Jason Doering was the 30th selection in the sixth round of the 2001 NFL Draft. The former safety and two-time team captain played four seasons in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts and Washington Redskins. He credits the development process of Wisconsin's walk-on program, particularly former strength coach John Dettman, for building him physically into a better football player during his first year at Wisconsin.
"With that as my foundation, especially my whole redshirt freshman year where basically you're with [Dettmann] day in and day out, and you're working out, and he's forming you and pushing you as hard as you're willing to be pushed to become whatever you want to be," says Doering, "that was a great foundation and a great catalyst to me have my career take off,"
The tradition of walk-ons contributing to Wisconsin's success since the early 1990s has been kept intact by a crop of players previously unknown and overlooked by many within the national recruiting scene. Ethan Hemer started in 41 of his 52 games as a Badger. Joel Stave, albeit up-and-down in his first full season as a starter, completed 63 percent of his passes while throwing for over 2,000 yards and 17 touchdowns in the regular season. Jared Abbrederis, just six receptions short of breaking UW's career record, earned consensus first-team All-Big Ten honors at wide receiver by coaches and media.
"The opportunity to be a walk-on at big programs and show what you can do is a big, serious factor to your success as a team," Doering said, "and I think if you don't have a well-rounded program where you're looking at everybody and able to consume all the players you can get, whether they're walk-ons or scholarship athletes, then you're limiting your chances at success and winning.
Many players chose to go to Wisconsin over other institutions for just that reason, to be given a fair chance to show they can play. When more decorated players don't pan out, someone else, whether on scholarship or not, steps up to help the team and fill in those missing gaps that can make or break a team in a season. Current graduate assistant and former receiver Luke Swan looks at the walk-ons as the glue that forms around the scholarship players -- the "big rocks," as he describes them -- that bind the foundation of the team together.
"Where the opportunities are, we kind of ooze into those opportunities, take advantage of them, and then we hold everything together," Swan said.
Bradie Ewing remembers the Atlanta-based area code showing up on his phone when the Atlanta Falcons selected him with the 157th overall pick in 2012. He's part of a trio of walk-ons who were selected in three straight drafts dating back to 2011, with former Badgers tackle Rick Wagner (selected in the fifth round by the Ravens in 2013), himself and J.J. Watt (the 11th overall pick by the Houston Texans in 2011).
"I wanted to be a scholarship guy, I wanted to be in that realm," the former Badgers fullback said. "But looking back at it, I'm so thankful I was a walk-on.
"It kept me working, it kept me grinding, it kept me trying to prove, it kept me trying to do all of this."
Getting, keeping a roster spot
Paul Hubbard was drafted in the sixth round, No. 191 overall by the Cleveland Browns in 2008. He was cut and assigned to the Browns' practice squad later that year. He spent 2009 on the Oakland Raiders' practice squad, then bounced between the active roster and practice squad of the Buffalo Bills in 2010. Hubbard viewed playing in those circumstances, where he often served as part of the scout team against the starters, in a similar fashion to his early experiences at Wisconsin.
"Being on the practice squad is just like being a walk-on in college," Hubbard said.
"You have to prove to everybody again that you deserve to be there and that you have the talent to help the win and be successful."
Other former walk-ons were not as fortunate to be drafted, forcing them to fight for their professional futures as free agents. Jim Leonhard, like Hubbard, compared training camp to walking on again, knowing he had to prove himself to a new set of coaches. This despite having a decorated career at Wisconsin where he tied the record for Big Ten career interceptions with 21.
"They were looking for a way to get rid of you, so you had to go out there every single day and make something happen to make them notice you," Leonhard said. "[Walking on] definitely helped.
"Throughout my career, I've kept that mentality of being a fighter and kind of the underdog, and it's served me well. I've always been a player who feels like they have to do more than everybody else, and I think that helps, and that's a life lesson as well."
Moving into coaching
Swan was signed and cut by the Kansas City Chiefs in 2008 and later appeared on Michael Irvin's reality television show, "Fourth and Long," where six defensive backs and wide receivers competed for one roster spot on the Dallas Cowboys. He was the fourth participant eliminated.
Injuries derailed Swan's pro career, but he wanted to get back into football. He accepted a role on the Wisconsin coaching staff as a graduate assistant, and since 2011, he's been learning his craft, much like he did during his playing days.
"I wasn't ready to play early on as a walk-on, and I wasn't ready my first year to be a position coach as a graduate assistant, so I feel like it's a process for me now as I'm kind of learning the ropes of coaching," Swan said.
"It's a whole different deal, but it is really similar being a walk-on and being a grad assistant, and that step up to kind of getting the scholarship, getting the position job eventually, definitely will be a similar feeling."
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