Hemer looks to join UW's rich walk-on tradition

Some questions are inappropriate for college-age athletes. Like, "What do you want on your tombstone?'' Then, again, if you're from Medford - the home of Tombstone pizza - the inquiry takes on a whole different slant, especially if you're a walk-on getting ready to play in your first Rose Bowl.

UW defensive tackle Ethan Hemer, a redshirt freshman from Medford, is understandably excited about Saturday's game against TCU. So is everybody back home. "Medford is a blue collar town,'' Hemer said. "A lot of factory jobs and a lot of Badgers fans.''

Hemer was one of them growing up - a die-hard fan - who has fond memories of watching Ron Dayne shred the UCLA defense in the 1999 Rose Bowl. That's why he opted to roll the dice as a walk-on at Wisconsin even though he could have received scholarship help at some smaller colleges.

"I just figured this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,'' said Hemer, also figuring that if it didn't work out the "smaller schools would always be there'' as a safety net. "I just wanted to take a shot and see what happened. Being an in-state kid, this place is very special.''

The Badgers have had a rich history of walk-on players who have gone on to have success. Joe Panos was the co-captain of the '94 Rose Bowl team. Bob Adamov and Donnel Thompson were co-captains in '98 and Jason Doering was one of five captains in '99. All were in-state walk-ons.

"For someone who's born and raised here,'' Hemer said, "and seen the success this place has had, it makes it that much more special coming here. But if you would have told me five years ago that I would be in this situation (to play in a Rose Bowl) I would have told you that you're crazy.''

Hemer is grateful to his mom and dad, Jeff and Kathy, for making the necessary financial sacrifices to be a walk-on. "My parents told me, 'Take the chance,''' he said. "They told me. 'Don't worry about the money. Just do it. Live for the moment. Don't worry about the financial aspect.'''

That meant he could concentrate on finding his niche, if he had one at all, on the defense. That wasn't easy. That took some adjusting. "That first fall camp was an eye-opener,'' Hemer said. "It's such a huge step from high school - the speed and the physicality. But eventually you get used to it.''

Hemer has adjusted quickly. He had four tackles in Wisconsin's win over No. 1-ranked Ohio State and that performance earned Hemer his first college start at Iowa, where he had six tackles. His position coach, Charlie Partridge, has called him the "most unsung'' member on the defensive line.

J.J. Watt has overshadowed all of his teammates upfront. Rightly so. Watt has been one of the most dominant players in college football this season. Watt leads by example, on and off the field. "Everyone sees his work ethic and that's a motivating force,'' Hemer said.

Now consider Hemer's potential place in history. Should he get the starting assignment against TCU - and Hemer has started the last five games, it would make for an intriguing storyline. While TCU is a non-AQ (Automatic Qualifier) school, Hemer would be a non-TS (Tendered Starter) in the Rose Bowl.

He would also be adding his name to a short list of players who have a college football connection to Medford, starting with Erny Pinckert who was born there. Pinckert was raised in California and starred at Southern Cal as a halfback. In 1932, Pinckert was the MVP of the Rose Bowl.

In addition to Pinckert - a member of the college football Hall of Fame - Medford High School can claim Steve Russ, who was born in Stetsonville, and played collegiately at Air Force. As a player, Russ took part in a couple of Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos. He's now coaching at Wake Forest.

Pretty heady stuff for Hemer. When asked if he had a working knowledge of the UW's walk-on history, he said, "I do. And I now have an opportunity to be a part of something bigger than me.'' The Rose Bowl has that impact on a lot of people.
ON WISCONSIN