Jared Abbrederis is living legend in hometown of Wautoma
OCT 28, 2013 11:45a ET
Townspeople are intensely proud of his accomplishments, and he is certainly grateful for their support. But if he had a choice, he would walk the streets as though nothing had changed over the past five years. His favorite days still include deer hunting in the woods during fall and ice fishing by the lake during winter with a few close friends and relatives by his side. A quiet evening at the family home six miles south of downtown off a strip of Highway 22 is another preferred entertainment method.
In many respects, Jared Abbrederis is the antithesis of the modern-day superstar, content to remain in the background, cling to his private life and deflect credit onto anyone but himself: God, family, coaches, teammates. And during an era in which attaining celebrity status gives some the right to feel an unusually high sense of self-importance, he represents a refreshing throwback.
"If this town would ever put a sign up that this is the home of Jared Abbrederis, he'd probably get sick," says his father, Scott. "He definitely wouldn't want anything like that."
You might think such a mindset would be severely tested as Abbrederis has become a standout wide receiver at the University of Wisconsin, one of the best players in the Big Ten Conference and a legitimate NFL prospect. The more catches he makes, the more touchdowns he scores, the more people across the state want a piece of Abbrederis.
Yet it is his humility and determination, in addition to sheer athletic brilliance, that is equally responsible for contributing to his fame. When he returns home, he gives speeches at the local middle school and shakes every last hand from teachers and students. He inspires others with his actions and preaches the value of hard work, remaining humble and praising the Lord through his association with Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Talk to people here, and you won't find a negative story about him in the bunch.
After all, why rally around a prima donna who doesn't give back or appreciate where he comes from?
"He's just doing it because he loves to play football," says his mom, Lisa. "He doesn't care about the fame, any of that. But he does recognize when he comes home, we're just limited in things we can do out in public because he gets bombarded."
Despite his hesitancy to be noticed, he excels at a sport in a setting that makes it difficult for him to fade from view. Abbrederis still handles each encounter from adoring fans with the same gratitude he displayed during his rise to the top of Wautoma High School's football program. There, he led the team to its only state championship, put the school on the map in ways others never could and established a fan base that has continued to grow with his successes at Wisconsin.
"I don't really think about being famous," he says. "I don’t really care about it. I'll go into town and people will say hi. It's nice to be loved."
If his career progresses as many hope, the fame and attention is only beginning. But how he arrived at this point says a lot about how he'll handle the next step of his life.
The first thing to know about Jared Abbrederis is that, if he decides he wants something, he will pursue it until he achieves his goal.
When he was 5 years old, he told his mom he would be a professional football player -- the type of comment heard from little boys across the country whose dreams will pitter out when they grow to realize the difficulties it requires simply to play high school varsity football.
"In the back of my mind I'm thinking, 'OK what percentage of kids from high school even go to college and from there, what percentage actually go on to professional football?'" Lisa says. "To me, I thought it would be a stretch. I just looked at him and thought work hard at it and you can do it."
When Jared reached high school, he hardly resembled a pro prospect. But former Wautoma High football coach Dennis Moon remembers a player with so many intangibles that he simply knew Abbrederis would be successful in some way. His offseason workouts were fanatical and included weight training at 7 a.m. before school and, during his senior year when he didn't go out for wrestling, more workouts after school. He worked out so hard that Moon finally told him he needed to stop to preserve his energy.
Abbrederis says he learned the value of hard work from his parents. Lisa is a waitress at Christianos, and Scott is a firefighter and paramedic for the city of Oshkosh, about an hour east of Wautoma, near Lake Winnebago. The two have traveled to every game their son has played for Wisconsin.
Jared's determination proved especially important during his sophomore season when he suffered a gruesome injury that still draws cringe-worthy looks from those who witnessed it.
David Gruszka was Wautoma's team trainer from 1999 to 2012 and described it as "horrific." Abbrederis broke one of the condyles off his right femur and tore his anterior cruciate ligament while playing quarterback during a game halfway through the season.
"Most of those kids with that type of injury wouldn’t probably sniff sports for a year," Gruszka says, "and his was a matter of months."
Abbrederis set a goal to return in time for track season in the spring. And through relentless rehab with both Gruszka and his physical therapist, he achieved that goal. He went on to place fourth at state in the 110-meter hurdles and fifth in the 300-meter hurdles.
Faith is an integral part of Abbrederis' life, and he believes everything that happens is the result of a greater purpose -- he would lead bible study sessions before Friday home games in high school on the second floor of Christianos. So when he convinces himself of something, he puts his trust in the power of the Lord.
He met his future wife, Rachel Otto, at a bible study session while at Wisconsin and told a teammate as soon as he met her that he would marry her. Seven months later, in April 2011, he proposed on a farm in Wautoma after setting up a scavenger hunt for Rachel that led to the barn. They married at the local church in May 2012.
