The walk-on tradition within the University of Wisconsin football team’s program is among the richest and most successful in the nation.
“Walk-On This Way,” a book written this year by former UW walk-on Joel Nellis and Jake Kocorowski of SB Nation’s Bucky’s Fifth Quarter, perfectly captures that tradition, highlighting the careers of notable walk-ons. Through in-depth interviews with more than one hundred former players, coaches and media members, Nellis and Kocorowski track the origin of UW’s success with walk-ons to the hiring of current Athletic Director Barry Alvarez as head football coach in 1990.
Using that year as a benchmark, “Walk-On This Way” examines the heralded walk-ons like Jim Leonhard, who wrote the foreword for the book, and J.J. Watt, to lesser-known walk-ons who contributed in big ways, with an entire chapter dedicated to specialists.
After Kocorowski published a long-form piece delving into the Wisconsin walk-on tradition, Nellis approached him with the idea for the book. Hours of interviewing, transcribing and editing later, KCI Sports Publishing published the book.
There are plenty of nuggets throughout the book that the average Badger fan may not know, such as J.J. Watt’s flipped verbal commitment from Central Michigan University to University of Minnesota back to Central Michigan out of high school. Russel Wilson’s arrival to campus in 2011 prevented either Jared Abbrederis or Ethan Hemer from gaining a scholarship, so former UW head coach Bret Bielema kept them both off scholarship for an extra semester.
The book provides a fresh take on the history of Wisconsin football, through the lens of Wisconsin’s walk-on program, chronicling the Alvarez take-over and emphasis on walk-ons to rebuild the program, thus culminating in the 1994 Rose Bowl win.
The level of detail the sources relayed during interviews for the book is evident, and the anecdotes are amusing and enlightening. Former coaches Bret Bielema and Gary Andersen make appearances, as do a multitude of former assistant coaches. Sometimes, the language and explanations of simple aspects of the game can seem obvious or redundant for football fans, but it doesn’t take away from the larger goal of the book too much.
To break the monotony of going through 26 years of Badger history, the authors include a chapter dedicated to how players’ faith, namely that of Abbrederris and Luke Swan, shaped their careers and affected their lives as walk-ons.
While the book moves chronologically for the most part, it begins and ends with Leonhard’s journey of rising from small-town Wisconsin to an NFL presence and back to Madison, as 2016 was his first season as the Badgers’ defensive backs coach.
For avid Wisconsin fans, “Walk-On This Way” is a quality stocking-suffer this holiday season.