T he most incredible and uplifting and inspiring football season of my life began in a way that I would’ve never expected.
It started with a scream.
Four months ago, about 20 minutes into a routine preseason practice in Madison, we were running a standard special teams drill. I was covering down on the returner like I’ve done a million times over the years, and as I went to change direction I planted just a little bit wrong. I felt my right knee kind of pop, and, I don’t know, crack … and I went down in an instant.
That’s when I screamed.
I wasn’t screaming because of the pain, though — it didn’t even really hurt all that bad. The scream was more out of … fear.
It was a sound that came from deep inside of me, and it was based on a realization that something really bad had just happened.
And I wasn’t ready for another bad thing to happen to me on a football field.
As soon as I finished the scream, I went silent. I’m pretty sure my body was in some kind of shock.
I’d just recently gotten back to full strength after a torn pectoral muscle kept me out of the final seven games of last season. So in my mind, all I kept thinking was, “No, no, no, this can’t be happening again.” But I was already fearing the worst. And then, as corny as this sounds — or as cliché or whatever — I really saw my entire time in Madison, and everything I’d worked to accomplish in football, flash before my eyes.
It was like time slowed down in my head and I got to see everything.
I saw all the work I had put in to make it back from that pec injury, and the freezing-cold practices over the years that I had used to transform from a 185-pound walk-on into a starting inside linebacker at the University of Wisconsin.
And, right there, in that moment — while lying in a fetal position on the ground, surrounded by my teammates, my brothers — I saw myself as a skinny, wide-eyed, 18-year-old freshman arriving in Madison for move-in day.
It just appeared, crystal clear in my mind — an image of that warm summer day in 2013, with sunshine streaming down on the campus. I saw myself walking down University Avenue just kind of in awe that I was actually going to be attending Wisconsin. I recalled that moment of knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I was exactly where I wanted to be — where I was meant to be. I didn’t know what was in store for me back then, of course. I was just overjoyed about the opportunity that had been placed before me. And as I was down on the field clutching my knee, my mind went to that day. I could clearly see … one of the coolest moments of my entire life.
When all that was over — and it probably only lasted a few seconds, if that — I spoke to the trainers, stood up, walked over to the sideline and pretended to be O.K.
But deep down I knew something was wrong.
From the time I was a little kid growing up in Somerset, Wisconsin, I always wanted to be a Badger.
My family watched every Wisconsin football game on TV. We never missed one. Ever. And sometimes — the best times! — we’d make the 3½-hour drive down to Madison for the games.
I had so many Wisconsin shirts back then. Hats, too. My prized possession was the stuffed Bucky Badger I kept on my dresser.
By the time I was in fifth grade, I was going to local football clinics on Saturday mornings before Wisconsin games and just dreaming of one day suiting up in that red home uniform.
When my older sisters enrolled at Madison, everything got ramped up even more. We even used to host parties at our house to watch the bowl games. So, I’m proud to say, many of my favorite memories from my high school years involve Wisconsin football — that incredible season Scott Tolzien put together in 2010, Russell Wilson’s miracle fourth down conversion to Jeff Duckworth in the Big Ten Championship Game, watching Melvin and Montee and James White run wild while putting up 70 on Nebraska the year after that.
I’ll never forget those games.
When I got the opportunity to walk on at Madison after high school, it was an absolute no-brainer. Even if it only meant that I’d max out as a special teams guy, I was all in. I could’ve gone to a smaller school and gotten more playing time early on, but I didn’t want to be left wondering what I could’ve done had I played college football at the highest level, in the Big Ten, for the team I had loved ever since I was a kid.
All I wanted was a shot.
Wisconsin gave me that … and so much more.
When the MRI came back, I cried like a baby.
This was the day after my knee injury, just a few weeks before the start of my senior season. As soon as our orthopedic surgeon came into the room and told me that I had torn my ACL, that I would be done for the year, it was almost like my brain couldn’t process anything he said after that.
I just heard the news and then kind of tuned out for a minute or so.
When I came back around and really put it all together, I excused myself to another room and … sobbed.
I’d just been voted a team captain a few weeks earlier. We were coming together as a collective unit, and I had been named to a bunch of watch lists for defensive awards. It really did seem like it was going to be the type of season you dream about.