"I think it has a huge role in everything," Abbrederis says of his faith. "How you approach life and the way you go about things. Honestly, I don’t know how people go through life without having a bigger meaning and having somebody. For me, it's having God to go through things with. I haven't even been through that much. I can only imagine some of the things people go through, and I don’t know how they do it without that."
He would cling to those strong convictions in the months before he began college, when not a single Division I football program offered him a scholarship or showed the slightest bit of interest.
One of the most heavily told Jared Abbrederis stories comes from his senior year of high school, when he led Wautoma on a magical run to a state championship as the star quarterback. It was during the state semifinal, and Abbrederis was getting drilled harder with each successive quarterback run.
He would lift himself up, return to the huddle and continue running the same play over and over: two wide receivers on each side with a running back to block for him.
"As the game went on, we were spreading everybody out and saying shotgun to Jared," says Dave Woyak, who was Wautoma's offensive coordinator that season. "Basically just have Jared run right or Jared run left. Whatever side we felt might be the most open. He would just tuck and run.
"Why worry about a fumbled handoff or something like that? It was just you guys block for Jared this way or that way, and it was successful."
Abbrederis would carry the ball 38 times for 264 yards with three touchdowns in a 42-24 victory against Baldwin-Woodville, drawing praise from the opposing team's head coach for his incredible toughness. Six days later, Wautoma would beat Big Foot 20-0 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison for the state title.
Moon, Wautoma's former head coach, said there was no denying Abbrederis' athletic ability. Often, he would outrun unblocked linebackers or safeties and turn a sure yardage loss into a touchdown. And Moon was convinced his standout player, a first-team all-state quarterback, deserved a shot at a college football program, though no big-time recruiters ever came to watch his games in a small town. Nobody, he says, ever outworked Abbrederis.
Moon's son worked in the athletic compliance office at Central Michigan, so he sent along a highlight tape of Abbrederis.
Three days later, he received a phone call from his son: "He's just a dime a dozen. We see 100 guys like that coming out of high school."
Yes, Moon replied to his son. But you didn't see his ability to lift his teammates to heights they never imagined. You didn't see those intangibles.
"Coaches all want to see what's your wingspan?" Moon says. "How tall are you? How much do you weigh? How fast do you run? How much do you lift? And then your stats. That’s the first thing they look at. But there's so many intangibles that they don’t measure.
"They don’t measure your heart. Like you will go beyond anything to get the job done. You're going to play when you're hurt, you're going to play to your maximum every single down. That was Jared."
During the summer before his freshman year of college, Abbrederis instead was prepared to walk on to Wisconsin's track team. He had gone on to win two state titles in the 110-meter hurdles and one state championship in the 300-meter hurdles. But as he worked his summer job on a farm near his Wautoma home, he told his dad he truly wanted to play football.
"He got looks at Division II schools," Scott says. "But for Jared, knowing there was another level above him, he didn’t want to play at a Division II school. He says, 'If I'm playing, I'm playing where the best are and I'm going to be one of those.'"
Scott made several calls to the Wisconsin football offices and finally reached former assistant coach Bob Bostad. Scott told Bostad his son had been overlooked, and if the Badgers would only give him a chance, he would make them proud. Scott was encouraged to send over some game film.
One week before fall camp began, Bostad rang up the Abbrederis family. After watching his film, Wisconsin was prepared to offer Abbrederis a preferred walk-on spot.
It would prove to be one of the best decisions the Badgers have made in quite some time.
What Jared Abbrederis has accomplished at Wisconsin has been nothing short of amazing. Yet folks in Wautoma say they aren't the least bit surprised. All he needed was an opportunity, and his gifts would take over from there.
Abbrederis began his Wisconsin career at wide receiver but served as the scout team's spread quarterback when the Badgers were about to face a wide-open offense. During the spring of 2010, after he took a redshirt season, he earned repetitions at wide receiver when some of his teammates were injured, and he quickly impressed the coaching staff.
As a redshirt freshman in 2010, he played in all 13 games and caught 20 passes for 289 yards with three touchdowns. When he returned for the 2011 season, every facet of his game had improved -- route running, speed, strength -- and he established himself as a starter and the team's No. 2 receiver behind Nick Toon. Abbrederis would lead the team in receiving yards (933) and score eight touchdowns. And he finally earned his scholarship in January 2012.
The past two years, Abbrederis has developed into Wisconsin's go-to receiver and one of the best in the Big Ten. The same qualities that helped him excel at Wautoma have led to his success for the Badgers.
"He does everything perfect," Wisconsin sophomore receiver Jordan Fredrick says. "We just watch him and he works so hard. We want to be doing exactly what he does, which makes you work harder, which is weird. He doesn’t really say anything, but you've still got to try to keep up to him because he's way past your level."
