To excel at both big-time college football and big-time college academics is a daunting challenge. Cynics say that even to attempt the two simultaneously is laughable. And in a depressing number of cases, the cynics are right. Witness the TV interviews with many athletes in which the English language is sacked within the span of one prepositional phrase.
At the University of Wisconsin, junior defensive end Don Davey, 20, from Manitowoc, Wis., admits that football and academics are an odd couple. "You have to make them mix, because it sure doesn't happen naturally," he says. Davey knows. He figures football consumes 51 hours a week, classes 20 hours, studying a minimum of 25 hours. That's two full-time jobs, with plenty of overtime in both. "I wish I had time to screw around," he says, "but I don't." Davey is a 3.83 student majoring in mechanical engineering, heading for a masters in biomedical engineering (he hopes to design artificial limbs, surgical instruments and heart and lung machines) and thinking Rhodes scholarship; he's also a 6'5", 237-pound lineman thinking all-Big Ten. What is a typical week like for a major college football player as he competes in serious academics and serious football, both extremely jealous mistresses?
The afternoon of Nov. 15 is a gray one in Madison, made even grayer by the 22-19 Wisconsin loss to Minnesota the day before. With only one game left in the season the Badgers are 3-7, four of their losses having come by a total of 11 points. Don Davey is climbing the steps in Camp Randall Stadium to the Athletic Therapy and Rehabilitation room. The sign at the top of the stairs says, IT'S GREAT TO BE A WISCONSIN BADGER.
September 4, 1988
Davey's back hurts. "I woke up at 10:30," he says. "First I remembered my back hurt. Then I remembered how disappointed I was. The disappointment hurt more." A trainer puts an ice pack on his lower back, and Davey sighs. "I've got to put Minnesota out of my mind and get after Michigan State," he says. "It's funny. We weren't expected to do well before the season started, but now we look back at all the chances we had to do well. We could be going to a bowl instead of being in the basement of the Big Ten." He shifts his position and winces. He is down and aching.
After an hour of treatment, Davey goes to a team meeting. It's very quiet. Still, head coach Don Morton refuses to wallow in the loss. "Look, it was a dead-even game," he tells his players. "We are getting better, but that doesn't make it any easier. This is part of living. We will work our way through it. I feel very good about coming to the office every day. Can you think of a better time to play the conference champions?" There is no response, but the look on more than a hundred depressed faces says that, all things considered, they would rather play Ball State again (a 30-13 victory). Alas, next Saturday's game is against Rose Bowl-bound Michigan State (7-2-1).
Davey and the rest of the defense then face defensive coordinator Mike Daly. He's not so charitable. "We got them into second-and-long only six times in 25 tries," says Daly. "And in our last two games, we've forced only one punt. Most important, we didn't find a way to win. We're like a pool player who can run seven balls, but then scratches on the eight."
The team meetings break up, and Davey, silent, trudges across campus in the November cold to a drafting lab where he works until he is kicked out at 9:30 p.m., closing time. He washes his clothes in the basement of Swenson House and studies, distracted and disconsolate, until 1 a.m. It has been a horrid day.
Davey walks toward his 8:50 a.m. materials science class. His back still hurts. A bike rider narrowly misses him and snarls, "Open your eyes." Football players don't get a lot of respect at Wisconsin. Davey chooses a seat as close as possible to the front of the lecture room—he always does—then reviews his notes on the electron probe X-ray microanalysis of an Al-Si alloy, the subject of today's lecture.
Lecturer Jay Samuel tells the class, "Most of you will be glad to know the difficult part of the course is over with." There is not a sound. Serious students do not cheer such pronouncements. Samuel then proceeds to issue a torrent of information, running a 4.4 through an intense discussion of theoretical shear stress. Class ends.
Davey heads out through the mud and the rain for his 9:55 a.m. statics class. Lecturer Jaafar K. Al-Abdulla is returning tests. "Not good, not good," he grouses. "The average was 81." Davey gets a 97 and is miffed: "Aw, I just punched the wrong button on the calculator." Al-Abdulla drones on about how inept the students are, and rolls into a discussion on determining shear diagrams. Davey scribbles.
