Game time too much fun to leave behind

With Sunday’s Super Bowl game behind us, football has reached the end of the line for another season.
That doesn’t mean we can’t take a little look back at those that also play the game for pride and enjoyment, but without the millions of dollars in rewards.
Several former members of the MHS football team found they loved the sport too much to leave it behind when they graduated, and only one of the current crew is getting a fully-paid education out of it.
Sam Arneson is on scholarship to the UW-Madison Badgers’ team, but UW-Stevens Point’s Jimmy Sladek, UW-River Falls’ Matt Woller and UW-LaCrosse’s Jeff Haffemann are playing for the pure thrill of it. Joe Akey received a partial scholarship to UM-Duluth and helped the Bulldogs to a national championship after the 2010 season.
“It takes a lot more time commitment,” Haffemann stated. “You don’t really have off in the off-season.
“I was watching the playoffs and Oshkosh made the semi-finals. I thought about that when I was in the weight room. I’d much rather be playing than working out.
“Just balancing everything out is pretty tough, but it’s a lot of fun to play still,” Woller noted. “I don’t want to give it up. It’s a lot of fun being around your teammates, too.”
Sladek weighed in, “Man, it’s totally different and definitely a great experience. I’m totally happy I made the decision to play because I made a last-minute decision to do it. You get to meet the guys right away, so you have 100 friends before school starts. Then there’s the pleasure of supporting our school.”
Arneson joined the Badgers at a prime time, winning a pair of B1G titles, thus participating in two Rose Bowl games. (The Badgers had also done it the year before when Arneson was a Bluejay senior.) He made a critical catch in keeping Bucky close to Stanford in the 2013 Rose Bowl, a ball that passed through the hands of an interception attempt and reached him at the same time or possibly just after a break-up try from behind.
That play grabbed the attention of the TV announcers and received several replays.
“It was a big first down at the time,” Sam said. “It’s a play we’ve run a couple times. We didn’t convert the fourth down, but it led to better field position when we scored after they punted.
“That catch was a little lucky. (Quarterback Curt Phillips) squeezed it right through there. It was pretty cool to catch a ball in the Rose Bowl. Hopefully, I’ll continue to progress and get more chances in the future.”
Arneson, a sophomore, was the third tight end for the Badgers on a team that relies heavily on them. Top junior Jacob Pedersen (First Team All-B1G) returns and junior Brian Wozniak and sophomore Arneson were rated as interchangeable on the depth chart. Junior Brock DeCicco and freshmen Austin Traylor are in the mix already, and J.J. Watt’s little brother, T.J., will be joining the squad next year. In a odd case of irony, Watt committed as a junior at tight end, while also performing as one of the top middle linebackers in the state. He played quarterback and linebacker for Pewaukee as a senior, not tight end, the exact same positional route Arneson took.
“Obviously we have very good tight ends,” Arneson said. “I just have to do better and play multiple spots. I’m just trying to grow in my role. That’s all you can do.”
Before leaving for Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema called this his most talented group of tight ends ever.
His departure was more than a surprise.
“It was very unexpected,” Arneson said. “We didn’t really see it coming. If that’s what he thinks is best, he’s got to do what he’s got to do. I don’t like losing him or our assistants. To lose your coach after winning three straight Big 10 championships is out of the ordinary.”
The Badgers as a whole will bring back all but three starters on offense and four on defense, returning their top 10 D-linemen and 3-of-4 starting linebackers.
Despite killer-busy schedules, the kids keep tabs on each other, at least to some extent. Often it’s when they play each other in the WIAC.
“Catching a touchdown in the big 10 championship game was just so awesome for (Sam),” Haffemann said. “(Brother) Matt (another MHS alum) and I watched it together.
“We played (at River Falls) and it was fun to see (Woller) after the game. Jimmy was like first in the conference in tackles. It’s good to see people like that make a name for themselves in the conference. He didn’t get any nomination or accolades (for All-WIAC). I was shocked. We scored on a last-minute drive to win. Me and (Jimmy) were both on the field at the same time a lot. That was pretty cool, and then seeing him after the game was great.”
Sladek concurred. “Me and Jeff got to go against each other quite a bit. I didn’t get too much time on the field with Woller, but it’s definitely fun to play against guys you played with in high school.
Woller added, “I talk to Jeff quite a bit. Sam and I are still really good friends.”
Arneson noted, “It’s definitely fun getting to talk with those guys about how their seasons are going. We had a couple of successful teams come through Merrill, so to see these guys still playing is pretty cool.”
End of Part 1
Part 2 will appear in this space next week

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