The fact Abbrederis is good at everything is a refrain heard on multiple occasions from those within Wisconsin's program. First-year wide receivers coach Chris Beatty says he came to the Badgers thinking Abbrederis was simply a deep-ball threat. Then he saw how hard Abbrederis worked up close on his craft -- staying after practice to catch balls from a throwing machine, breaking down film, running flawless routes to create separation on defensive backs and offering constructive feedback for teammates.
"He's got a well-rounded game," Beatty says. "In the spring you kind of realized he's better than maybe I gave him credit for and maybe a lot of people give him credit for. Because he does everything well. It's not like he does one thing really well. He's just a good player. I've been around a lot of really good ones, and he's one of them."
Despite being Wisconsin's only consistent wide receiver this season and a constant focus for opposing defenses, Abbrederis continues to lead the team in every major receiving category. He is first in catches (43), yards (752) and touchdowns (five). His 107.4 yards receiving per game ranks in the top 20 nationally and third in the Big Ten. Now as a fifth-year senior, he is inching closer to reaching his NFL goal that he set for himself at age 5.
Badgers coach Gary Andersen described the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Abbrederis as "the full package" and refuted the notion his star wide receiver somehow wasn't fast enough to compete at the next level. Abbrederis' full talents were on display last month against Ohio State in a game that could boost his draft status into the first three rounds.
Abbrederis tells a story that took place during that game against Buckeyes cornerback Bradley Roby, whom many presume will be a first-round NFL draft pick. Roby was pressing up on him, so Abbrederis gave a signal to quarterback Joel Stave that Roby might be blitzing, even though he knew Roby had no intention of leaving him.
Roby, believing he was inside Abbrederis' head, then began faking as though he would blitz.
"And I wanted him to do that," Abbrederis says. "So then he wasn't really prepared to press and I was able to get off pretty easy."
Abbrederis would catch the pass on that play -- and 10 total passes for 207 yards with a touchdown. Just another story in the ever-growing legend of Jared Abbrederis.
Elementary-aged schoolchildren wear black and orange Wautoma football jerseys while tossing a ball around their backyards before the high school team's final home game.
Orange and black signs featuring the school mascot line the front yards of businesses on Main Street, reading "Orange Crush," "Wautoma Hornets: Can't Hide Our Pride," "Hornet Fever: Catch It," "Swarm Warning," and "Orange Swarm."
Football here is a great source of pride. And the root of that pride the past five years stems from Abbrederis.
"All the young kids, if you say Jared, they all know who you're talking about," says Woyak, the former Wautoma offensive coordinator. "Even though a lot of those kids were little when he played, everybody knows him. Everybody remembers the things he did and the things he does now when you watch him on Saturdays playing. Part of that is the way he carries himself. If he were acting like a punk, it wouldn't be that way."
Even though Abbrederis is gone for now, he remains a big part of the high school culture.
A wing at the school has a picture of Abbrederis on nearly every wall: an autographed red and white Badgers jersey and gloves framed outside the gymnasium next to a blown up athlete of the year magazine cover with his picture; a plaque on Wautoma's Wall of Pride that includes his high school athletic accomplishments in track, wrestling and football; a framed photo in his football uniform hanging along six other photos for Wautoma's all-state athletes.
There are local newspaper clippings with his face front and center in a glass encasing beneath the state football and track championships he helped the school win. And his picture is listed on a wall of college athletes from the school in the weight room.
Ask players on this year's team, and his impact on Wautoma's football program goes beyond that state championship season. He has given teens here hope for athletic achievements beyond the walls of this town.
"You never really heard of anybody from a small school around here doing that," says Wautoma senior running back Bryce Bennot. "Once he did it, everybody thinks now I've got this shot. His ability to compete at that level is unbelievable and knowing that he played on that same field that we play on, that’s cool."
Bennot has a preferred walk-on offer from Northwestern. Sophomore quarterback Jack Eagan is also drawing college attention and credits Abbrederis, in part, for putting the school on the map and encouraging a younger generation of athletes.
"He was a small town kid who worked his butt off," Eagan says. "If you put your mind to it, you can do whatever you want. Now everyone wants to play college football at Wautoma here. It doesn’t matter where they play, they just want to play because of what he did."
Abbrederis says he is grateful to have inspired others the way he was motivated in junior high while watching the varsity players. There are many goals ahead of him, he says, and if he attains them, he recognizes more attention will follow. He may not enjoy being the main attraction, but it is a role he is slowly learning to embrace -- a superstar who sees himself as anything but.
And if the worst thing to happen to him in Wautoma is autograph and photograph requests, well, that's not such a bad way to live. He says he and his wife, who is from Stevens Point, will probably move back to the relative seclusion of the area at some point, once they've figured out where Abbrederis lands in the NFL.
"If one day I could be back there, we'd maybe have a cabin or something like that," Abbrederis says. "That would be like a dream."
In truth, he's already living a dream for himself and so many others.
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