After class Davey heads for the Stadium Barbers ($6.50 for a haircut), a quick lunch, then back to his room to fold laundry while watching an old episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show on television. At one o'clock he's back at the stadium, looking at film—mainly of Michigan State running back Lorenzo White. It is not an encouraging sight, "White will fumble," says Daly. That presupposes the slow Badgers can get a hand on him.
Then Phil Engle, the Badgers defensive line coach, issues the grades for the Minnesota game. Davey gets a respectable 87. Of 11 chances that Davey had to make the play, he succeeded nine times. He got a 97 on pursuit to the ball, a score he downplays, saying, "You don't have to have any athletic ability to do that. Just run wherever the ball is." On to practice. It's raining. "Seems like it always rains on Mondays after a loss," grumps Davey. It's a light workout, followed by weightlifting, dinner, back to drafting lab, back to the dorm and some economics homework, and to bed at 12:45 a.m. His back still hurts.
Davey rolls stiffly out of his top bunk in Room 201. It's 8 a.m. He pulls on jeans, brushes his teeth, puts his baseball cap on backward and takes his first steps into the cold en route to Economics 104. There, assistant professor Ian Gale says he likes the phrase "compensating differential" even though the textbook calls it "equalizing wage differential." Muses Davey, "This course isn't real interesting because it's pretty elementary. But it's kind of nice to have a break from engineering."
Now he heads for engineering drawing. For the moment, his mind switches to football. Two weeks before, Davey had intercepted an Ohio State pass at the Buckeyes' 44-yard line to preserve a 26-24 victory for the Badgers. Did he feel like a star? "A little bit," he laughs. Now, however, Lorenzo White is on his mind. "I don't know if I can contain him or not," says Davey. "I hope so."
Assistant professor Ernest F. Manner is waiting. In ill humor. Manner says he hates deadlines, then promptly announces all those fastener problems are due day after tomorrow. And so, by the way, is another assignment. In the classroom there is an undercurrent of panic. Davey, hovering over his work at the drawing table, doesn't react. White is completely out of mind. Says Manner, "I want to see some smoke coming out of those pencils." Davey's pencil is smoking.
As usual lunch is at The Shed, a campus cafeteria, and then it's on to the stadium to look at film. Engle marvels at Davey's brains: "If Don isn't understanding, it's not being said real well." The projector whirs.
"O.K.," says Engle. "Just remember if you settle down, White will screw you into the ground. Got it, Don?"
Suddenly, Engle laughs and says, "I almost went over backward in this chair." There is laughter. Things are getting looser, better. The Spartans can be had. This new "Bobcat" defense, featuring stacked linebackers, will make the difference. Davey's back doesn't hurt anymore. On to practice, 21 periods of five minutes each. It's cold and wet, but it doesn't seem so cold and wet as it has the past few days. Football is a great game. It's great to be a Badger. Even the ring finger on Davey's left hand, the one he broke earlier in the year, feels better.
On to the weights (Davey is supposed to lift on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, but he also goes on Tuesday because he doesn't have time to do all he's supposed to in three days), then dinner (lobster and shrimp at the training table), then drawing lab again. A student journalist interviews him, he watches an episode of M*A*S*H, studies, goes to The Shed for pizza, French fries and lemonade. He studies. And at 12:50 a.m., lights out.
Good morning, Crest. Good morning, red jacket. Good morning, backward cap. And on to materials again, and Samuel, who is flying through characteristic radiation. Hard second-phase particles seem to occupy a warm spot in Samuel's heart, too. Davey is in the second row, having failed to get a first-row seat. Afterward Davey hurries off to get a better seat in statics. Says Al-Abdulla, "Let me give you one example to struggle with. You shouldn't have to write it down." Davey, a belt and suspenders guy, writes it down.