And then, in an instant, I was done for the year.
Immediately after my knee buckled out on the field, I attempted to trick myself into believing that nothing was wrong.
I tried doing some cutting drills and there was no serious pain. So I asked for a knee brace and kept going. I wanted to keep practicing with my teammates. But there was more to it than that.
I think, subconsciously, I wanted to finish off practice because I knew, deep down, that my remaining time on the field that evening was probably going to represent the last time I’d play the game of football this season. Or worse, the final time ever.
I even tough-guyed it through the next day’s practice.
But I definitely think I knew all along.
And after hearing that confirmation from the surgeon all I could do was cry.
It was one of the lowest points in my life.
And, well, that could’ve been the end of this story. Heck, it could’ve even been the end of my story as a competitive athlete altogether.
Like, you know….
The End. No more football for Jack. That’s all folks.
Here’s the thing, though.
Something incredible happened to me the very next day.
When I woke up that next morning after getting the news about my knee, this Wisconsin team, my team, my family … picked me up.
Everyone, collectively and as individuals, showed me, once again, what it means to be a Badger.
When I got to the facility, Coach Chryst had already told the team. And I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that I think I got a hug from literally every single person affiliated with our program. Players, coaches, trainers, G.A.’s, support staff, just … everyone.
And let me tell you: Those interactions meant something to me. Every single one of them.
As a teammate, you know in the back of your mind that a certain bond exists, a camaraderie. But sometimes you almost kind of forget about it, or take it for granted. When something like what I experienced that day at our facility happens — just an outpouring of love and well-wishes coming at you all at once — it makes you realize just how special and amazing people can be.
It’s also the type of thing that doesn’t just happen at any old place.
Wisconsin is special.
To go undefeated in the Big Ten, a lot of things need to come together just right. And for us it all started in the summer. The level of competition on the field and in the weight room was unlike anything I’d ever seen.
I know it’s easy to say in hindsight that you knew there was something special brewing, but … what can I say?
I saw it. For real. Early in camp. That fire to accomplish big things.
What most stood out for me was that it seemed like every guy on our team felt like he had something to prove. Nobody was coasting. Everyone, every day, was practicing like he was about to lose his spot — veteran offensive lineman, entrenched starters, all-conference-level guys, everyone.
From there, things just snowballed. It all started with the energy our home crowd showed during that big victory on opening night at Camp Randall. Then came the huge win over Northwestern, and grinding it out over Purdue. Again and again, we could see how all our hard work was paying off. By the time we beat Michigan, and held that team to just over 50 yards rushing for the entire game, we all kind of understood that something unique was happening.
And even though I wasn’t able to be on the field, I drew strength and inspiration from helping the team in any way I could, every single day. Even going all the way back to my very first day after the surgery, I was always around. That day, my dad drove me over to Camp Randall, and I crutched out to practice.
Just being with the team and soaking up that energy from all my friends always helped me to put things in perspective and understand that everything was going to be alright.
Coach Chryst and his staff were amazing when it came to keeping me involved. I told Coach early on that I wasn’t going to fade away … because I wouldn’t let myself disappear, that I wouldn’t be able to get through everything without this team.
And I could tell he really understood what I meant by that.
Now I’m not going to sugarcoat it: I missed playing. I didn’t want to be on the sideline, or up in the press box. I wanted to be out there on the field. And, at one point or another during the season, almost everything about the game of football became really tough for me. There were times when I wanted to give up. But my guys wouldn’t let that happen. And I’m so grateful to them for that. T.J. Edwards, especially, served as my rock. There were a few days when I went to him and just cried on his shoulder for five minutes straight. He stayed so positive, and seemed to always come through with the exact right piece of encouragement.
My main support system is always going to be my family, but between T.J, and Garret Dooley, and Chris Orr, I received all the encouragement I needed on the day-to-day at school. And by the middle of the season, once the guys really started clicking and coming into their own, everything became just so … fun.
At that point, I really did feel like a coach. And I was able to watch the guys take certain strategies or coaching points I had raised and put them into practice during games.
That, maybe more than anything else, helped me to get past the sadness.
