I still remember that bus ride to Lambeau before we played LSU to open this season.
The day before, we were all pretty loose and joking around, like we always are, but at some point in the evening a switch flipped. Everybody got a little quieter and began getting their heads right. By the time we were on the bus riding to the stadium, the jokes stopped. Nobody was even really talking. There was just an intense focus.
We weren’t nervous, we weren’t scared and we weren’t even super amped up. We were just prepared.
Not one expert — pardon me, “expert” — had picked us to beat the Tigers. Same way nobody had picked us to win the Big Ten. This was supposed to be our rebuilding season. Apparently we didn’t have the talent or experience to match up with great teams, much less have a shot at winning our conference. But that was the view from the outside. Rebuilding? Inside our locker room, we didn’t recognize that word. During winter workouts and summer two-a-days, that memo hadn’t reached us.
People will sleep on Wisconsin sometimes. Maybe it’s because we don’t play up our individual talent here the way other schools sometimes do. Even on our own team, there are no divisions. We all have each other’s phone numbers. We hang out together. In every way we’re a team, with each player understanding his role and performing it to the very best of his ability.
So even though I guess it’s fair to say we’ve surprised a lot of people in the nation with our play this season, we haven’t surprised each other. We always knew this team was going to be something special.
We were talking about it long before the season began. It all started during winter workouts, when my damn eyelashes froze into little icicles. Wisconsin winters, man. During the spring, we started to see the pieces fitting into place. Then we had summer workouts, where we took another step in the right direction. Everybody grinded and pushed even harder. Then, by the time fall practices rolled around, I think we all knew we had something to say to the so-called experts.
As a starting linebacker, I was particularly excited because I knew how great our unit was going to be. But I also saw how solid the guys on the defensive line and in the secondary were. The offense was clicking, too. At every level — on both sides of the ball — there were players who everybody had absolute confidence in.
So when we took the field at Lambeau on Sept. 3 against one of the best teams in the SEC, I expected us to hit them right in the mouth. I expected us to give them all they could handle.
But what I never expected was what ended up happening. My season ended after only one play.
I was starting at linebacker. On our very first defensive series, I met LSU’s fullback in the hole and then felt their center hit me from the side. My leg bent at a weird angle and that’s when I heard a really loud pop, almost like a gunshot. I looked down at my knee.
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I didn’t want to believe it was anything bad. The trainers took me into the locker room, and once the pain went down, I began trying to jump around and jog back and forth. It was still the first quarter and I wanted to get back out there as quickly as I could. Then the trainers put me through a few more tests, putting more and more pressure on my leg at different angles. My knee buckled. I wasn’t going to return to the game, and it was becoming clear that I was probably done for the year.
I was really lucky to have my dad there at the game. He played nine seasons in the NFL, so I’ve always looked up to him. He’s the kind of guy who always has a smile on his face. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him sad before. It’s just not an emotion he usually expresses. Whenever we did encounter a sad situation when I was going up, he’d immediately try to put a positive spin on it. That’s a value I’ve always tried to emulate.
When the trainers left the room, my dad came in. Everyone left so it was just the two of us. That’s when I started sobbing. I was crushed. I’d been looking forward to this game for so long, and to get hurt like that right away — on the first play — was a lot to be taking in.
After a couple of minutes of sitting in silence, with the faint noise of the game echoing in the locker room, my father and I looked at each other, and he said simply, “You know what you have to do.”
That was what I needed to hear from him.
I said, “Yes, sir,” and then I started wiping the tears from my face. I went to a mirror and cleaned up a bit, and then I left the locker room and went back out there on the field on crutches to cheer on my teammates.
My dad was right. I knew exactly what he meant. That’s just the connection my dad and I have.
Even though my season might have been finished, our season wasn’t.
Not even close. We were just getting started.
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About a week after we beat LSU, I approached Coach Wilcox, our defensive coordinator, to ask about helping out with the team as a coach. The way I looked at it, if I wasn’t able to get better on the field, I still wanted to be able to learn more about the game.
The coaches were all for the idea. I began meeting with the staff a few times a week to go through our game plan and learn about what plays we would be calling when, and the reasoning behind the decisions. Hell, I even snagged myself a headset and whistle. I kept a close eye on things during practice, and soon enough I started giving advice to the middle linebackers. When Jack Cichy, another one of our linebackers, tore his pectoral muscle in October, he didn’t sulk about it. He put on a headset and began coaching up the defense as well.
I’d like to think that Jack and I offered a helpful and unique perspective as coaches. It was certainly a new way of looking at the game for me. We both understood that when we make a bad play, we usually feel worse about it than anybody else in the stadium. So I was glad we were there to tell guys that it was okay, and to get them motivated for the next play. The way I looked at it, if there was even one play where I helped a guy get in better position, it was all worth it.
We have a scheme that puts every player in position to make a play, and it’s beautiful to watch when every single guy hits his gap or makes his block … in a three-second span. It’s like, all at once, you see months of the work we put into being a great team come together. I’ve had a front row seat for a lot of amazing football this year.
We aren’t a flashy team. We aren’t looking to spin around you. We want to smack you right in the face mask. From the offensive line to the defensive line to the fullbacks and tight ends, we get it done at the point of contact. People might see a linebacker shoot a gap for a TFL, or Corey exploding for 50 yards on one rush, but all that comes from every other player on the field getting the details right. I’m talking about the nose tackle taking on two players, or the offensive guard blowing up his man, then terrorizing a safety.
I see you guys. We all see each other.
Considering how many doubters we had early on this season, I’ve been really proud of how this team ignored the criticism. But as we’ve found success, I’m probably even more proud of how we’ve ignored the praise. No stage has ever been too big for us, and that’s why I feel really positive as we approach the biggest game of the year.
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I won’t lie, there have been days this season when I’ve hit a wall and would get really sad about being hurt. But then I’d come into the building and within two minutes of walking into the locker room, someone would say a joke or something to make me laugh. And then, I’d remember how happy I was just to be around you guys for this journey.
Now, before we take the field with the opportunity to win a Big Ten championship, I just have a few things I want to say to my teammates:
I know the line goes “It’s just another game.” But we know that’s not true this time. This isn’t just another game. This is our game, the one we’ve been working towards all year — our whole lives, really.
I don’t need to tell you not to take a single play off. We wouldn’t be in this position if anyone ever had to tell you that. Just go out there and execute like we have all year. Play with pride. Fast, smart, physical. That’s how we do.
If there is any piece of yourself that you’ve held back this year, now is the time to let it out. If there’s anyone who has ever doubted you as you’ve pursued this game, well, we’re gonna be on national TV, baby. They’re gonna be watching. Show them how wrong they were.
Finally, let’s enjoy this. Let’s soak it in. This is a game we’re all going to be talking about 30 years from now when we’re old and fat and laughing about how much damn fun we had when we were just kids playing football.
This year Jack and I have joked about my trading him a pec for one of his ACL’s. You know we’d do anything to be out there with you guys. But if I had to tear up my knee again for us to achieve what we have this year, I’d do it in a second. I’ve tried to give as much as I could to you guys this season. Now it’s up to all of you to push us that much further. We’re so close.
So let’s get out there and play how we always do: Fast, smart, physical.
I love you guys.