Marcus Trotter has many bear shirts. His favorite is the one he found on eBay with the panoramic shot of the grizzly catching a fish in a stream, the scene wrapping around from front to back. It is partly why, he says, people call him Grizzly Trotter.
And Grizzly Trotter, as one might expect, also has many bear stories. His favorite is the one about his family’s bear hunting trips to northern Wisconsin, in which the Trotter clan would not use rifles to kill their prey. They wouldn’t use bow and arrows, either. The Trotters would chase the bears, wrestle the bears and subdue the bears using only their hands.
His favorite reaction to this fable, which does not have even a fraction of truth to it, is disbelieving laughter. Because that means Wisconsin’s middle linebacker can maintain an expression icier than Lake Mendota in early February and say: Bro, don’t disrespect my family.
“And they’ll be like, ‘Oh, man, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to disrespect you, that’s cool!’” Trotter says. “‘I don’t know how you can hunt bears with your hands, but that’s cool!’”
He gets the last laugh in that, which is more or less the regular state of being for the Badgers’ endlessly exuberant and occasionally mischievous senior anchor. He is a player who often only responds to the call sign “Mookie Blaylock.” He is a founding member of the Chevy Bad Boys. He is a future medical school student who wears snow boots in the summer, and he is the unlikely hub of a defense that allows fewer yards per game than any other team in the country. Trotter also is a former walk-on, backed up now by a twin brother who was the recruit everyone wanted, and he’s shaped and driven by the memory of another brother who is no longer here.
The 6-foot, 226-pounder is basically an energy ball, yet somehow also as reliable as bedrock, and is en route to career-highs with 41 tackles and 6.5 for a loss so far this season. “Going all the way back to spring, it was very evident that we played at our best when guys were fired up,” Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda says, “When we played with excitement, where guys were whooping and hollering and kind of let loose. It’s a little bit different, to be honest, than the way I was accustomed to before. There’s a lot of that, but Marcus is right in the middle of it.”
As a momentous Big Ten West showdown with Nebraska approaches Saturday, the Badgers rank No. 1 nationally in total defense (251.1 yards per game) and No. 3 in scoring defense (14.3 points per game). If those numbers can’t be attributed to an individual, consider these: In the seven games for which Trotter has been healthy this season, Wisconsin allowed an average of just 70.4 rushing yards. Trotter missed the majority of the other two games due to a groin injury, and Northwestern and Illinois piled up 203 and 153 yards on the ground, respectively, in his absence.
Only the Northwestern game resulted in a loss, but it was a second overall defeat that effectively vaporized all hope for a berth in the College Football Playoff. On that night, Trotter agonized on the sideline, spotting the keys coaches had noted during preparation and screaming to the defense what the Wildcats were going to do. It didn’t matter. In the middle of a game, there was no replacement for a cerebral, hyper-prepared guy who tells everyone where to go, and sometimes where the other team is going, too.
“It’s almost to the point where he knows what he’s doing so well, he just goes and figures out the other side of the ball, what the opposing offense is doing, and gets in their head a little bit,” Badgers safety Michael Caputo says.
If it was even possible for the opposition to return the trick and invade Trotter’s mind, they might hastily retreat soon after entering. It’s a bazaar in there, noisy and cluttered but retaining some sense of order to it all.
It begins with Mookie. On Fridays during high school, Trotter usually hung out at a friend’s house, and this friend had an entertainment setup that featured a Nintendo 64 and the 1998 edition of the video game NBA Courtside. Trotter’s friend played with a guard named Mookie Blaylock, an All-Star in his prime at the time. And every time Trotter’s friend scored, he shouted Blaylock’s name.
“I thought it was the coolest name I’d ever heard,” Trotter says. Because Trotter started screaming the name, too, his friend began to call him Mookie Blaylock. And then Trotter told everyone else to call him that, too. Thus began, in his view, something more than just a nickname.
When he wears the bear shirt? That’s Mookie, man. If he gets a good grade on a test? That’s Mookie right there. When Trotter does a spot-on impression of Aranda in the defensive meeting room, with catchphrases and gestures and all? When the half-Lithuanian linebacker brings that country’s flag to campus during big events and waves it around? It is all indubitably Mookie.
“It’s just a lifestyle,” Trotter says. “I love making someone laugh. I love doing things that people aren’t used to. It entails someone who likes to have a good time and enjoys life. That’s what everyone knows about me and what everyone knows about Mookie.”
Of course, the travails of the actual Mookie Blaylock involve a recent 15-year prison sentence for charges that included vehicular homicide -- not exactly a laughing matter. But Trotter’s Mookie persona is less about a man than an idea anyway. “Marcus has an identity crisis, and he’s just confused,” says Michael Trotter, Marcus’ twin brother, a reserve inside linebacker for the Badgers. “At times I’d say ‘Marcus,’ and he doesn’t respond. But I’d say ‘Mookie,’ and he turns and wants to talk to me.”
And if we’re being accurate, there was another Trotter brother who embodied the Mookie spirit before it came into focus as video game pixels on a television screen. Aleksas Trotter was hilarious, effervescent and the axis around which the siblings spun, in a way.
For a time the boys attended The Prairie School in their hometown of Racine, Wis., which serves students from Pre-K to high school, so all three were intermingled on campus. “In middle school, Marcus and I were the popular kids because we were his brother,” Michael says. When the high schoolers put on a Halloween haunted trail, Aleksas played the role of the pedestrian who had just survived the path, and he hammed it up, on his knees begging those about to start the walk: Please don’t do it! Don’t do it! At birthdays, Aleksas held on and exaggerated to the final note of “Happy Birthday” for a minute longer than anyone else, cracking up the family each time.
“He was such a goofy guy, so fun to be around,” Marcus says. “There would be times I’d be seeing him walk past (at school), you could just tell everyone wanted to be around him.”