So while I can’t say for sure whether or not the team needed me this season, I can tell you for certain that I needed them.
This year has truly been special. I’ll never forget it as long as I live.
Before I get out of here, I just have two things I’d like to leave you with. One is about this 2017 team, and the other is about my future.
First, I just want to tell all my teammates how wonderful they are, and how proud I am of them. That Ohio State loss was rough for sure. It hurt. Still does. But there is so much left to play for this season. The Orange Bowl is going to be incredible. And we all know the Canes are going to put up a fight on their home turf.
But you’re ready for that challenge, and, of course, I want you to go out there and play hard, and compete like you know how, and represent for Wisconsin, and win the game.
But more than anything, please just go out and….
Enjoy every damn second of this experience. Enjoy it. Have fun!
One of the coolest things about this team is that we have an absurd amount of fun. We play our music loud. We crack jokes. We take friendly jabs at each other.
That’s who we are.
And it’s one of the many things that helped us to separate from our competition and accomplish so much this season. We’ve put in thousands of hours of work — the film study, all those meetings, so much time in the weight room — now just go out and have fun.
And, when you do, please know that in doing so, you’ll be bringing me an incredible amount of joy, and making the entire state of Wisconsin extremely proud.
For me especially, that last part — making Wisconsin proud — is something that means the world to me.
Ever since I set foot on campus, doing right by this school, and the wonderful people of this state, has been something I’ve taken very seriously.
I love Wisconsin.
And, in one way, that’s what makes what I’m about to tell you all so tough.
Even just typing this out now is … hard, so I’m just going to come out and say it.
I’ve decided not to apply for a sixth year of eligibility and to instead declare for the NFL draft.
I’m going to take my shot and see what happens.
And, the more I think about it, the more it seems kind of fitting. I almost feel like I’ve kind of been here before.
The feeling I’m experiencing right now reminds me of the exact same feeling that welled up inside me when I first set foot on campus.
At that point in my life, I didn’t know what the journey was going to hold for me, but I was beyond excited to find out. I was just a kid everyone doubted who was hoping for a shot to prove people wrong and do something special.
I took a big risk, and anything could have happened.
Fast-forward 4½ wonderful years and, after having the time of my life in Madison, I’m in a similar position.
I’m going to take a risk and give it everything I have and … see what happens.
At the end of the day, whatever comes next for me, I mainly just want to make Wisconsin proud.
I’m excited for what’s to come, but I can tell you that deciding to leave Madison was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make.
This place has become my home. And there are so many moments I’ve experienced here that will remain with me forever — my first class, my first game, my first bowl game….
My first “Jump Around”!
I’ll miss summers on the lake and Saturday nights at the KK and walking across our beautiful campus on my way to class and breathing in that crisp Wisconsin air. I’ll miss grabbing “breakfast” late on Thursday nights at Short Stack with Fum and Dools and Fergy … and Van Ginkel, Leon Jacobs, Zander Neuville and Ryan Connelly. (Fum will tell you to get the scramble with mixed greens, but that’s a weak look. Go for either the breakfast burrito or a stack of chocolate chip pancakes instead.) And, you know what? I’ll even miss the 5 a.m. winter workouts at the stadium when it’s 10 below zero.
I’ll miss it all.
And I just want everyone to know how thankful and appreciative I am for the love and kindness and support I’ve received during my time at Madison. There are far too many people to name, and I plan on telling everyone thank you in person before I leave, but I do want to specifically shout out Coach Aranda, Coach Busch, Coach Wilcox, Coach Chryst, T.J. Watt, Terrence Edwards, Garret Dooley, Joe Ferguson, Troy Fumagalli, Matt Miller, Ryan Connelly, my sisters Tessa and Rochelle and, of course, my loving parents Steve and Lisa.
At the end of the day, whatever comes next for me, I mainly just want to make Wisconsin proud. I want to be the next guy people point to as someone who came to Madison as an unknown, worked his tail off and then became a mainstay in the NFL. I want to be like Jim Leonhard and J.J. and so many other guys who came here with a far-fetched dream and then … achieved greatness.
I want to uphold that legacy.
But mainly … I just want to make all of Wisconsin proud.
I’m a Badger for life.