Walk-Ons: Despite the Odds

It might be because they’ve had to try harder, but Wisconsin’s football walk-ons have gone on to remarkable success — on the gridiron and beyond.

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Walk-Ons in the NFL

Jared Abbrederis
Michael Bennett
Erik Bickerstaff
Chad Cascadden
Jason Doering
Bradie Ewing
Paul Hubbard
Matt Katula
Jim Leonhard
Chris Maragos
Joe Panos
Mike Schneck
Mark Tauscher
Donnel Thompson
Rick Wagner
J.J. Watt

Source: UW Athletic Department

The UW tracks walk-ons only since Barry Alvarez took over as coach in 1990.

No matter our pursuits in life, we’re all told at one time or another that we don’t measure up. That’s what walk-on football players face. Standout athletes from childhood through high school, these young men are suddenly confronted with no longer being good enough to earn a football scholarship to a major school — or perhaps to any school at all.

And yet many of them go on to beat the odds after getting an opportunity as a walk-on — a chance, initially without a scholarship, to play for the Badgers.

“These are the kids, for the most part, they stick with us — they’re here for the right reasons,” says UW Athletic Director Barry Alvarez, who made the walk-ons program a key part of his success as the Badgers’ football coach. “They love football, they’re loyal to the university, and they end up being leaders.”

Here’s a look at five Wisconsin walk-ons who persevered, achieving their goals with the Badgers and the National Football League — and beyond.

Bradie Ewing Photo by Daniel Shirey/USA Today

Bradie Ewing

At the UW 2008–2011

Honors Played in four bowl games, including a win in 2009 Champs Sports Bowl; team captain, 2011

NFL career Played three seasons; two with the Atlanta Falcons and one with the Jacksonville Jaguars

Currently Retired from NFL in April 2015

Bradie Ewing

Bradie Ewing saw playing time during his freshman year at the UW, a relatively rare achievement for a walk-on — but not necessarily a surprise.

“The things that got me noticed at Wisconsin are things that I’ve done my whole life. When they asked you to run past the line, I ran past the line. I studied more than anybody. Everything they asked for, I did,” he says.

“I think some of the [scholarship players] just drift,” he adds. “Maybe they thought they had made it. I guess in my mind, you’ve never made it. There’s always the next goal.”

By the time he was a senior, Ewing knew NFL teams were watching him. Even though he wasn’t a star player — he started only eleven games in four years — he believed he could play at the highest level.

“A lot of walk-ons — just where they came from, the people they are, the work ethic, kind of that chip on their shoulder — it helps them have success at the college level, but it helps at the NFL level, too,” he says. “[They have] a lot of those intangibles that a lot of people have, but some take for granted.”

Mark Tauscher

Mark Tauscher Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Mark Tauscher

At the UW 1995–1999

Honors Two-time Academic All-Big Ten. Played in three consecutive bowl games, including Rose Bowl victories in 1999 and 2000.

NFL career Green Bay Packers, 2000–2010; member of the team that won Super Bowl XLV

Currently Co-owner of a Madison-based business that runs Red Card Meal Plan and Isthmus Publishing. Radio analyst for Badgers and Green Bay Packers football

Mark Tauscher

Mark Tauscher excelled in football in a quintessentially Wisconsin sort of way: quietly setting goals, steadily making progress — and then seizing a big opportunity.

“For me, it always just comes down to: believe in what you’re doing and try to get an understanding of how can you take steps to get where you want to go. It doesn’t have to be in one bound,” says Tauscher, who was a reserve player for three years for the Badgers before becoming a starter.

“Try to figure out, is this something that you really want to do? And if it’s something you really want to do, are you willing to put in the effort and the work to do it?” he says.

Of the 141 walk-ons who have been letter winners at the UW since Alvarez started as head football coach, 16 have played in the NFL. Tauscher played there longer than any of them — eleven years — all with the Green Bay Packers. His was “one of the great football stories and careers of anyone to come out of the state of Wisconsin,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel said.

