When Dezmen Southward approached his football coach last week about running for the University of Wisconsin track team, he carried a pretty good idea of what Gary Andersen might say. And he didn’t figure the conversation to end well.
Southward, a starting safety for the Badgers, had held similar discussions the past three springs with former coach Bret Bielema. Each time, Southward was told his focus should be on improving as a football player. Competing in track, even for a few weeks, was not part of the equation.
Imagine Southward’s surprise, then, when he heard Andersen’s response.
“I was expecting a ‘No what are you thinking? You’ve got other things to worry about’ because those are some of the things I got from coach B,” Southward said. “Once I said it to coach Andersen, I don’t even think I finished my sentence. He was like, ‘Definitely, I would love for you to do that. I would love to watch you and hopefully we can win a Big Ten championship and help these guys in any way possible.’ It was very encouraging to hear that from him.”
With the blessing of his coach, Southward, a redshirt junior, finally was able to join the Wisconsin track team. He also brought along Badgers wide receiver Kenzel Doe, and the two will compete this weekend in the Big Ten Outdoor Championships in Columbus, Ohio.
“I feel like it helps me learn how to run so I can get even faster,” Doe said. “When you’re out there in football, you’re trying to push, push, push. In track, you’ve got to use more technique. You’ve got to pick your knees up more, and once you get that as a habit, you can be faster and more explosive on the field.”
The chance to run track is one both athletes can appreciate because it allows them to have fun and still become better football players. But it is also one neither expected, and it comes as a result of an injury to one of Wisconsin’s best track athletes.
Japheth Cato, a three-time Big Ten Conference heptathlon champion, ruptured his Achilles’ tendon April 27 while attempting to pole vault during a meet in Berkeley, Calif. The injury meant the Badgers would lose a significant number of points in future competitions, so members of the track team reached out to Southward and asked if he and other football players would come out for the team.
“As soon as he mentioned it, I was like, ‘Let’s do it,'” Doe said. “I know how it feels to win a Big Ten championship, so I feel like we can help the track team win a Big Ten championship. I just have to do whatever I can so they can get that feeling.”
Doe and Southward, two of Wisconsin’s speediest football players, do possess a track background. Doe, a 5-foot-8 sophomore, ran track his freshman and senior years at Reidsville High School in North Carolina. He competed in the long jump, triple jump, 4 x 100 relay and 4 x 200 relay. Southward ran the 100-meter dash and 4 x 100 at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Florida.
“They’re pretty talented athletes, and obviously they’re not sitting on their cans doing nothing,” Wisconsin track coach Ed Nuttycombe told reporters this week. “They’re not exactly regular students pulled off the sidewalks of campus. They’re pretty fit and pretty athletic.”
The Big Ten Outdoor Championships will serve as just the second meet for Southward and Doe. Each participated last Saturday in the 100-meter dash of the Wisconsin Open at McClimon Track. Southward ran a 10.97 to place fifth, while Doe ran in 11.12 to take eighth out of 20 total runners in the 100 despite just three days of practice.
Both runners shared concerns about how they would perform given their level of training, but their times demonstrated they could compete even with limited repetitions. It also has provided optimism ahead of the Big Ten Outdoor Championships.
“In anything you do in life, if someone has been doing it for a long period of time and you just got into it, obviously there are some things that are going to be uncomfortable,” Southward said. “We’ve competed at a high level on big stages. Hopefully that’s something that adrenaline just takes over and we don’t need to think about. We’re really counting on that just to get us through this. We’re going to go out and do our absolute best just like we do on the football field.”
Nuttycombe said he decided to withhold both runners from the relay team during last week’s meet to decrease the pressure of competing for the first time in years.
During the Big Ten championship, Doe will run the 100 and serve as an alternate on the 4 x 100 relay team. Southward will also run the 100 and be on the 4 x 100 team. Cato, when healthy, ran one leg of the 4 x 100.
“Pretty much anybody, to different degrees, can run when the gun goes off to the finish line, but carrying a baton is a little more intricate and needs a little more refinement,” Nuttycombe said. “I think what I saw after the meet and during the course of last week was how really excited they were to be out there. They were having a lot of fun. The athletes on our team really embraced them, and it was a wonderful addition.”
Doe and Southward will be hard-pressed to advance beyond the Big Ten championships. In order to move on to the NCAA West Preliminary in Austin, Texas, they will need to be ranked among the top 48 athletes from the West Region in the 100, and 10.54 seconds is currently 48th. Wisconsin’s 4 x 100 relay team will need to rank among the top 24 in the region (40.33 seconds) when the qualifying window closes Sunday. So far, the Badgers’ season-best in the 4 x 100 is 40.49. Last week without Southward, they ran a 40.8.
Doe and Southward said they expected better times this week in the 100 after having a full week of practice. They have been honing their technique for faster starts out of the block.
Of course, pride will be on the line as well to determine which teammate is fastest. As it stands now, there appears to be some debate.
“I’m faster,” Doe said. “He got me the other day at the track meet, but I’m still faster than he is and he knows it.”
Added Southward: “In everything we’ve ever done in football and everything we’ve done in track so far, I beat him. So I think it’s pretty obvious I’m faster. He’s going to have to man up and accept that one day.”
The two may settle the score once and for all on Saturday during the 100-meter trials. Regardless of the outcome, however, both are simply grateful to have the opportunity to compete in another sport.
“I wish I were able to continue since I was a freshman because I think I’d be much better right now,” Southward said. “But better late than never. It’s a great experience, and I’m not going to take away from it because I could have run four years ago. I’m going to enjoy it right now and make the most of it.”