Big Ten football was never a guarantee in 2020. Between health logistics, financial incongruencies and eligibility crises, the oldest collegiate athletic conference in the country could very easily not have held a season.
Until mid September, this was the reality for fans of the sport and conference nationwide. But even before the Big Ten decided that it had solved the puzzle of holding sports during a pandemic, the NCAA had voted on a rule that could change the complexion of the University of Wisconsin football season.
Aug. 21, the NCAA declared that it would provide an extra year of eligibility to all Division I fall athletes. This opened the door for formerly retired Badger offensive lineman Jon Dietzen to make his triumphant return to the field. Dietzen had stepped away from the game a month after Wisconsin defeated Miami in the 2018 Pinstripe Bowl, citing his injury history as the primary factor in the decision.
“After a lot of thought and careful consideration, I’ve decided that it is in my best interest to step away from football due to numerous injuries,” Dietzen announced via Twitter, “It was the opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of the Wisconsin football team and to be able to call myself a Wisconsin offensive lineman.”
The injuries in question are a right leg injury in 2016 that caused him to miss four games, another right leg injury in 2017 that cost him one game and in 2018, additional hip and ankle injuries kept him out of a week two bout with New Mexico. Laced throughout this bumpy injury history are numerous instances where Dietzen had to take himself out of games or play on a limited snap count because of reaggravations.
“When I come out [of games], I’ve gotten to the point where I can tell myself and Coach [Joe] Rudolph that I’m not really the one helping us. Someone else is going to do a better job than me at this point,” Dietzen told the Wisconsin State Journal in 2018. “So that’s kind of the battle, is being honest with myself and with Rudy about where I’m at, and making sure that when I hit that point I let him know.”
Dietzen went into every game of 2018 knowing that he would be limited, unable to show his full potential as a lineman. This is the kind of torture that led to his retirement in February of 2019.
But, like Michael Jordan in March of ‘95, Dietzen would be back. After participating in workouts during the limited spring season, Dietzen was named on the 2020 fall football roster as part of his sixth year of eligibility.
“Football meant a ton to him,” Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said, “So to see him healthy, that’s been really fun to see.”
Toughness is contagious. Dietzen has become synonymous with the grit and determination necessary to play one of the most important positions in football. His mental fortitude was not lost on his teammates.
“It’s inspiring,” teammate and former Wisconsin right guard Beau Benzschawel said in 2018. “This dude’s going through a lot more than I am, but he’s still out here and wants to do everything he can. So what’s my excuse?”
The Black Creek, Wisconsin native’s return marks more than just an emotional win for the Badgers. This man was part of some of the most successful offensive lines in the conference and in the country in his three years as a starter between 2016 and 2018.
Every season that Dietzen started for the Badgers, the rush game improved, increasing from 203.1 rush yards per game in 2016, to 222.9 in 2017, to an ungodly 273.4 rypg in 2018. The latter of these figures ranked first in the Big Ten — clearing the field by 30 yards per game — and sixth in the nation. What’s more, Wisconsin never averaged more than 1.8 sacks allowed per game in Dietzen’s stretch as a starter or co-starter.
Dietzen’s return is extremely timely for a Badgers offensive line that was to replace three starters, one of whom is the current starter for the Dallas Cowboys.
Center Tyler Biadasz and guards David Moorman and Jason Erdmann were all instrumental in the construction of an offensive line that ranked seventh among Power 5 schools in 2019. Questions surrounding the o-line was, and remains, a consistent theme for Wisconsin entering 2020.
The school known as “O-Lineman University” will have that mantra tested, but the return of a veteran and a leader like Dietzen puts the Badgers in a better position to fight for the Big Ten title.