I never thought I’d write or co-write a book, ever—especially back when I was in high school. I got by and tolerated my AP English courses before heading to UW. I was lucky to get a “3” on both language and literature sections, and thankfully those credits helped me graduate from UW on time four years later.
Truth be told, I wanted to become a meteorologist. I grew up idolizing Jim Cantore and the staff of the Weather Channel, but AP Calculus and Honors Physics shattered my dreams my senior year of high school.
I never expected to be in the sports media game, or a sportswriter for that matter. I worked at WSUM, UW-Madison’s student radio station, from 2004-06, but never thought it’d translate into something more.
Sometimes ideas spring up, anchor into your everyday thoughts and take on a life of their own. My former indy wrestling promoter/brother Scott Wisniewski and I started the Kielbasa Kings Sports Extravaganza in July 2012, then jumped on board B5Q a year later to continue our podcast with a broader audience and a great collaboration of talent.
Then I actually started writing for this site. I was green (and admittedly, still feel green) when it came to featuring players or highlighting game recaps. But idea after idea, from our running back series to film study and beyond, kept filtering in.
One stuck out the most to me: a longform on the Wisconsin football walk-on tradition. Growing up in the state for most of my youth, the blue-collar, “lunch pail” mentality of many who played for the Badgers without a scholarship appealed to me. I remembered the Milwaukee Journal creating trading cards for the 1994 Rose Bowl with Joe Panos, Brent Moss and Terrell Fletcher on the front. I cut those out of the paper and glued them onto some Jay’s Potato Chips cardboard boxes.
The walk-ons of the 1993 team like Panos, Chris Hein, Jeff Wirth and Sam Veit personified the state culture of hard-working individuals who continue to move forward. Wisconsin’s new motto unveiled with Under Armour recently, “Forever Forward,” in my opinion, nails that mentality on the head.
On a personal level, I identified with them. I was mostly a quarterback and defensive end for the 2.5 years I played football down in Florida, and I went to three high schools in two years in two states. That stunted the rest of my football career, but for as many interceptions as I threw completions (no contact lenses, admittedly), I competed every day.
I approached our great site manager, Mike Fiammetta, about the topic, and he gave his blessing to the project.
Three months later in December 2013, Walk-On Wisconsin was published. The reception was warm, but I didn’t think much else about it. My dad said at Christmastime, “You should write a book on this topic.”
“Nah, I’m good,” I replied bluntly, as the amount of work and effort just for 6,000 words was mind-numbing and exhausting.
That notion changed quickly, however, when I received a direct message from a former player. Initially, I was worried I screwed up someone’s story, but my tension was relieved instantly when former tight end Joel Nellis said he appreciated the story and wanted to see if we’d combine forces on a book project.
You won’t find Joel much in the record books for Wisconsin—exactly three times in the 2016 Fact Book—but ask those around when he played from 2001-05 about his contributions. He was a leader, he did things the right way and is still widely respected by his former teammates and peers. No one can say a bad thing about him, and I couldn’t have asked for a better partner on this endeavor.
After the birth of my wife and I’s twin boys, and when I was finally able to sleep for six hours straight and regain my brain functions, we decided to start our project.
Inside linebacker Marcus Trotter was our first true interview on a warm summer afternoon in June 2015. Since then, we’ve interviewed about 100 players, coaches and reporters. We spent hours researching old newspaper and website articles, then following up again with certain players to ensure we captured all their stories accurately.
KCI Sports Publishing took a chance on our very rough draft and the potential it had. Peter Clark saw our vision for it, and has guided us through the process.
Now, Walk-On This Way: The On-Going Legacy of the Wisconsin Football Walk-On Tradition is available for pre-order via KCI Sports Publishing (and its toll-free number 1-800-697-3756). It’ll hit bookshelves sometime in October.
My sincere wish is that we’ve captured the essence of the walk-on tradition and those who have honored it since Barry Alvarez took over the football program in 1990. From Korey Manley to Donnel Thompson, Jim Leonhard, Joe Schobert and Dare Ogunbowale, so many have made the most of their chances when called upon. I’m humbled so many people took time to speak with us, and I hope their stories shine through the pages of this book.
When we first announced the book in February 2016, I was overwhelmed with well wishes from friends and family. A former classmate of mine exclaimed on Facebook, “Congrats on following your dream!” I never thought of this project as that, but one of Conan O’Brien’s quotes, right after he was forced off The Tonight Show, reminded me of the opportunities that don’t present themselves until the right time.
The past two years have been an amazing experience for me. I hope you feel the same way reading this book.