Call them the “glue in the foundation” of the Wisconsin football program. Walk-ons, those players with an “extra heartbeat, ”a phrase turned by former head coach Bret Bielema, have become an edge for the Badgers since Barry Alvarez took over the program in 1990.
Walk-On This Way chronicles the stories of those “undersized, under-developed and under-recruited” players who have made a lasting impact on the Badgers over the past 26 seasons. Almost 100 players, media and coaches were interviewed for the project, with over 100 interviews recorded to dive into their journeys from mostly unknown recruits to making a significant impact on Wisconsin football.
You can find Walk-On This Way at University Bookstores, Bucky’s Locker Room or Name of the Game and some limited Barnes & Noble stores in the state. It’s also available online at KCISports.com.
Here’s an excerpt on former Wisconsin safety Chris Maragos, and a relevant one especially with Wisconsin facing Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 2.
The Racine, Wis., native originally committed to the Broncos as a walk-on wide receiver, but later transferred to the Badgers. After converting to safety, he worked his way up to a starter and a team captain and has become a special teams guru in the NFL. He’s a Super Bowl champion from his time as a Seattle Seahawks defensive back, and recently signed a contract extension with the Philadelphia Eagles.
For Maragos, his journey to the NFL and success in the pro game is one of perseverance through adversity.
With no Division I scholarships offered to him, Western Michigan offered the beleaguered prep standout a walk-on chance. He’d be able to redshirt his first season, learning from future NFL standout in Greg Jennings.
The opportunity from the Broncos would give Maragos a shot to make an impact in the 2006 season. He broke through the two-deep to be a starter in eight of the 13 games, catching 25 passes that year. His goal of obtaining a scholarship would not be fulfilled, however. There would be a falling out between head coach Bill Cubit and the wide receiver over the scholarship he felt he deserved and, according to Maragos, was discussed between the two parties.
“I always felt as an athlete and my personal conviction was that if I’m going to play my style of play – which is all out, 100 percent everything I have – I have to play for a coach that I 100 percent align with in trust, character, everything,” said Maragos. “And so I really felt like some of those things were being compromised by what I was told and what they were doing. I basically said I needed to be somewhere else because I can’t play for someone or something that I don’t feel 100 percent with, so I decided to transfer.”
The souring relationship from the broken commitment led to Maragos branching out and finding another program. He looked at Division II Grand Valley State, but he set his eyes to a familiar city where he spent a portion of his youth watching football on many Saturdays. He even received some help from Bucky Badger himself.
Well, a Bucky Badger.
Chris’ brother, Troy, donned the costume of the university’s beloved mascot during a portion of his time at the university. A member of Campus Crusades for Christ (CCC, now known as Cru), Troy knew wide receiver Luke Swan through CCC, the parent organization to Athletes in Action, and reached out to him given his younger brother’s dilemma. After the introduction, an exchange of Facebook messages then ensued between the two peers.
“He sent his film over during the process,” Swan said. “He was really explosive, he was a fast player. He was playing wide out at the time. I saw him, and I thought this dude was a good player. I took the film in, showed it to Coach Mason. He ended up showing it to Coach Bielema.”
After a meeting between Maragos and Bielema, another opportunity to walk-on to a Division I program was given to him.
“I just saw a kid on film that was really trying to do everything right,” Bielema said. “Seemed like he did a lot of things well. I liked his film so I invited him to walk-on as a wide receiver.”
His decision was made up.
“Being from Racine, coming to play at UW was a lifelong dream,” Maragos admitted. “I always felt confident in my abilities, and turned down a scholarship offer at Grand Valley State and the opportunity to play right away to have to sit out a year and walk-on at Wisconsin. It was a big risk, but one I was confident in and really felt like the Lord was opening a lot of doors.”
“Chris came to Wisconsin,” Swan said. “We became roommates, became great friends, and the rest of the story is history.”
Faith and football have intersected for many student-athletes, which includes some of Wisconsin’s more recognizable walk-ons. Some players’ trust in God or relationship with other Christians led them to UW. Some leaned on their faith during struggles on and off the field. They may have all played in front of 80,000 fans at Camp Randall Stadium during their time in Madison, but they played for much more than that – for an Audience of One.