MADISON, Wis. — Bret Bielema stood at the front of Wisconsin’s meeting room Tuesday night to make an announcement about scholarship additions to the team. Bielema, the Badgers’ football coach, was rewarding a walk-on for his hard work in the program.
Linebacker Ethan Armstrong, a fourth-year junior and projected starter this season, had waited years to hear his name in a setting such as this one. So he listened intently for the words to spill from Bielema’s mouth … Until he heard Bielema say Robert Burge, the Badgers’ right guard.
Armstrong figured he had more to prove, even if his teammates didn’t feel the same way.
“The team has been waiting for Ethan to get his scholarship for a while now,” Badgers linebacker Chris Borland said. “He’s been a deserving guy. So they mentioned Burge and then after Ethan didn’t get it, everybody was happy for Burge, but it was a ‘Here we go again’ type of thing with Ethan.”
Then, Bielema stepped back up to the front of the room with news that he had one more scholarship to offer. This time, it belonged to Armstrong.
The room exploded with clapping and cheers for Armstrong, who has overcome a slew of injuries in the past year to reach this point.
“It was definitely a surprise,” Armstrong said after practice on Wednesday. “I had hoped that I was doing enough to earn one, but he definitely surprised it on me, on both of us, actually. It was awesome.”
Armstrong has played in 25 career games with two starts. Last season, he split time at strong side linebacker with departed senior Kevin Claxton. But he couldn’t separate himself because of injuries to both his hips.
He injured his left hip early last season and later partially dislocated his right hip against Penn State. Armstrong’s season was over at that point, and he missed the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl. While recovering from both hip surgeries, he was forced to sit out all of spring practice.
“Obviously, with injuries, it’s easy to get down,” Armstrong said. “It’s easy to think, ‘What if I don’t come back? What if it doesn’t happen?’ You’ve always got to try to stay as positive as you can.”
Burge and Armstrong are just the latest in a long line of walk-ons turned scholarship players at Wisconsin. Bielema was a walk-on himself as a football player at Iowa and holds a soft spot for non-scholarship players earning their way. Wisconsin often recruits in-state players as walk-ons who dream of competing for the Badgers. Last season, nearly one-fifth of Wisconsin’s Rose Bowl starters were walk-ons at one time.
Though Armstrong is from Ottawa, Ill., he said he couldn’t envision playing anywhere else after visiting Wisconsin in high school.
“Ethan had more scholarship offers than I had coming out of high school, but he chose to walk on here because he believed in it,” Borland said. “From Day 1, no one has looked down on him. He has the respect of everybody on the team. He works his tail off. He’s really a class act and he’s a tough guy, too. I almost got emotional hearing him speak last night after they gave him a scholarship. It’s just special. I’m really happy for him.”
This season, Armstrong is finally back to full strength — he also endured surgeries on his shoulder and finger during a 12-month span in addition to two hip surgeries. He’ll serve as Wisconsin’s starting strongside linebacker, with Borland in the middle and Mike Taylor on the weak side. Taylor led the Big Ten with 150 tackles a year ago, and Borland added 143. Armstrong recorded 29 tackles.
“I think we should be better this year based on guys knowing the system and experience,” Taylor said. “This is my fifth year and Chris’ fourth year. A big part of it this year is chemistry and everyone knowing each other and just being excited to play, having fun and taking pride as a group.”
On Wednesday, the Badgers experimented with putting Borland on the end and Armstrong in the middle in an effort to give Borland more pass-rushing opportunities. During his freshman season in 2009, Borland recorded 10 1/2 tackles for a loss, five sacks and five forced fumbles as an edge pass rusher. After Borland suffered shoulder injuries in 2010, the coaching staff moved him to the middle.
Armstrong, who was a middle linebacker his first two years at Wisconsin, said he was excited to play any role he could.
“I love it,” he said. “I love it any time I can be moved around and try something new. … I’m fairly comfortable with being in the box, using my progression from that alignment. It’s a lot of fun. It’s fun to watch Chris just tear people up off the edge. He’s something special.”
Armstrong is special, too. His scholarship served as further validation of that point.
“There definitely is a little bit of a sense of satisfaction that I earned it,” Armstrong said. “I definitely went through a lot to get it. I’m glad that the coaches felt that way, too.