April 28, 2013
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- Rick Wagner was almost "Gronk-like'' when he lined up at tight end at West Allis Hale High School. In his final game, he definitely had Rob Gronkowski-like numbers; catching four passes for 148 yards in 42-40 loss to Sun Prairie in the second round of the 2007 WIAA Division 1 state football playoffs.
Reflecting back on some of his prep highlights, which included a 59-yard catch and run in that playoff game, Wagner said, "We ran the wishbone and we only had about three pass plays in our offense. I would just usually run down the middle of the field and there would be a jump ball.''
Wagner won most of them, especially on the court. Most of the recruiting traffic that he drew was from mid-major basketball programs, including Green Bay and Milwaukee. He had five scholarship offers to play hoops. Only Northern Illinois and South Dakota offered football tenders.
But after missing most of his senior year in football for a team rules violation, he was more committed than ever to pursuing his dream on the gridiron. "I learned how fast things can be taken away,'' he said. "I want to play the sport as long as I can and have it under my control when it ends.''
Wisconsin gave him that chance with a walk-on opportunity in 2008.
"I wanted to prove to them (the coaches),'' he said, "that I did deserve a scholarship.''
A week before the 2010 opener, he went on tender; an emotional turning point in his career.
"It was an honor for the coaches to trust me,'' he said. "I will never take it for granted.''
Fast-forward to Saturday when the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens selected
Wagner in the fifth round of the National Football League draft. While he had hoped to be taken sooner, he will carry the same attitude into proving that he was deserving of their faith as he did at Wisconsin.
Wagner surely won't take it for granted.
Going into the 2012 season, UW center Travis Frederick, a first-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys, pointed out, "Ricky is a guy who shows you how to work every day and comes out and performs. He has definitely taken a look at what Gabe has done and what Joe has done.''
Joe is Joe Thomas, the 2006 Outland Trophy winner and the third player selected overall by the Cleveland Browns in the 2007 draft. Gabe is Gabe Carimi, the 2010 Outland winner and a first-round pick by the Chicago Bears in the 2011 draft. "Ricky has tried to emulate those guys,'' Frederick said.
In retrospect, Wagner just needs to be himself, whether he lines up at left tackle or right in Baltimore. "Being an offensive lineman from Wisconsin, I don't want to let anybody down,'' he has said. "There's a high expectation and I've embraced that and it has motivated me to keep working hard.''
That work ethic has been in place since his freshman season with the Badgers. In training camp, he was still listed as a tight end. But the Badgers were already well-stocked at that position with Travis Beckum, Lance Kendricks and Garrett Graham, all of whom are on NFL rosters today.
Wagner's high school coach, Scott Otto, had always told him that he was better suited for the offensive line, so when the move was suggested, Wagner went along with it knowing that it was in his best interests, even though he later conceded, "I was trying to fight to hold on to tight end.''
Former UW head coach Bret Bielema remembered Wagner showing up on campus and "the next day you turn around, he went from 220 to 240 overnight and he just continued to grow and grow. He jumped out at us because he still moved like the basketball player that we recruited.''
While he kept growing, Bielema reminded everyone to proceed with caution because "It's all still new to him. He used to be blocking out underneath the boards, and now he's playing football.''
In sum, then, the Ravens are getting someone who has played the O-line only five years.
In other words, Rick Wagner is still growing.
Yes, it is Rick, not Ricky, in his own words.
"My high school coach always called me Ricky and he filled out my official (recruiting) questionnaire that way,'' said Wagner, who would prefer Rick.
But he's OK with whatever you call him; particularly after Baltimore called him.
"I'm just thrilled for this opportunity,'' he said.