Jim Leonhard. Luke Swan. Chris Maragos.
Their names are familiar for Wisconsin football fans and they have inspired young athletes around the state as much for what they have done on the field as their leadership off it.
Leonhard, Swan and Maragos come from similar backgrounds — all three are Wisconsin natives — and each started their careers as walk-ons before eventually earning team captain honors as seniors, a common journey that has bonded the three together.
“All three of us are Wisconsin products — Chris is from Racine, Jim is from Tony and I’m from Fennimore — and there’s good talent in this state,” Swan said. “And we’re all guys that know how to work, and I think that’s why you find guys that start as walk-ons and become captains, because the other players have seen what you’ve overcome.”
What they have overcome is a lot of adversity, though each has faced different challenges.
For Leonhard it was questions about his size (he stands just 5-foot-8), which he answered by choosing football over baseball — a sport many believed to be his best before college — just to prove the critics wrong. He did that and more in his time at Wisconsin, despite receiving no Division 1-A scholarship offers.
Despite his small stature, Leonhard’s athleticism more than made up for it. In fact, part of the legend of his time at Wisconsin is a story of Leonhard winning a dunk contest during his first fall camp with the Badgers.
Leonhard earned first-team All-Big Ten honors three times and CNN/SI All-American honors as a sophomore. He also finished his career at UW tied with Jamar Fletcher for the school record with 21 interceptions, 11 of which came in his sophomore season.
Even with all his accomplishments — including earning a big contract with the New York Jets — Leonhard credits the program at Wisconsin for giving him the opportunity to walk on.
“It’s partly due to the coaches. They realize the importance of the walk-on program and the kids that they get to walk on,” Leonhard said. “They are guys that have slipped through the cracks and are sometimes better athletes than the scholarship players. You miss guys like that every once in a while.”
Swan, on the other hand, had a much longer road to prominence than Leonhard. After not taking up the sport until his freshman year of high school, Swan was a standout wide receiver at Fennimore High School, earning All-State honors as both a junior and senior.
Much like Leonhard though, Swan went widely unnoticed by Division I programs, and he opted to walk on at Wisconsin instead of attending any smaller schools.
Swan redshirted his first year in Madison and spent three years as largely just a scout team player. He finally got an opportunity in his junior year, however, and he made the most of it.
Swan earned a scholarship as a junior, starting opposite Paul Hubbard and was named captain by his teammates the following season.
“I spent three years practicing and playing a little bit, and then getting the opportunity to start and become a captain was something I didn’t expect coming in,” Swan said. “It was something that over time I worked toward and it was able to happen. Looking back it was a pretty special experience.”
Swan’s time as a Badger was cut short, however, when he tore his hamstring in a road game at Illinois on Oct. 6, 2007. He would miss the rest of his senior season but remained heavily involved with the team, offering knowledge and insight to the younger receivers.
One moment many will never forget about Swan came after his injury, though. On senior day versus Michigan on Nov. 10, 2007, a recovering Swan put his jersey on for the last time.
He was the last senior announced, slowly emerging from the tunnel on crutches. Then, in a touching moment, Swan tossed the crutches aside and hobbled out to meet his parents.
“It speaks to Luke’s character. I mean, that’s who he is. One thing that Luke and I really possess is a determination and a willingness to never quit,” Maragos said. “Everybody expected Luke just to go out there on his crutches, but he was going to go out there and he was going to rehab to the point where he could walk. It’s just who he is.”
It is Maragos, though, who has overcome the most obstacles before reaching the position of team captain at the University of Wisconsin.
The former receiver began his high school career at Racine Park before transferring to cross-town rival Racine Horlick following several run-ins with the law as a sophomore. As a senior at Horlick, Maragos started the season strong, leading the state in receiving through three games before the Rebels’ quarterback went down with an injury.
After his first three games, his production dropped off as a senior and likely hurt Maragos’ status, as he received no full scholarships from Division I-A schools. Western Michigan in Kalamazoo offered him a walk-on spot with the chance to earn a scholarship in the future.
He took the opportunity and found success, but no scholarship despite starting eight games.
“I was a walk-on at Western Michigan and the coach said if I provided and contributed, I’d be put on scholarship and that really wasn’t what was going on,” Maragos said. “I was kind of getting beat around the bush and it really was more about integrity for me and about trust with him, it wasn’t about the money.”
So Maragos did some soul searching and decided to transfer to Wisconsin, but not before talking to his brother, Troy, who attended the UW at the time.
“It was kind of completely random. His brother Troy was Bucky Badger and he talked to me and connected us,” Swan said. “Chris sent me a message through Facebook after he was thinking about transferring and we got to talking and I asked him to send his tape.”
Swan invited Maragos to live with him during his first year at Wisconsin and the two have been roommates ever since. They grew close as roommates and bonded through their common Christian faith.
More importantly, though, Maragos was able to really feel comfortable around the other players thanks to Swan. Because the team had such great respect and trust in Swan, they knew anyone he thought enough of to live with was someone they wanted to be around.
“They just knew I was Swan’s boy and it was really great because we shared the common denominator in our faith as well,” Maragos said. “He was phenomenal. Luke was huge in getting me in with the guys right away and all that stuff and we lived together right away, so he was definitely my best friend.”
“Have you ever played defense?”
Arriving in Madison was not the end of Maragos’ journey, however.
After spending much of his time on the scout team facing the team’s No. 1 defense, he was moved from wide receiver to safety. According to his roommate, there was one big play that caught the coaches’ eyes.
“Chris was playing receiver in practice and Erik Prather got an interception and Chris came running after the guy and dove from like the 10-yard line — Erik was on like the five — and just like crushed him and forced a fumble on it,” Swan said.
