MADISON, Wis. — Brett Arnold used to stand on the Camp Randall Stadium turf in shorts and a T-shirt, snaring passes in the summer heat between bouts of fetching water or charting plays for Wisconsin’s football team. He would dream of a day when he might actually run a route that mattered, catching passes in the very uniforms he helped keep clean.
Alas, they were just dreams, he thought. Student managers didn’t earn roster spots on a Big Ten football team simply because they visualized it happening. This wasn’t a Disney movie, after all. Arnold stood 5-foot-11, 165 pounds. Even the kickers weighed more than him. He knew his place on the team, and it was not in pads.
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“I wanted to play football somewhere,” Arnold said. “But I loved Madison, so I got the chance to come here and be a manager instead. That was enough for me. I was around the program. You get all the perks without being a player.”
Yet there Arnold stood, tracking down every pass thrown his way, unwittingly demonstrating to coaches his tireless work ethic. He would run the stadium steps and lift weights because it made him happy to stay in shape. He would do anything in practice to help out, content to play a small part on the team for which he grew up cheering. But Badgers coaches kept returning to his catching skills, and last August they made him wonder if he could achieve something greater.
“Some of the coaches would say a few things like, ‘Hey, you’ve got great hands. We’d love to have you out here.’ ” Arnold recalled. “I’m like, ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ “
Four years earlier, Arnold had been an above-average wide receiver in high school. He caught 30 passes for 486 yards with two touchdowns his senior season at Kaukauna High. He nabbed all-Fox Valley Conference honorable mention as a receiver and defensive back. He earned the Coaches Award for qualities as a leader.
The Kaukauna Rotary Club named him student of the month. He posted a 3.98 GPA and was seventh in his class. He also obtained the Outstanding Citizenship Award from the Optimist Club.
By all accounts, he was a good kid, the type of kid you wanted around a program in some capacity. But he was not a Big Ten-caliber football player.
Arnold couldn’t help but mull over how serious Wisconsin’s coaching staff was about him trying out for the team. He consulted Luke Swan, a graduate assistant with the Badgers who knew a good story when he saw one. Swan once was a walk-on and eventually became a team captain at Wisconsin, finishing his career 19th in program history in receiving yards.
Swan ran the idea past wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni and later to then-head coach Bret Bielema. Everyone agreed that, yes, Arnold at least deserved an opportunity to try out for the team as a walk-on during his senior season. The worst that could happen was he wouldn’t pan out and could still be a team manager, a position he had held for three straight football seasons since his freshman year.
Arnold began bulking up immediately because no 165-pound wide receiver would ever see the field in the Big Ten. His father, Gene, had told him if you work hard, you never know what can happen. So Brett consumed the same protein shakes taken by Badgers players each morning to boost calorie intake and lifted weights regularly. By the winter, he weighed 178 pounds and appeared on track to join the team in March for spring practices.
“Then the whole thing kind of happened in December,” he said.
Bielema had made a promise to Arnold, but now Bielema was no longer at Wisconsin. On Dec. 4, just three days after Wisconsin drubbed Nebraska 70-31 to win the Big Ten championship, Bielema left the program to become the head coach at Arkansas.
“Selfishly, I was kind of nervous,” Arnold said. “Just because I had this shot and I didn’t want it to slip away.”
Arnold enlisted the help of Badgers assistant coach Ben Strickland — another former Wisconsin walk-on — to see if he could convince the next coach to honor Bielema’s commitment. Once Gary Andersen was named Wisconsin’s new head coach in late December, the two approached him, and Strickland explained Arnold’s story.
Andersen quickly agreed to keep Arnold on the team despite skepticism about whether it would work out.
“I remember the day he walked into my office and said, ‘Coach I want to play,'” Andersen said. “I immediately walk into Strickland’s office. I’m like ‘Ben, OK now what’s going on here?’ But that was his goal. He’s got one year left, and he’s done a great job.”
For Arnold, the moment changed his life.
“That’s all it took was a five-minute conversation, and I was the happiest man in the world,” Arnold said. “I just kind of wanted to hear what coach Andersen had to say. After I put in all the time in the fall, I was real excited to talk to him and see what he said. Once he said yes, it was just like a relief. I’m in.”
The odds suggest this is where the story ends. There are 12 wide receivers on Wisconsin’s roster excluding Arnold, and seven of them have already caught at least one pass in a game. Arnold, who now weighs 184 pounds, is a full-fledged member of the scout team, and that is plenty good for him.
His mom, Patti, said Arnold used to wear a Badgers T-shirt in every yearbook picture during high school. When he had his senior pictures taken, they were based around a Badgers theme, including a flag bearing the school logo. He could have played Division III college football at St. Norbert in Wisconsin or St. Thomas in Minnesota, but the University of Wisconsin is where he belongs.
“He just loves the program,” Patti said. “He wants to be a part of it however he can. It’s exciting. He’s so humbled to be there. He’s so in awe that he is amongst all the players.
“He was having the time of his life as a manager. To give that up to pursue this new challenge, I give him a lot of credit for doing that. He gave up his manager job where he was in the running to be one of the top managers. And he got paid, too. He had all the glory and without getting hurt.”
When Arnold was officially included on Wisconsin’s spring practice roster, one of the first things he did was send a picture of the roster to his former Kaukauna High coach Mark Jonas. It was proof to everyone that Arnold was a real college football player.
Jonas called it a fabulous example of hard work paying off for a deserving person. He has heard the parallels to Rudy Ruettiger, the former Notre Dame player whose name will forever be associated with overcoming the odds to play college football. But Jonas also thinks those parallels don’t do justice to Arnold’s talent.
“If you believe all the stories about Rudy, he wasn’t really that great of a football player going in, he just had a lot of desire,” Jonas said. “Brett was a pretty darn good football player. He had the combination of both. It just was size that was a limitation for him at Madison more than anything else.”
If this is the end of the road for Arnold, the story will still be inspiring. Then again, maybe the story is just beginning. Maybe he can impress coaches enough to earn a position on the field at some point next season. His family has at least considered that prospect, however remote it seems now.
“If he would get on the field, that would just be a dream,” said Arnold’s dad, Gene. “I don’t think we have any visions of that, but you never know. He’s working hard and doing what he can to help that team win.”
Andersen, for one, left the door open to the possibility.
“I think it’s gonna happen for him,” Andersen said. “I think he’s going to get out and be able to make some plays and do some things for us eventually.”
For Brett Arnold, the opportunity to practice is all he could have wanted. Even if he doesn’t make the travel roster, all players suit up for home games. He will run through the tunnel into Camp Randall Stadium a player, not a manager.
Following a recent practice, Brett told a story about his grandfather, Bruce, who died last year, which has stuck with him during his journey. Before he passed away, Bruce would implore Brett to try out for the football team whenever the two spent time together. Bruce reminded Brett that he had a set of hands that were meant to catch footballs — something Wisconsin’s coaching staff would learn much later.
“I remember I always told him, it doesn’t work that way,” Arnold said. “So this is pretty cool. Dreams can come true, I guess.”