I dropped it.
First time I got my hands on a football as a Wisconsin Badger, and, man … I dropped it.
It was the opening game of the 2017 season. We were in Madison playing Utah State and we were down 10–0 at the start of the second quarter. That was when Coach Chryst put me in. Our quarterback, Alex Hornibrook, called for me to run a little flat route out to the left. Easiest play in the world. It’s a pass I’d caught 100 times during fall camp that year. And another 500 times before that when I was playing in high school in New Jersey. Plays like those — the safe ones, the coachable ones — were the reason I’d even gotten the opportunity to see the field as a true freshman in the first place.
But I dropped it…. And I felt awful.
I just remember thinking, You’re out here … on NATIONAL TV … and you’re acting like you’ve never played football before. Pull it together, man.
I kind of looked over to the sidelines, expecting Coach to be fuming, ready to take me out of the game. But there was no sign of that. Then I got into the huddle and a few guys on the offensive line did something I really wasn’t expecting. They actually started patting me on the back.
One of them said, “JT, let’s go, pick your head up, man. We got your back here — forever.”
I think about that play all the time because it just seems like a moment where maybe my career could have gone in a totally different direction — where if I don’t get that pat on the back in the huddle, that game spirals for me and I don’t have confidence going into the next play, and then, the next game.
That’s the kind of thing I’ve been reflecting on since I told Coach Chryst, and Badger Nation, that I’d be declaring for the 2020 NFL draft.
When I broke the news, it was a difficult decision for me. I wasn’t entirely sure how people would react. But something kind of crazy happened.
I got all these DMs on Twitter and Instagram. Hundreds of them. I sort of thought like maybe these were going to be people telling me I was making a mistake, or saying I was giving up on the team … but it wasn’t like that all.
They all just wanted to say thank you.
I couldn’t believe the number of people who were reaching out just to say thank you. I read so many of their messages and I couldn’t reply to them all.
So that’s why I wanted to write this.
If you wrote to me, consider this my DM back to you. And even if you didn’t, but you took time to watch me do the thing I love on the football field these past three years, I’m speaking to you as well.
My message is this: You shouldn’t be thanking me. I should be thanking you, Badger Nation.
You gave me a chance, and I hope that I repaid your faith in me.
That’s really the beautiful thing about Madison. Everyone believes in one another.
That’s really the beautiful thing about Madison. Everyone believes in one another.
Back when I was doing visits in my senior year of high school, my parents and I were trying to make sure to find the right school that would give me the best chance to be as well-rounded a person as possible when I left. We drove up and down the East Coast looking at schools. There were lots of great programs with opportunities to get a good education, and I felt confident about all of them.
But when I made the trip to Madison, something just felt … different about that place.
I remember getting on campus, and I’m with my parents, and we saw Corey Clement.
I’m whispering in my dad’s ear like, “Yo … that guy right there … he’s the dude.”
Corey is a South Jersey legend.
He’s from Glassboro, about 30 minutes from where I grew up in Salem. When he was a senior in high school, I was in eighth grade. Whenever Clement was playing us, or close by, I’d head over to watch the game with some friends. Corey was breaking all sorts of records and just running all over teams.
There aren’t a lot of guys from my part of South Jersey who make it to a D-I program. So to see this guy, who was almost like a real life superhero to me, and then to see how he was talking about the program and the success he was having there, it was huge for me. Like just to be able to think, I could follow the same path as Corey freakin’ Clement.
I talked to him for a while. Then we toured the facility a bit and we made it to the “running back room.” A place where the backs all meet to go over tape and discuss the next opponent.
On the wall, there are the names of every Badger back who had been an All-America, and the ones who had made it to the NFL. I just looked at it in awe. Some of the names on there just blew my mind.
They gotta be doing something right here.
Later in the day, we met with some other players and staff and they all just sort of had this way about them. Like, whatever was happening in Madison … it was special.
I went back to Salem thinking that I was going to miss out on the opportunity of a lifetime if I didn’t go to Wisconsin.
And I was right.
Going to Wisconsin was the opportunity of a lifetime. I met friends that I’ll have for the rest of my life. Learned lessons that will stick with me long after football is over. I discovered who I am, and even more importantly, who I want to be.
I want to be someone who can represent his family, his hometown and his university well. I want to leave my mark, no matter where I end up or what I end up doing. And I know now that I can do that.
That’s what Madison did for me.
Also … I got to let you in on a little secret right now — a little college student tidbit you won’t find on TripAdvisor. Leaving Madison is tough, right, because of everything I just mentioned. But it’s also tough because I’m leaving Doolittles Woodfire Grill. The real Badgers know what I’m talking about. Doolittles is this spot 15 minutes from campus up 151. All the backs would go there on Sundays the day after a home game. And they have these wings … boy, I am telling you — these wings are unreal. It’s just an appetizer, so you only get like six, I think, but they are so good. I’m going to miss going there with my boys and chopping it up after the big wins (and even the losses). That was our spot.
Doolittles, man. Shout-out Doolittles.
The thing about going to spots like that, too, is the people you run into.
Everyone in Madison just gets it, you know?
This past year, when I was getting some more attention from the national media and they were always trying to ask me about the draft and stuff like that — nobody in town was acting like that. Because they knew how focused we were this year and what we were trying to accomplish.
It was frustrating to slip up against Illinois and not get the job done in Columbus in October, but we had a bye week after that and it gave us a chance to regroup.
In our locker room, we have this saying: November games are the games that you remember.
That’s when we want to be playing our best football. And this year, after those losses, it was truer than ever. We knew that if we wanted a chance to make something of our season, we had to play hard in November. I think the way we responded, winning all four games — including wins in Lincoln and Minnesota — that month was the proudest I’d been of our team since I’d been in Madison.
A lot of people counted us out, but the school and the city never gave up on us.
We heard that. And we appreciated it.
That’s how we ended up in Pasadena.
I had quite a few questions from the media about whether I would play in the game because of potentially entering the draft.
The truth? I never thought twice about it. Never.
Look, some guys skip out on bowl games, I get it — you got to do what’s best for you.
But for me … nah.
Playing for Wisconsin is a privilege. And playing for Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl — that’s a dream.
It didn’t end the way we wanted. That’s going to hurt for a while. I really wanted to bring the victory back for all of Madison. That’s life, though. I know the young guys who are coming back will learn from that experience and make the team even better next season.
I told Coach Chryst before the game that I was going to declare, but it didn’t really hit me until the flight back. It’s just … these three years went by so fast. I had to remind myself that, yeah, all those practices actually happened, all those workout sessions happened, all those games happened.
Now it’s time to take advantage of the opportunity Wisconsin has given me to go succeed in the world as an NFL player, as a businessman and as a person.
And when I get to that point, I’ll know which city in Wisconsin has got my back — forever.
So, to all those thanking me….
Nah, THANK YOU.
Thank you to my coaches, my teammates, my parents and the great city of Madison.
On, Wisconsin — forever.