Oct. 13, 2010
MADISON, Wis. -- Since there wasn't a quarterback on the UW roster with the physical stature of Ohio State's 6-fot-6, 233-pound Terrelle Pryor, some other "stunt doubles" were recruited to serve as Pryor on the scout team that practiced daily against the No. 1 Badger defense in advance of last year's game with the Buckeyes.
One of them was tight end Jacob Pedersen, a 6-4, 238-pound freshman from Menominee, Mich., who redshirted during the 2009 season. Pedersen had played quarterback, among a variety of other positions, as a high school player. He was more of a runner than a thrower, which also could be said of Pryor during his first two years.
"I ran a few things as Pryor on the scout team and I thought I was able to give them a good look," said Pedersen who developed an appreciation for Pryor's athleticism and skill set while studying him on film. "He's big, he's strong, he's fast. He's a dual-threat weapon. You have to respect an athlete like that."
Attempting to be Pryor was one thing for Pedersen.
Attempting to be himself was something quite different.
And this is where the homesick Pedersen struggled last season to such a degree that he was seriously contemplating leaving school. In fact, he was prepared to tell UW coach Bret Bielema just that when he showed up at this office one day. Pedersen was going to tell him that he wanted to quit the team.
"He hadn't shown any signs of being homesick," Bielema remembered. "He wasn't practicing all that well but he was a freshman on the scout team, and you just didn't know what was going through his mind. But, obviously, it was a huge thing.
"Again, it's just another reminder to coaches that when kids aren't in the game plan, they get a little detached, and they have the possibility of drifting. That's the reality when that kid comes into your office and says he wants to leave.
"When Jacob came to see me, I explained that we recruited him because we felt that he could have success here and that hadn't changed. I told him that I understood the position that he was in -- the first time away from home in a completely different environment from what he grew up in.
"I put out the big picture, and encouraged him to come to practice that day. I told some of our coaches about his situation and I got his mom and dad on the phone, and things changed in 48 hours."
Pedersen also recalled Bielema telling him that playing Big Ten football was a "once in a life-time opportunity" that was a lot of work "but if you push through it, a lot of good things can come from it."
Pedersen's reaction? "I took it to heart," he said. "I kept telling myself, `I'll push through it, I'll push through' for at least a year. And shortly after I talked to him, it started to get better."
Paul and Ronda Pedersen had a big impact, too, on their son's decision to stick it out. Father knew best. So did mom.
"My dad played football at Northern Michigan,'' Jacob Pedersen said. "When he was a freshman, he had worked his way up to the second-string when he started missing his friends and got homesick. He dropped out of school after his first year, and he told me, `Stick with it. I regret that decision every day of my life.'"
Bielema said that when Pedersen was in his office, he talked about going back to Menominee and becoming a mortician. "I want to do something different, something unique," Pedersen said of his career plans. "I don't want to be that guy sitting behind a desk."
That was last season.
Since then, Pedersen has found a comfort level on campus and veered in another career direction, while becoming an integral component of the UW offense with a couple of touchdown catches.
"After one of my touchdowns, Jamil Walker came up and put his arm around me," Pedersen said of the former Badger running back who's now a member of the strength and conditioning staff. "He told me, `I remember last year when you were about to quit. Think about that now.'
"I do think back, and it's like, `Yeah, that would have been a stupid mistake on my part.' I would have given it all up just because I was a little homesick. I'm glad that I went in and talked with coach."
So is Bielema. "I mean, Jacob is a huge part of our offense right now," he said, "and if we would have lost him a year ago ..."
He didn't have to complete that thought.
But he did finish his own personal story.
"I got homesick the middle of my second year (at Iowa),'' Bielema recounted. "That came after a couple of injuries and after I had lost my grandmother. There were some things that no one else knew about on the outside world, except me. I tended to internalize everything at that point in my life.
"I explained what I was feeling and what I was going through to my older brother, Bart. I never mentioned that I was thinking about coming home. But I was struggling with things, and Bart helped me through it. He was proud of me and encouraged me to stick to my guns.
"I started feeling better and I started looking at things a little bit differently. Sometimes when you're young, you always look at the negative and you don't see the positive. I asked myself, `Why did I want to come here (Iowa) in the first place? That kind of thinking."
Bielema relies heavily on his life experiences to mentor his UW players. When he was in college, he lost his sister, Betsy, who was killed after falling off a horse. She was 25.
"There have been so many times," Bielema said, "when someone has lost a close friend or a family member and I can sit down and share my experiences. I remember our minister sharing with me that you should always talk about things that you would talk to them about.
"My sister loved cinnamon rolls. So whenever I go through an airport today -- and I smell a Cinnabon -- I'll tell whomever I'm traveling with the story about Betsy."
Bielema, in turn, shared that experience with a couple of UW players who lost a high school teammate last season.
"They always used to give their friend a hard time because he liked Slurpees," Bielema said. "And when I made them think of that memory they both started laughing. That helps when dealing with one specific point in time with someone's life."