Joel Stave, J.J. Watt, Joe Schobert and Chris Maragos share more than a history as high-profile Wisconsin Badgers football players. Each of them walked on to the UW program, eventually earned a scholarship and were on National Football League rosters as of earlier this season.
Few universities can equal Wisconsin’s reputation for embracing and nurturing hard-working walk-on players. A recently published book, Walk-On This Way: The On-Going Legacy of the Wisconsin Football Walk-On Tradition (KCI Sports Publishing, $24.95), written by former UW walk-on tight end Joel Nellis and Buckys5thQuarter.com writer Jake Kocorowski, focuses on the program’s past 25 years and the emphasis former head coach and now athletic director Barry Alvarez placed on student-athletes who initially joined the Badgers without an athletic scholarship.
Those players often were “undersized, underdeveloped and under-recruited,” as the authors describe the hundreds of walk-ons who have come through the UW program in the post-Don Morton era and played a vital role in Wisconsin football’s 216 wins and six Rose Bowl appearances since 1990.
It’s a long list that begins more or less with Joe Panos, who walked on at Wisconsin after his 1989 season at Division III UW-Whitewater, sat out his first season as a Badger per NCAA transfer rules and then began making his mark in 1991 — Alvarez’s second season. “With the weeding out of the weak in Alvarez’s first campaign as head coach, opportunities opened up for the scout-team defensive lineman,” Nellis and Kocorowski write.
Panos would emerge as captain of the 1994 Rose Bowl team, the first of many walk-ons to achieve that status. Other renowned Badger walk-ons include 2016 captain Dare Ogunbowale and former Green Bay Packers Jared Abbrederis and Mark Tauscher, now an Isthmus co-owner.
While the stories of many walk-ons read similarly, what makes Walk-On This Way a winner is its singular focus on an overlooked category of player from a specific era of Wisconsin football.
The authors interviewed more than 100 former student-athletes and coaches — including Alvarez and current head coach Paul Chryst, plus several past assistants — and their knowledge of the game runs deep. Nellis brings personal perspective that adds intimacy and authenticity, and in the foreword, former UW safety, three-time first-team All-Big Ten player, 10-year NFL veteran and current Badgers secondary coach Jim Leonhard concisely yet effectively recalls his own personal walk-on journey.
The obvious reference in the title to Aerosmith’s signature single, “Walk This Way,” is kinda cool, too.