MADISON, Wis. — The transportation mode of choice among Wisconsin’s football players line a small parking lot outside Camp Randall Stadium on fall afternoons during practice. Clusters of mopeds jockey for position, filling a microscopic swath of the school’s sprawling 933-acre campus.
When practice, film study and showers end, players hop on and quickly scoot off into the night. Joel Stave, meanwhile, unlocks the red, 10-speed, 1980s-model bicycle his father, Karl, purchased off Craigslist for Stave’s 20th birthday this year. As teammates whiz past on their mopeds, Stave pedals across campus back to his apartment.
“I would say it’s definitely not too flashy,” Stave says. “I even have my pant leg rolled up because once when I was riding, I ripped a big hole in a pair of my favorite pants. Since then, I’ve always had my right pant leg rolled up.”
Stave (pronounced STAH-vee), a 6-foot-5, 219-pound redshirt freshman, may be Wisconsin’s newest starting quarterback. But no matter the circumstances, he has tried to make certain little in his world changes.
He owns no moped, no car on campus. The red Dodge Stratus he and older brother Bryan used to share now belongs to his sister, Rachel, a senior at Whitnall High School back in Greenfield, Wis. The bike is his fourth since enrolling in college a semester early in the spring of 2011. He broke the pedals off one, a moped hit another, and the gears froze and snapped on a third during the winter.
Stave’s mom, Barb, offered to buy him a moped this year. Stave said no. He liked his bike and didn’t want to deal with new campus parking restrictions for mopeds.
“He doesn’t need much,” Barb says. “He’s not a kid that’s ever said, ‘I’ve got to have this.'”
Now, Stave has more than he could have expected so early in his college football career — the attention from fans, classmates and opponents that comes with holding the most scrutinized spot on his team. The moment Wisconsin’s coaches inserted him into the second half of the team’s Sept. 15 game against Utah State — and announced him as the starter the following week — his life as a regular student-athlete changed.
He is no longer just the fun-loving kid on the sideline with the long blond hair that reminds some folks of the fictional quarterback “Sunshine” from “Remember the Titans.” Suddenly, the former walk-on is in the spotlight at a Big Ten program that demands he excel immediately and compete for a conference championship.
Stave’s goal is to stay true to his competitive yet laid-back demeanor and keep things simple.
“I try and keep it all in perspective,” Stave says. “It hasn’t been an easy month, but it’s been a very fun month. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I’m really happy with the situation I’m in.”
So who, exactly, is Joel Stave — a guy few people outside the state had heard of until a month ago — and how did he wind up in this situation?
Stave grew up in a Greenfield home with no video games and no cable television. Those were the rules put forth by his mom, a teacher at Bryant & Stratton College in Milwaukee.
“I just said it’s a waste of time,” Barb says. “We’re developing little minds, so let’s keep them busy doing other things. Having an older brother and a backyard full of kids, they were always playing one game or another with no parents around. You figure out the rules.”
In the backyard, Joel and Bryan, who is 16 months older, would make up games around football, basketball and baseball. Barb and Karl say Joel began to develop his competitive drive during those games, fending off his older brother and other neighborhood kids.
He began playing in a flag football league in second grade and moved on to tackle football in third grade. By fifth grade, he realized how much he enjoyed playing quarterback and started to focus on the position.
But Barb wanted to expose her children to more than sports. She once took Joel to the ballet, although she says now he hated it. She bought him an electronic keyboard, and all three kids played. They soon began taking piano lessons across the street with Art Jaehnke, a music teacher for 36 years.
Every week for 30 or 45 minutes, Stave would walk to Jaehnke’s house. His brother and sister stopped attending after a couple of years, but Stave continued his lessons for six years, until he was a junior in high school. Often, he would insist on playing the latest pop hits, while Jaehnke hoped to teach him more traditional songs.
“I always thought he had a lot of pure music talent,” Jaehnke says. “He liked music, and he liked sports. I think he’s enjoyed both enough to dedicate his life to doing that. He’s got natural talent in athletics. I know he had natural talent on the piano.”
Stave says he soaked up everything in his workbooks by eighth grade. In high school, Stave would spend months working to master a song issued by his teacher as part of a statewide solo ensemble competition. His freshman year, he took first place in his classification level.
“That’s something I’d like to do for as long as I can,” Stave says of playing piano.
Stave’s love for the instrument hasn’t waned in college. Before most teammates even knew his name last year, he and the football team attended a reception hosted by Wisconsin chancellor Biddy Martin, who asked for volunteers to play the piano. It was Stave who sat down and played a few songs.
“Piano has been important for him,” says Karl, a civil engineer for Milwaukee County. “I think I’ve heard him say before and we’ve certainly observed this. He just likes to sit down and play sometimes because it helps him go to a different place.”
He had rarely sung in front of anybody, but he did it anyway. Feeling nervous in front of a crowd, he says, is no reason not to pursue something you love.
Friday night lights
The crowds were smaller back then on the football field when Stave was at Whitnall High School. Although he possessed natural talent, he didn’t move up to varsity until his junior season. His parents thought it best for him to play with his friends and develop on junior varsity.
“He was probably the best quarterback in the conference as a sophomore, but he was playing JV,” former Whitnall football coach Rob LeBoeuf says.