Yet Tauscher was decidedly unheralded when he arrived at the UW in 1995. After being noticed when his high school basketball team (yes, basketball) played in the state tournament in Madison, he was invited to walk on as an offensive lineman. Tauscher knew he would need perseverance.

“I always tried to look at things as realistically as I could and understanding that, I know that there’s a long road ahead of me here,” he recalls thinking. “But let’s just set some basic goals.”

The first was to survive: to hold his own in one-on-one drills, and to try to earn some practice time with the second-stringers.

“In the beginning, I was completely intimidated,” Tauscher admits. “You’re going against very good defensive linemen on a daily basis, and you’re trying not to get your butt whipped.”

In his second year, Tauscher gradually earned some playing time. But it was still an uphill climb, on a steep grade, playing behind two tackles (Chris McIntosh and Aaron Gibson) who ended up in the NFL. After a year as a redshirt, then three years as a reserve, Tauscher decided that his fourth year would be his final season with the Badgers, even though he still had a year of eligibility remaining. He started considering a transfer.

But, while watching the annual spring game, he had an unexpected reaction. “I just went and watched the game — and it made me sick to watch,” he recalls. “I knew that I wanted to be back out there. I had put in a lot of time and effort, and I think that’s where the sick feeling came from. … I just felt like [if I transferred, it] was going to be a missed opportunity for me.”

So Tauscher returned for a fifth year. Finally a starter, he helped lead the Badgers to a second consecutive Rose Bowl victory. He went on to win a Super Bowl ring with the Packers following the 2010 season.

Being overlooked, or even doubted, can have advantages.

“I think everybody has different motivations,” Tauscher says. “And for me, I think it’s always you’re trying to prove you belong — you always try to prove you can do it.”

J. J. Watt

J. J. Watt Photo Courtesy Houston Texans

J. J. Watt

At the UW 2008–2010

Honors Lott IMPACT Trophy winner, second-team All-American, two-time Academic All-Big Ten

NFL career Houston Texans since 2011

Currently Defensive end, Houston Texans

J.J. Watt

One of J.J. Watt’s summer jobs while at UW–Madison was painting a railing that circles the upper deck of Camp Randall Stadium. It offered moments to daydream about playing on the field.

Watt, of course, would become a star defensive lineman for the Badgers. But that came only after he had been told he wasn’t big-time college football material — and after giving up a football scholarship after one year at Central Michigan University without a guarantee of what might lie ahead.

At Central, playing tight end, Watt caught only eight passes during his freshman season in 2007. Deciding that he’d never be a featured player for the Chippewas, he took a risk by giving up the scholarship, transferring to Wisconsin, and trying to make the team as a walk-on.

“I was told, ‘You’re not big enough, you’re not fast enough [to play at Wisconsin],’ ” he recalls. “When people who don’t believe in you say you can’t make it, that’s just more motivation.”

Watt also was spurred on by having promised his parents he would earn a scholarship at the UW. “At that time, failure was not an option. I was gambling on myself. There was just no option but to make it work,” he says. “There was a belief in myself to start with. And I put in the work. When you put in the work, you start to believe in yourself even more.”

By 2010, his third year as a Badger, Watt was a second-team All-American and was leaving school a year early. He was the eleventh overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft. He has already been named the league’s most valuable defensive player twice, in 2012 and 2014, and in July, he was named the top player by NFL Network, making him the first defensive player to earn that honor.

Wisconsin walk-ons who succeed use a chip on their shoulders to motivate them to greater heights, Watt says. “You’re happy to be on the team, but you have to do that much more to earn your place. It gives you an edge. You know you have to go above and beyond what the other scholarship players have to do,” he says.

“When you have to go through difficult times, it makes the victory that much sweeter.”

