Are you really ready for some football?
Joe Akey may have enjoyed as much success as any of the MHS football alums, nominally earning a national title at U. of Minn. at Duluth as a practice squad player in 2008, then playing a large role as a Second Team All-Conference and Honorable Mention All-Region defensive end for the 2010 title team.
“(Brother) David was giving me a hard time about that first one, saying I wasn’t really on the team,” Joe laughed. “After getting the second one, I wiped that in his face a little bit.
“The national championships were just overwhelming. Taking a chartered jet to Alabama (in Florence, annual site of the D2 title game) was great, although it was a business trip. Winning in the national championship (20-17 over Delta State, Miss.) just capped it off. What one of the guys said made me laugh. ‘The week after was the best, because we could all breathe a big sigh of relief.’ It made it worth it. All the work paid off.”
Yet, he had to give up the game after suffering injuries to both knees.
Football is an exciting sport, but it definitely has elements of brutality and violence. Stuff happens even at the high school level and steps up a notch at the collegiate level.
“As a junior I tore up my right knee, the ACL, MCL and lateral meniscus, so I redshirted,” he said. “My senior year I did the same to my left knee. I broke ribs, had a lisfranc (foot affliction), so I’ve had my share of injuries. It was a lot of work (rehabilitating). The knee injuries were definitely the worst–all the rehab and sleepless nights. But it was worth it to have a second shot at a title. I wouldn’t change it at all.
“But now I’ve got to hang it up. Finish up my MBA and get a job. If I was going to the NFL, maybe I would consider (trying to return again). I’ve got to count my blessings. I’m fortunate enough to have a couple of rings. I don’t have to second-guess my decision.”
Serious soul-searching preceded making that decision.
“It was real hard for me,” Akey said. “Football has pretty much been my life, or sports in general. Now it’s time to make a new family with some professionals and start earning a paycheck.”
Tyler Oestreich went down to UW-SP with every intention of joining Sladek on the Pointers’ team. Concussion issues forced his folded hand. Zach Ament, also at UW-SP, was set back by a back injury, but is working hard to return for this year.
Even Arneson had his knee scoped during training camp.
“The year didn’t start the way I wanted,” he said. “Once I got healthy, I worked my way back into the rotation. I played a lot more the last three games and got a couple of catches, a couple of touchdowns.”
Woller points out the theory behind the ferocity.
“It’s pretty physical,” Woller said. “Everyone you’re playing against is faster. Most of the guys are 22 years old, so they’re a lot stronger. They’re dedicated, definitely.”
“I kind of had issues with my ribs this year, but that’s about it. It made it tough to run or take deep breaths. When I got hit, it hurt like a son-of-a-gun. But it just comes with football.”
Add Sladek to the list: “I had some ankle issues right before camp in the fall, so I was a little slow to start. But I was pretty healthy most of the year. If you earn a starting spot and you get banged up, if you get back pretty well, you’re going to play.
“It’s a physical sport. You’re going to get banged up. We’re tough guys. We’re not coming off the field unless we’re injured.”
Optimism reigns supreme among athletes, and it’s no different with this crew. They each feel their team has a shot at a league title next year, or at the bare minimum, significant improvement. Of course this isn’t false hope, which is probably the true beauty of sport.
“We’re bringing a lot of guys back and our starting running back is out but after the third game he’ll be coming back,” Haffemann said. “Oshkosh (Lev. 4 playoffs in 2012) is a team we’ve hung with. It’ll be really exciting next year.
Woller noted, “I think we’re tracking pretty good,” Woller said. “It’s our third year under our head coach (Matt Walker). He’s a really good coach. He’s changed us a lot. We run a basic, pro-style offense. We’re a lot more balanced than we used to be (compared to River Falls’ run-heavy past), probably 50-50 run and pass.
“We’re bringing back a lot of guys on offense, so that should be really good. Our quarterback was a red-shirt freshman and almost our whole offensive line returns. We’ll definitely take a step forward. Anything can happen, so we’ll see.”
According to Sladek, “We hope this fall to be one of the leaders in the WIAC. We’re going to actually have a lot of experience. We’ll have our quarterback returning and a pretty good offensive line.”
That doesn’t mean these men aren’t realistic.
“The WIAC is the best D3 conference in the country,” Woller said. “It’s like the SEC of D3 football. Every week you’re playing against a tough opponent.”
Sladek added, “Every year somebody (from the WIAC) makes a deep run in the playoffs and some years we have two teams doing it. There are some new offensive styles coming to football. It’s getting harder and harder to keep up. You definitely have to work at it every day.”
These guys are already into preparation for next year.
Haffemann said in January, “I can’t wait to start again, and it’s only been a month since we quit practice.”
For Sladek, “We’ve been working out a couple of days a week and as soon as the snow goes out, we’ll get on the field a couple of days a week.”
The Badger Spring game is April 20; that follows months of prep time.
“I’m working every day of the week pretty much, getting in shape, getting stronger,” Arneson said. “Over winter break they gave us off to let the body recover a little bit, but you try not to lose too much strength.
“We’re meeting with the coaches to learn a new offense and we’re getting ready for spring ball. We run in six-week cycles and there are three weeks left until we get into it. You get to feel a little bit like a regular student during the winter.”
Akey closed it out with, “The year I came, I wasn’t sure how the team was. They had been about .500, and they seemed to be great guys with great coaches and great facilities. But some of the juniors were the most dedicated athletes I’ve ever seen, and low-and-behold we won the national championship. It really opened my eyes and mind to what it takes. You’ve really got to put in the time.”
It could be a Merrill thing, but none of these athletes fit the stereotype of being big-headed or ego-driven. They all come across as humble, straight-shooters.
“All these kids are good kids,” said Greg Schofield, former MHS head coach and long-time offensive line coach. “We had some very good years when these kids came through, and it was not only their skills but their leadership. They were thinking about the team and not themselves. All these guys have always been that way. They weren’t worried about playing time or touching the ball. They just wanted the team to win. They’ve been raised well.
“They’re not playing for anyone else. They’re playing because they love football.”