LeBoeuf, who coached the team for eight years, knew he had a special player on his hands. His favorite story about Stave is from a playoff loss in his junior year, a telling incident about the quarterback’s confidence and character under duress.
On a rainy, miserable night for football, with cleats sinking deeper into the mud, Whitnall fell behind Lake Geneva Badger, 28-0, in the third quarter. Stave, with no pass protection, was battered by the defensive line and threw a rare interception. He jogged off the field caked in mud.
For the first and perhaps only time LeBoeuf can recall, Stave took a knee on the sideline and looked beaten. LeBoeuf walked over to him.
“We’re not going to give up on this thing and we’re going to throw every play to get back into it,” LeBoeuf said.
“Yes sir,” Stave replied.
“Then he got up and it was like the game had just begun in him,” LeBoeuf says now.
Stave threw for almost 300 yards and led the team on five touchdown drives in less than two quarters. Whitnall lost, 47-35, but nearly pulled one of the greatest comebacks in Wisconsin playoff history.
In the locker room after the game, Stave stood and apologized to the seniors for not winning.
“And the kids kind of looked at him like, ‘What?'” LeBoeuf says. “They ended up apologizing to him saying, ‘We’re sorry we didn’t come through for you.’ That spoke volumes to me on the kind of person that he is and how he’s viewed by his teammates. He was always a leader by example. His work ethic made others around him better.”
The game taught Stave a valuable lesson about controlling his highs and lows for the good of a team — lessons he continues to use at Wisconsin.
“Even if you are down and don’t think you can come back,” Stave says, “why go on the field if you’re not going to try and score, try and play as well as you can?”
For two years, Stave played as well as he could at Whitnall. During his varsity career, he threw for 5,017 passing yards with 40 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Yet he received just one scholarship offer, from Western Michigan. The intangible qualities Stave possessed — intelligence, leadership, confidence — weren’t being noticed. It didn’t help that he attended few summer camps.
“I wasn’t really sure how recruiting worked,” Stave says. “I wasn’t sure if I should be getting more offers or not. I thought I could’ve gotten a couple more. It would have been nice. It would have made things a lot easier for me.”
Stave visited nearby Wisconsin hoping to receive a scholarship. Instead, coaches said he could join the program as a preferred walk-on and earn a scholarship after two years. The chance to remain close to home and possibly compete in the Big Ten won him over.
“He could have gone to Western Michigan and had the opportunity to probably play,” says Jill Stobber, Whitnall’s former athletic director. “But he said, ‘No. I’m going to take my chances at Wisconsin and show them what I have and hope that’s going to be enough.’ “
There were never any guarantees about playing time at Wisconsin. Last year, Stave took a redshirt season and watched senior transfer Russell Wilson guide the team to record-setting offensive heights and a second straight Rose Bowl.
Stave says he learned about preparation from Wilson and took that with him into spring practice. With only two healthy quarterbacks on the roster, Stave beat out Joe Brennan for the top spot on the depth chart and earned a scholarship in August — one year earlier than planned.
During this fall camp, however, Maryland transfer Danny O’Brien won the starting quarterback job by limiting his turnovers in practice.
All Stave’s hard work, it seemed, had left him relegated to the bench. But Stave maintained the confidence that his talent would garner him an opportunity.
“I tried not to think about the negatives,” he says. “I try and worry about only what I can control, whether he’s here or not. I was just trying to focus on being the best quarterback I could be, regardless of who I was competing against.”
After two and a half games of inconsistent offensive performances, and with O’Brien’s sudden propensity to turn the ball over, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema made a halftime change. He inserted Stave into the game against Utah State with Wisconsin trailing, 14-3.
In his first college game, Stave threw just six times and handed the ball off 19 times, yet he managed drives well and led Wisconsin to a 16-14 comeback victory.
The performance, while far from spectacular, showed to Bielema that Stave could handle any adverse situation. And the team has opened up the playbook for Stave’s big right arm in the weeks following the game. Wisconsin is averaging 31.7 points per game in his three starts.
“He doesn’t do everything right and obviously is going to get better every game,” Bielema says. “What he gives us there is really something special. That’s just going to keep getting better.”
Since the Utah State game, demands for Stave’s time have increased. There is more time spent in the film room, more repetitions with the first-team offense in practice, more media scrutiny.
Stave has handled it all with the same poise and intelligence he demonstrated growing up in Greenfield. Despite limited game experience, he has earned his teammates’ respect for his ability to command a huddle in times of crisis.
“I just like the confidence that he exudes,” Badgers center Travis Frederick says. “When he comes into the huddle, he’s the same guy no matter what. We can be down seven points. We can be third-and-long or first-and-10. It doesn’t matter. To me, that just bleeds confidence.”
Wisconsin is 4-2 overall this season and 3-1 when Stave has played. This week, Wisconsin has a critical game against Purdue. With Penn State and Ohio State ineligible for postseason play this year, many presume either Wisconsin or Purdue will represent the Leaders Division in the Big Ten championship.
Maybe the pressure to perform has increased, but Stave says you have to go with the same steps that helped you reach this point. Nerves fade if you maintain confidence in yourself.
He intends to prepare as hard as he can this week during each practice. Then, Stave will hop on his bicycle, right pant leg rolled up and pedal back to his apartment, where he’ll squeeze in a few piano notes between his civil engineering homework. Same as always.