Chris Maragos

Chris Maragos Photo By Andy Lyons, Getty Images

Chris Maragos

At the UW 2007–2009

Honors Honorable mention All-Big Ten and team captain, 2009. Played in winning game at 2009 Champs Sports Bowl.

NFL career Entered the NFL in 2010

Currently Safety, Philadelphia Eagles

Chris Maragos

After starting eight games as a redshirt freshman walk-on at Western Michigan University, Chris Maragos believed he had earned a scholarship for the next season, but it didn’t come through.

“I was pretty down. I was kind of looking for anything,” he says. “I felt like I was doing all the right things on the field and off the field to get the opportunities, and it just wasn’t happening.”

Encouraged by his brother Troy, who was then one of the Bucky Badger mascots, Maragos decided to walk on at Wisconsin, arriving in 2007. He made his mark before ever being eligible to play in a game. On the kickoff team during one of his first practices, Maragos sped downfield past his teammates and tackled the returner inside the ten-yard line. “I can remember the coaches saying, ‘Who is that guy?’ They knew I couldn’t play that year, but I was giving it my all.”

Maragos, who switched from wide receiver to defensive back after coming to Wisconsin, believes he made team captain because of how he carried himself when he first transferred. “I was listening to what [my teammates] had to say, and every day at practice I was just giving it my all, no matter what the drill was. Just trying to earn the guys’ respect for who I was as a person. I really believe that people will respect your character more than they will respect your accomplishments,” he says.

“You know that you need to not cut corners in anything you do. You don’t get that many opportunities in life. You have to do the things in the right way, and you have to fight for them,” he adds. “When you get pushed, that’s when you really grow.”

Donnel Thompson

Donnel Thompson Photo By Craig Schreiner/Wisconsin State Journal

Donnel Thompson

At the UW 1996–1999

Honors Played in four consecutive bowl games, including Rose Bowl victories in 1999 and 2000. Team captain, 1998 and 1999.

NFL career Linebacker with Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts, 2000–2003

Currently Vice president of national accounts at Direct Supply, Inc., Milwaukee

Donnel Thompson

Donnel Thompson preaches the potential of teaming up unbridled enthusiasm with a solid work ethic.

“I think the one thing we all can control is attitude,” the former Badger linebacker says. “It gives you a great chance at being successful. And that’s contagious. When people see that you enjoy things and that you’re positive, they want to be around you, they want to involve you in things. And in a lot of cases, your results are going to reflect that attitude.”

Thompson says the doggedness he developed as a walk-on helped him years later, while working at Direct Supply, Inc. in Milwaukee. He lost his biggest customer — and feared his boss doubted that he could handle major accounts.

“I was so determined to prove him wrong and to prove that customer wrong — the next year, all of my customers were over 20 percent [growth in sales]. I had one of the best years in national accounts history,” Thompson recalls. “Because I was hell-bent on proving them wrong. I understand I probably didn’t do the right thing with this customer. I’m going to learn from that. But I’m going to find ways to add value to these other seventeen customers and to prove that I am the right fit.”

Thompson is now a vice president at the company.

“Don’t give up. Don’t let people tell you no,” he says. “You’re going to face challenges; you’re going to face adversity. That’s all right.”

Walk-Ons in the NFL

Jared Abbrederis
Michael Bennett
Erik Bickerstaff
Chad Cascadden
Jason Doering
Bradie Ewing
Paul Hubbard
Matt Katula
Jim Leonhard
Chris Maragos
Joe Panos
Mike Schneck
Mark Tauscher
Donnel Thompson
Rick Wagner
J.J. Watt

Source: UW Athletic Department

The UW tracks walk-ons only since Barry Alvarez took over as coach in 1990.

Tom Kertscher ’ 84 is a Politi-Fact Wisconsin reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a freelance sports correspondent for the Associated Press, and the author of two sports books.

Published in the Fall 2017 issue

Tags: Alumni, Athletics, Badger, football, Students

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