Dec. 17, 2012
MADISON, Wis. -- Everyone is equipped with a pause button that can be activated whenever there is the need for introspection. Such was the case Friday for Wisconsin defensive tackle Ethan Hemer.
The unspeakable shooting rampage in Connecticut gave Hemer pause for thought after learning 20 children, ages 6 and 7, had been killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
What brought it close to home for Hemer was his frame of reference. During the fall semester, he served as a student teacher to second graders at Schenk Elementary School in Madison.
“It was very numbing to hear the news and see the horror of what had happened,’’ Hemer said. “I tried to put myself in that situation (as a teacher) and I couldn’t even fathom what it would be like.’’
Everything else pales by comparison.
“It makes coaching transitions,’’ he said, “seem like a really small thing. It really does.’’
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Hemer, a redshirt junior from Medford, has a challenging week from a time management standpoint. He has three final exams and three football practices: Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday.
“It will be a little bit of a grind,’’ conceded Hemer, an elementary education major.
But he’s used to balancing academics and athletics. And he’s hoping that it will pay off.
Someday, he would like to play in the NFL. Someday, he would like to teach seventh or eighth grade science or social studies before getting into school administration.
The Schenk second graders opened his eyes to a different age group.
“It was a little bit younger than I was hoping to do,’’ Hemer said. “But in the practicum program they want you to get a wide variety of work. It was quite the experience.’’
Laughing, he admitted, “They’re smart kids and they’ll put you in situations where you don’t know how to respond, which keeps you on your toes.’’
Although the 6-6, 319-pound Hemer is soft-spoken, he’s still physically imposing.
“When I first got there, I had a little bit of a celebrity status in the school,’’ he said. “But, thankfully, that wore off and I was able to be a regular teacher in the classroom.’’
From an educator’s perspective, Hemer talked about the fulfillment “when you’re teaching them something and trying to get a concept through to them and they get it.’’
He snapped his fingers for effect, and added, “You can see it on their face; it makes sense now when a student has that ‘aha’ moment when they just get it. And it’s really a rewarding feeling.’’
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Returning to Pasadena has its own rewards. Nobody knows that better than Hemer, who’s on track to start in his third consecutive Rose Bowl when the Badgers play Stanford on Jan. 1.
Linebacker Mike Taylor is the only other player on defense who can make that claim. Tailback Montee Ball, tight end Jacob Pedersen and tackle Rick Wagner also started against TCU and Oregon.
“It’s kind of a weird thing,’’ Hemer said, “because a lot of players don’t ever get to experience this. I’ve seen it all and done it all in Pasadena. But this is a very special opportunity so few people get.’’
In the 2011 Rose Bowl, Hemer was a starter upfront along with Patrick Butrym, Louis Nzegwu and J.J. Watt, a strong candidate for Defensive Player of the Year in the NFL with the Houston Texans.
Taylor was part of a linebacker corps that included Blake Sorensen and Culmer St. Jean.
Hemer, Butrym, Nzegwu and Brendan Kelly were the starting front four in the 2012 Rose Bowl. Taylor and Chris Borland were the linebackers in a scheme that featured five defensive backs.
Reflecting on the two previous trips to Pasadena, Hemer, said, ‘That first year, you kind of take it all in. Last year, I felt more confident. This year, I’m definitely going to be locked into the task at hand.’’
Stanford poses no small task. Nobody was hotter in November.
“I see a physical, disciplined team that doesn’t beat themselves,’’ Hemer pointed out. “We’re going to have to go there and beat them. The same could be said about us.’’
Offensively, there are many common threads.
“A lot of the stuff they do on offense is similar to our offense,’’ Hemer said. “So it helps when we’ve been doing a lot more ones versus ones, good on good, trying to get that feel for them.
“At the same time, Stanford is a team with its own unique trades (shifts) and motions. They put a lot of guys on the line to get the defense misaligned. That’s something we’ll need to prepare for.’’
In early November, Kevin Hogan took over as Stanford’s starting quarterback, replacing Josh Nunes. And it has made a world of difference in how the Cardinal can attack an opposing defense.
“He (Hogan) gives them a lot more options, which is the best way to put it,’’ Hemer said of Hogan’s running and passing skills. “They can run more stuff with him than the other guy.
“Like I said, they’re a very physical team that plays power football, same as us. I’m really excited to see where this game goes. Stanford is now a program that recycles and reloads.’’
On the heels of three straight Rose Bowls, the same could also be said of Wisconsin.
Obviously, though, the on-going coaching transition can’t be ignored.
Alluding to head coach Bret Bielema’s departure to Arkansas and all of the assistants who have committed to other jobs during the bowl prep, Hemer said, “No question, it can be really difficult.’’
But this group of players has been thrown more than its fair share of curveballs this year.
“That’s the amazing part,’’ Hemer said. “This team has been able to put all of the distractions out of our minds and focus on football when we come here (Camp Randall Stadium). I’m so happy to be a part of a team that can lock in and have great practices with all of this going on.’’
Hemer credited the presence of interim coach Barry Alvarez for stabilizing things. “There’s just an aura of swagger and confidence with the man,’’ he said. “When you were growing up, you were watching his teams on Saturday and watching him coach. For him to be a part of this is pretty special.’’
Reassessing the exodus of so many coaches, Hemer said, “I’m not going to let it get me down. I came here for more than a head coach or a position coach. This place is bigger than any one man.’’
After Saturday’s practice, the players toured the refurbished corridor outside of the new locker room in the McClain Facility. The adorned walls provide a ringing endorsement of the program’s history.
The permanence of it all resonated with Hemer during this time of flux.
“We have good players and a lot of talent here,’’ Hemer said. “Whoever our head coach is going to be next season, he’s going to be a good coach, and we’re going to have success."