The No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers face the No. 15 Western Michigan Broncos on Monday at AT&T Stadium in the Cotton Bowl Classic.
UW holds an all-time 3-1 series lead over WMU. The last time the football programs met on the field was the 2000 season-opener on a humid evening inside Camp Randall Stadium. There, a walk-on who primarily worked on the scout team found himself thrust into a key role as a punt returner due to suspensions. One play defines his career at Wisconsin, and his 89-yard punt return was a special one.
My co-author, Joel Nellis, and I repeatedly ask ourselves what our favorite story is from this book. We always come back to Josh’s journey and this one play.
Here’s an excerpt of Josh Hunt’s story from Walk-On This Way: The On-Going Legacy of the Wisconsin Football Walk-On Tradition, available at KCISports.com, Amazon.com and select bookstores (University Bookstores, Name of the Game/Bucky’s Locker Room and some Barnes & Noble) around the state.
Josh Hunt wasn’t supposed to be the starting punt returner in the 2000 season opener against Western Michigan. Incumbent Nick Davis was a dynamic playmaker and was slated to continue handling the duties heading into a year where UW’s momentum was at an all-time high after back-to-back Rose Bowl championships.
That momentum was halted when suspensions from the Shoe Box affair came down mere hours before the Badgers faced the Broncos. The university conducted an internal investigation, based on reports from the Wisconsin State Journal, starting in July 2000. UW student-athletes accepted discounts and lines of credit from The Shoe Box, a store about 25 miles northwest of Madison.
Heading into the 2000 opener against Western Michigan, 26 members of the football team were suspended between one and three games to start the year. Their penalties would be served within the first four contests of the season. Eleven UW players wouldn’t be allowed to suit up against the Broncos. Hunt remembers Alvarez explaining the sanctions to the players a couple of hours before the game.
Assistant coach Kevin Cosgrove approached Hunt and explained Davis would have to sit. Hunt’s only claim to fame to that point had been his scout team offensive player of the week honors against Boise State in 1997. This night in Camp Randall Stadium, however, he would be a critical contributor.
“Coach Alvarez came to me and said, ‘Are you good with this? Can you handle this?’” Hunt recollected. “I said, ‘Yeah, I definitely can.’
“There was no doubt in my mind I was ready.”
Hunt had waited years for this opportunity. A second- team all-state selection by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel out of Homestead High School, he had primarily seen work as a scout team wide receiver for Wisconsin. He did have special teams experience in his prep years, averaging over 18 yards per return with two touchdowns during his senior year.
Playing primarily on scout team and being buried on the depth chart, there were moments of doubt. He broke his collarbone and thought about quitting altogether. He contemplated reaching back out to Dartmouth but never did. There was a discussion with Unertl, who transferred from Division III up to the Division I ranks, about the pros and cons associated with moving down competition levels.
“We talked in depth about it,” Unertl said. “Being from the state, getting a degree from the University of Wisconsin and the network of alumni, and comparing that to going to a school like La Crosse or Whitewater just to play football.”
Those talks refocused Hunt as to why he came to Wisconsin in the first place – which for him meant a complete commitment to the program.
“From that point on, I knew I was going to stick with it and try to get on the field,” Hunt said.
On that hazy Thursday evening at Camp Randall Stadium with temperatures around 90 degrees, he would finally have the opportunity to field a ball late in the first quarter. The Badgers’ defense forced the Broncos to punt for the first of six times. Hunt was able to field the 40-yard boot, but lost a yard on the return.
Hunt also had to jump through another hoop that evening. A wide receiver by position, he wore No. 23. B.J. Tucker, a defensive back, also wore the same number. Both Hunt and Tucker were now on the field during punt returns. The refs let Wisconsin know, and Hunt would have to change out of his jersey. The UW staff scurried and found a new jersey – No. 20 – but it wouldn’t have his name on the back for the first half.
Wisconsin and Western Michigan’s offensive drives each stalled until late in the second quarter with the Badgers still clinging to a field goal advantage.
Hunt backtracked to UW’s own 11-yard line to catch the Broncos punt. He turned up field and, after breaking a tackle and slipping past a couple defenders, received a block from Lee Evans that thwarted any Broncos attempt at catching him.
It was off to the races for the 5-foot-9, 180-pound returner.
“I made a cut around Lee and then the next thing I know, all I saw was 50 yards to the end zone,” Hunt recalled. “My biggest fear at that moment was, I know there are fast guys out here and if they catch me from behind – I’m going to be so mad.”
Eighty-nine yards later, Hunt crossed the goal line that would give UW a 10-0 lead, and ultimately were the deciding points in Wisconsin’s 19-7 win. The collarbone injury, the moments of wavering if he should continue playing at UW, were all left behind as he raced down the field for the second longest punt return in school history.
“When I hit the end zone, I heard the crowd, turned around, and (tight end) Mark Anelli grabbed the front of my shoulder pads and hoisted me up,” Hunt remembered fondly.
“Right at that moment, the four years, all the developmental workouts, any doubts that I ever had were wiped away, just for that one moment. It was pretty spectacular.”
A scandal disrupted a run for a third consecutive conference title and higher aspirations, but there were rays of sunshine through the cloudy days set over the Wisconsin program during the 2000 season.
“Part of the beauty of sports is when something like this happens, it creates an opportunity for someone else, and that was Josh Hunt’s night,” Badgers play-by-play man Matt Lepay recalled. “People will remember that name. They may not remember who they played that night. They have long forgotten that Western Michigan was the opponent, but they will remember that some kid named Josh Hunt had the game of his life.”