I’m a big intangibles guy.
Talent matters, but when it comes down to it, what separates the good and the great in sports — and in life for that matter — is that little extra something you can’t touch or see physically on the field or court of play.
If you’re the kid who’s busting his or her butt in the weight room at 6 a.m. every day, whether you’re a student-athlete preparing for your respective sport or a student trying to stay fit amid a demanding academic schedule, you already know what I’m talking about.
The desire to better yourself when nobody’s looking, the mindset to keep pushing on when it seems you can’t any further, putting in the extra time and effort required to improve — that’s what makes a person their greatest and truly the best they can be. And when nobody sees the actions that lead up to the end result, sometimes the lengthy and tough process it takes to reach such success can be lost in translation.
When I got a chance to sit down for a lengthy interview this past April with Wisconsin Women’s Basketball Head Coach Bobbie Kelsey, she told me what makes a person competitive, and that special kind of person doesn’t come from coaching — although it can help guide that person in the right direction. And I agree.
And I think that’s why teams under Bret Bielema at Wisconsin continue to have such success on and off the field. The kids he recruits are the kind every coach wants filling his roster.
This season could have easily been a Titanic-esque disaster after Week 2. The loss to Oregon State, the firing of Mike Markuson and the questions at starting quarterback all but erased the Badgers’ giant preseason expectations.
But still, the Badgers battled on.
Then came the injury to Joel Stave against Michigan State that ended his promising season and a lackluster performance by the Wisconsin offensive line and Danny O’Brien.
But still, the Badgers kept trucking ahead.
Why? Look at the DNA of this program. The star in the backfield is a kid who was once No. 3 on the depth chart at running back his sophomore year until two injuries in a single game thrust him onto the field. A Heisman finalist season later and a return in 2012 with a body and destructive running style best compared to the Hulk, Montee Ball is the face of this Wisconsin team.
And on top of that, his backup hardly played last season and during his prep career was buried in the depth chart as well. But now James White is regularly putting up 100-yard games for the Badgers.
And what about the fifth-year quarterback who made the first start of his career Saturday?
I’m not even sure anymore how many ACL injuries Phillips has endured in his career at Wisconsin, but the dedication and resilience he has shown after not playing football for the past two years to somehow find his way in the starting lineup shows the heart and character of a young man who could have easily given up on his football career when the times got tough.
And yes, his stat line wasn’t impressive throwing the ball — 4-7 passing for 41 yards and a touchdown — but Phillips made plays with his feet, an added dimension that helped net UW an extra 79 yards on the ground. He also beat out Danny O’Brien for the starting job during the team’s bye week, even though O’Brien far and away had the most experience.
So what does that say about Phillips?
The team and coaches respect him enormously. And, yeah, he has some talent too.
I’m not saying every player Bielema recruits is some sort of perfect human being. There have been some players who have been dismissed from the team in Bielema’s tenure, but for every one bad instance there are at least seven stories like Curt Phillips to overshadow it. And that’s what makes this Wisconsin program one to never give up on. Even when things look ugly, the character of its players is of the best possible quality.
And that’s why, once again, the Badgers are just one game away from making a trip to Pasadena.
Nick is a fifth-year senior majoring in English and history. Catch Nick on WSUM’s “The Badger Herald Sports Hour” Sundays from 4-5 p.m. and “The Student Section” Mondays from 4-6 p.m. Email him at [email protected] or send him a tweet @NickKorger.