Maragos said after the play head coach Bret Bielema came up to him and asked if he had ever played defense. He responded by telling him he played a little bit in high school.
From there, the former receiver moved to the defensive side of the ball and entered the spotlight in 2008 after taking advantage of opportunities that came his way. The biggest of those was working out with Leonhard, whom he had idolized growing up.
“The first time I met Jim, he was just around in the offseason working out and he came through the locker room and I was like, ‘that’s Jim Leonhard right there,'” Maragos said. “I was kind of star struck, I’m not going to lie.”
Leonhard and Maragos worked extensively in the offseason over the past two years, something that has worked wonders for the Badgers’ current starting free safety. Of course, on-field experience and Maragos’ work ethic has played a significant role in his development as the Badgers’ leader in the secondary as well.
When the two were reunited this summer, Leonhard took note of the drastic improvement Maragos had made since the first time they worked together.
“We met two years ago and at that time, he wasn’t necessarily ready, he needed that experience that you get on the field and kind of know what it was like a little bit more,” Leonhard said. “So, this last offseason I was able to help him out a little bit more. We met a good amount, and whether it was watching film or doing drills, he was very open to the things that I said, and I think it has helped him out a lot.”
Based on the early results, it would appear the work has paid off both for Maragos and UW.
Deeply rooted in faith
The similarities between Leonhard, Swan and Maragos do not stop when they leave the field, nor do they disappear outside a football setting.
All three are strong in their belief in God and it is something that has fueled not only their play on the field, but also their relationship with one another, especially between Swan and Maragos.
In fact, one of the reasons Swan and Maragos met in the first place and became good friends was due to Swan’s involvement with Campus Crusaders for Christ, an organization that Maragos’ brother Troy also was involved in. Swan and Troy became good friends through their spiritual connection, much like he and Chris did.
Their faith connected them early on and it has kept them close ever since.
“First and foremost, I think both of us are deeply rooted in our faith, which is an integral part of us. I think that is our common denominator and that’s what we draw strength from,” Swan said. “That’s the reason that we play, to be able to realize where our gifts and talents came from and have that first and foremost in our lives. So that’s our first connection.”
Faith was not just something they practiced off the field or away from the team, however.
Maragos and Swan have acted as spiritual leaders for the team and everything they do on the field reflects their strong faith.
In fact, Maragos believes faith is one of the reasons guys like he, Leonhard and Swan are able to have such success in face of strong adversity.
“All three of us have a common goal in our faith, and that’s why we have an inner drive that not a lot of athletes have and a willingness to compete,” Maragos said. “When the stack is against us, we don’t listen to it. We just go out there and play.”
Leonhard echoed his sentiments.
“The biggest thing is to just not get discouraged if you’re not getting that many opportunities or if you’re not playing well,” he said. “If you do things the right way in this game, it’s only a matter of time before you get that opportunity and it’s only a matter of time before that success comes.”
Football beyond college
One of Maragos’ aspirations for the future is to follow in the footsteps of Leonhard and Swan, both of whom have experienced varying degrees of success in the sport after leaving Wisconsin.
For Leonhard, it did not come easy, but he fought through adversity much like he did in college, earning a roster spot as an undrafted free agent with the Buffalo Bills in 2005. He was the only undrafted rookie on the Bills’ 53-man roster and played in 10 games that year.
The Troy, Wis., native continued to improve each year with Buffalo, which eventually earned him an opportunity to start 13 of 16 games in 2008 with the Baltimore Ravens. Leonhard had 85 tackles, one interception and one sack with the Ravens, but really shined in the playoffs, recording an interception, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a key hit on Tennessee quarterback Kerry Collins that led to an interception. His performance in the playoffs played an integral role in his signing with the Jets this past offseason.
Through his experience in the NFL and his time with Maragos, Leonhard believes the Wisconsin free safety has an opportunity to continue his career at the professional level.
“I hope he can do better than I did. He definitely doesn’t have to follow in my footsteps as an undrafted free agent,” Leonhard said. “If you make plays on Saturdays they’ll come find you. He has the physical abilities and the mental makeup to get a chance at this level, he just has to continue to improve.”
Swan, on the other hand, spent just over a month as an undrafted free agent with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2008 before being waived. He was not done with football, however.
This summer Swan participated in Michael Irvin’s reality television show “4th and Long,” which rewarded the winner with an opportunity to join the Dallas Cowboys’ training camp. He did not win, however, as he was cut following the fourth week of the show.
“I got my opportunity, and I never thought I would,” Swan said. “I got opportunities to have that opportunity to play in the NFL and got opportunities to be on a reality television show with Michael Irvin as the host and Jerry Rice as one of the coaches.”
Like Leonhard, Swan also believes Maragos has a definite chance to play at the next level if he continues to play and improve the way he has in his time at Wisconsin.
“There’s a lot of great players out there, but I could definitely see Chris Maragos making an NFL squad and making some noise just like Jimmy Leonhard did as a walk-on and a team captain and follow in his footsteps,” Swan said.
If he does make an impact at the NFL level, Maragos will add another chapter to an unbelievable story that has given every high school football player in the state hope for a future in the sport.
For him, though, it is an honor just to hear his friends’ confidence in his abilities.
“It’s humbling. To hear that from two guys like that with that stature and that level, it’s just unreal. I don’t even have words to say,” Maragos said. “It just overjoys me to think that those two guys would think so highly of me.
“I think extremely highly of them and for them to sit there and say that I have potential and to feel that way about me is just all that you can ask for.”