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Ethan Hemer adjusting to NFL life with Pittsburgh Steelers

The former walk-on from Medford, Wisconsin begins his professional football career in Pittsburgh as he participates in the first organized team activities of the NFL offseason.

Ethan Hemer gives chase in the 2014 Capital One Bowl.
Ethan Hemer gives chase in the 2014 Capital One Bowl.
David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

He's only been in Pennsylvania for a little under three weeks, but former Wisconsin defensive end Ethan Hemer has had the opportunity to take in the city of Pittsburgh between rookie camps and the first week of organized team activities as a member of the Steelers.

Hemer's staying in the south side of the city. He's ventured out to Carson Street, which is home to a variety of shops, bars and restaurants that cater to a modern, younger crowd. He's even had a chance to take in a Pittsburgh Pirates game at PNC Park, which may or may not have challenged his previous loyalties to a National League Central rival.

"Really nice scenery there," Hemer said. "It kind of made me think, 'I don't know, this might be a second team besides the [Milwaukee] Brewers but we'll see how that all works out.'"

Though he's had a chance to briefly take a taste of the city, Hemer's focus remains on his day job on the football field as he adjusts to professional football and competes for a roster spot on the Steelers.

The jump to the NFL's nearly indescribable to Hemer, who signed with Pittsburgh as an undrafted free agent after the 2014 NFL Draft. The coaching staff expects Hemer and other players to soak in a lot of knowledge, even with the small timeframe he's been in Pittsburgh, but he knows they want to see how much players can absorb in a quick amount of time.

"They expect results, as they should," Hemer said. "This is a profession now, and no one's really holding your hand."

That's been one of the transitions the former walk-on has seen so far as an NFL rookie. With the vast resources seen at a university and football program like Wisconsin, Hemer stated a student-athlete really didn't have a choice but to succeed in college.

It's a different animal in the professional game. Players are competing for roster spots and their livelihoods. He understands the different nature of the NFL from the college game.

"At this level, you're a grown man," Hemer said. "You're expected to handle your business and come to work every day and put in the time and the effort needed to be successful."

Hemer added some weight to his frame since his final season as a Badger, where he tied the all-time record for career games played with 54. He's currently a shade over 300 pounds, compared to during his senior-season weight of around 285.

Those pounds were added during his draft preparation, when he began working with Wisconsin Director of Strength and Conditioning John Dettmann. Several other former Badgers teammates, including San Francisco 49ers third-round pick Chris Borland, joined him in working with Dettmann.

The training itself was a process. In the first few weeks, Dettmann worked with Hemer and others on evaluating which areas of their body, game and skill set needed work. From there, the former strength and conditioning coach formulated a combine/pro day preparation plan, which focused primarily on training for the drills seen in the NFL Combine that pro personnel scrutinize and agonize over.

After Hemer participated in Wisconsin's pro day March 5, Hemer, Borland and other former teammates began training with current Wisconsin head strength and conditioning coach Evan SImon. Workouts with Simon emphasized more football-based training rather than individual drills.

"There's a lot more conditioning that we would do," Hemer said, "and lifting programs geared more towards the sport. In the past, we trained for the the drill, and now you're training for the sport you're playing."

Hemer praised both Dettmann and Simon for their work with him during the spring, as workouts went until a week before the draft. From there, he went back home to Medford, Wisconsin. He did not watch the first two days of the 2014 NFL Draft, as he wanted to spend time outside of a football setting to clear his mind. Hemer watched the final day of the draft, and knew there was a chance he could be taken in seventh round.

Though only one team came up to Madison to work him out, Hemer wasn't worried about interest from other teams. During the week leading up to the draft, several teams requested draft-day information, which gave him encouragement leading up to the big weekend.

Hemer's name wasn't called on that final day of the draft, but he found a home with the Steelers, who play a 3-4 base defense under defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Hemer has experience in the 4-3, as defensive coordinator Dave Aranda instituted the scheme at Wisconsin in 2013. There were a couple of factors that made the defensive end head east and join up with former Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier.

"A couple of teams popped up as possibilities to sign with," Hemer said, "but ultimately I chose Pittsburgh based on roster situation and the feeling that this would be my best opportunity to not only compete but make a team."

Now, Hemer's moved on to the next aspect of his life in the professional game. Hemer admitted it was odd to hear him referred to as a "former" Wisconsin Badger up until about three weeks ago, when the initiation into the NFL began. He remembers all the fond memories in Madison: three consecutive Big Ten Championships, Rose Bowl appearances and many memorable games both won and lost.

Hemer worked his way up from a walk-on to earning a scholarship and being a key contributor in Wisconsin's defense over the past four years, proving he belonged on the field. He hopes he's made a lasting impact on those he and other departing seniors have left the Wisconsin program to.

"I think that the important thing that I'll take away from Wisconsin is that I hope I made a positive impact on the players that were younger than me at my time at Wisconsin," Hemer said.

"Ten, 15 years from now, people aren't going to necessarily remember the statistics or which person on the team played more. What I hope is that people remember how we treated each other, and hopefully that I would have made a good impact on the underclassmen."