Aleksas also was a state champion gymnast who traveled the 40 minutes each way nightly to train at Swiss Turners Gymnastic Academy in Milwaukee, but an injury cut short his career while he was at college at Penn State. Depression set in over the lost dreams of championships and possible Olympics. On April 19, 2008, Marcus and Michael were fulfilling their school’s mandatory community service requirements at a Special Olympics event when their father, John, called. He needed to pick them up right way. There had been a family emergency.
Marcus knew immediately: His brother had attempted suicide. “This wasn’t the first episode,” he says. “I thought sooner or later he was going to snap out of it, everything was going to be fine, it might be the last time doing this.”
In the car, John Trotter told his sons that, this time, Aleksas had died. He was 21 years old. For some time, neither Marcus nor Michael knew quite what to do. Marcus was the introvert of the twins, “serious all the time” as he puts it, doing drills or weight room workouts by himself. “I never really had a social life and I really didn’t meet anyone, and I was pretty lonely,” he says.
As the grief receded a bit after a year, maybe a year and a half, it took with it a film that lay over Marcus’ view of the world. He wanted to match his brother’s zest and ebullience, but he noted how the all-consuming drive in gymnastics eventually swathed Aleksas in something much darker. Marcus decided he wanted to be both exactly like his older brother and nothing like him at all.
“I had to look myself in the mirror and say, I love football and I put so much hard work into it, but I have to realize football sooner or later is going to end,” Marcus says. “And when that day comes, I have to have something else to lean on that makes me want to live. I realized that, after he died, that there’s much more to life than football. I wanted to have a personality where I can always be happy all the time and be fun and make people smile. And that really didn’t come out until after my brother died.”
When it came out, Marcus became a new person who was only too familiar to those closest to him.
“It’s interesting,” Michael says of Marcus. “He’s really more like Aleksas now.”
This irrepressible verve has bolstered him at every instant of doubt, and there were many of those instants. Marcus watched in the weight room as his twin, then the coveted high school prospect, received notice of a Wisconsin scholarship offer and leapt around in celebration. Marcus, a three-star prospect and the 31st-best inside linebacker in the country, according to Rivals.com, was left to contemplate a scholarship offer from Wofford or a walk-on role at Minnesota. Instead, he couldn’t separate from his brother or miss the opportunity to honor Aleksas in the town where he died, so Marcus opted for the rutted road to Madison.
It was after a redshirt year and a season on special teams that he received an email reminder to sign his tender during the summer before his junior year. Marcus called the Wisconsin compliance office to ask for clarity on their mistake. If he wasn’t on scholarship, why did he have to sign a tender? No, he was told, your name is on the form.
“I won’t lie and say my time here at Wisconsin was easy,” Marcus says. “There were a couple times here where I felt like, not quitting the team, but giving up. There were times where I would practice so hard and work so hard but there were two or three guys ahead of me. I felt like maybe I would never get the chance to play. What always kept me working hard, what always drove me, was my older brother and his death and how hard he fought depression. If he can do that for so many years, I can easily do this.”
vs. LSU (in Houston)
vs. Western Illinois
vs. Bowling Green
vs. South Florida
And now Marcus’ force of personality ushers the Badgers along. Yes, he and his brother still torture unsuspecting friends or strangers with their tall tales.
“One time we convinced people our aunt was really Aunt Jemimah,” Michael says.
Yes, Trotter still may concoct odd nicknames. Like the Chevy Bad Boys sobriquet for the linebacker group, which Caputo, the safety, cannot clearly define.
“I hear it all the time,” he says, “and you know what, maybe it’s better I just don’t know.”
But it’s all the counterweight for Marcus’ diligence and meticulousness on the football side. His notebook sheets, according to Aranda, are filled from the top down. “There’s not a lot of white spaces in there,” the Badgers coordinator says. Marcus was a rapacious preparer should the opportunity to play consistently ever arise. And, this year, it has.
“Sometimes at the far end of whatever system you have, there’s guesswork because it’s way out there -- if such and such happens, then this should happen,” Aranda says. “Marcus lives in those stages. He’s all the way out there. A couple people are at the very beginning of the system saying, oh, OK, run, pass, or whatever. Marcus is on the far edges of it. He’s able to navigate some of our younger players in and out of it -- this is what we do, this is why, this is what you’re looking for.”
It allows him to align the Badgers perfectly and, therefore, give the defense a head start. That, plus an overall uptick in quickness and athleticism in the personnel, has allowed Wisconsin to average seven tackles for loss each game, a figure that sits just outside the national top 25.
Those notebook pages teeming with information represent Trotter’s instructions on how to keep up. “I’m not the fastest guy,” he says. “Every week you face someone who’s the fastest in the country, who’s the strongest in the country, but that really doesn’t matter. What really matters is if you can anticipate what the offense is doing and if you can make the play when you get the chance.”
Slowing Nebraska and Heisman Trophy hopeful Ameer Abdullah on Saturday will require all the foresight Trotter can muster. Manage that, and a Big Ten West title and a berth in the league championship game become eminently attainable. Wisconsin isn’t sneaking into the playoff after that debilitating second loss to Northwestern, but there is something to look forward to nonetheless. Marcus Trotter is surely familiar with reaching through dense disappointment to claw at some hope and with holding out a long time for something better to come.
He has a handful of football games left to play, but Trotter has already has sent out his medical school applications. He guesses 30 schools were on his list. He’s a three-time Academic All-Big Ten performer with what he says is a grade-point average in the 3.4 to 3.5 range -- good, but not necessarily competitive with the “4.0 geniuses,” as he put it. So he thrust himself into the mix just about everywhere.
“The biggest thing for me,” Trotter says, “is just getting in.”