgers gurus’ book narrates the lives of well-known, and some not so well-known, Badgers walk-ons while taking readers’ through the modern history of the Wisconsin football program, starting with the arrival of Barry Alvarez in 1990. Not only do you learn about the group of players that somehow ended up at a VIP party for the sports drama Any Given Sunday before the 1999 Rose Bowl or the former walk-on who is now in medical school at Indiana University, you see how head coach Barry Alvarez prepared his team for the trip to Tokyo in the Coca Cola Classic or how the team practiced with runs on a 300-foot incline road in Fitchburg.
Their book is riddled with useful Badgers trivia about the modern-day Wisconsin football program and the walk-ons who helped create this football dynasty. From the winningest Badgers quarterback in Joel Stave to the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, these walk-ons proved themselves on and off the field to win their spot on the football roster and get the well-deserved scholarships to play for the cardinal and white.
Framed in a context of the team’s history, Nellis and Kocorowski are not only able to profile players from the past 25 years, they illustrate the team-effort that Wisconsin football exemplifies. For these walk-ons, it was always about playing for Wisconsin and playing for the team rather than for personal glory. This book captures the spirit of a football program that has brought continued success with homegrown players from Wisconsin including a Big Ten West title, trip to the Big Ten Championship and a current berth in the Cotton Bowl.
Walk-On This Way is a must-read for any Big Ten or Badgers fan. Learn more about one of two teams in the Big Ten that has truly taken on the tradition of walk-ons and with it, created an identity that is ‘Wisconsin Football.’
Walk-On This Way can be purchased at the University Bookstore and Bucky’s Locker Room/Name of the Game as well as online at KCISports.com.