Next is a small economics discussion group dealing with a labor demand curve. Grades are posted for a recent test, and Davey is deflated. He got an A/B, a grade of 33, one tick below a full-blown 34 and an A. It makes no difference to him that the class mean for the test was 27.3. Davey has not come to Wisconsin to be average. Back to his 8-by 15-foot dorm room, which is a disaster. He finds papers he needs under the Lowenbrau beer sign. He wants them so he can go directly from dinner to the drawing lab without wasting time. Davey has tacos and ravioli at The Shed, and then it's on to more films. He selects a Michigan State loss to Notre Dame. "It's always nice to watch a game where they got killed," he says. "It gives you confidence."
Coach Engle arrives and makes his own film selection. "Don Davey, where does your head belong?"
"Then get it there."
"Don Davey, you're lining up wrong. Come on. Don Davey, perfect, that's what we want. Don Davey, come on, come on."
Another hard practice, lifting, dinner, the drawing lab. The glamorous life continues. The drawing lab gives new meaning to the word quiet. The only sounds are the squeaking of stools and the hum of the 13 fluorescent lights (one is burned out). And there sits scholar-athlete Davey, shoes untied and baseball cap on backward (he has worn it that way since childhood, when he rode a bike on windy days). Davey is concentrating. Who is Lorenzo White? Who cares?
Late in the evening, with midnight drawing near, Davey relaxes. The two toughest practice days are over. He's making progress in drawing lab. And now he is in his room, a room that even a corrupt health department inspector would condemn: shoes, Old Spice, Folgers, NyQuil, sunflower seeds, mouthwash. White Sox poster, drawers stuffed beyond full, scraps of paper, unmade bed. And dirt. Tons of dirt. Davey's feet are up, and his cap is on backward.
"I like engineering because I've always liked being able to understand all the forces, for example, on this table," he says. "I like being able to understand how things work. People sometimes say, 'Why would you want to know?' I just do. Doesn't everybody want to understand why the back of the refrigerator gets hot and the inside stays cold? I believe that education is not always fun but it's always interesting.
"And I never want anybody to be better than I am. I got an A/B in a stupid little one-credit general engineering class a year ago, and it really bothers me. In my entire school career, from kindergarten on, I never got anything lower than an A. The best students, the best courses, that's the company I've always been in. In sixth grade, I used to get on my bike and ride over to the junior high for courses to stimulate me, and I read Exodus and Black Like Me.
"But that one A/B bothers me. I know it's not practical to think you can go all through school with a 4.0. But I never thought anything less would be O.K. Because it's not. The whole reason I'm here is to get an education. I'm not here to prepare myself for the NFL. And I am definitely not counting on the NFL. What I am counting on is making good grades, graduating and then going out and finding a good job. If I am drafted, that is something I would consider as an alternative.
"But I don't think we spend too much time on football. It's a game that takes a lot of time, and if this is what it takes, then this is what we should put in. I love football, whether it's silly or not. There is nothing better than going out on a Saturday afternoon in front of 75,000 people and giving your best. If you like to run and hit people, it's the perfect game."
He struggles into his bunk and mutters to his roommate, center Jim Basten, "I hope Michigan State doesn't kill us. That would suck." It's nearly 2 a.m.
It's shortly after 8 a.m., and Davey starts his day in economics. Then it's on to the drawing lab, this time for a class. Today's subject is fitted holes, and assistant professor Manner asks, "So what if the shaft doesn't fit the hole?"
Responds a student, "Get a hammer."
Sniffs Manner, "Typical engineer."
Davey says nothing; he seldom does. He's there to learn. But thoughts of Saturday's game are now beginning to intrude.
Soon he is back at the stadium, looking at more films. Engle is talking and praising another defensive lineman: "There, that's the angle, 60 percent. Wait, what is it? I don't know. Don Davey, figure out that angle."
Says Davey quietly, "75 degrees."
Says Engle, "O.K." There's a light practice, and afterward. Coach Morton is encouraging his players, who are feeling much better about themselves than they were Sunday: "We want everyone to just line up and compete. This could be a great day for the Red."
On this evening a light snow is falling as Davey goes out for pizza with his girlfriend, Kristen Kohls. They order a Pizza Supreme. Kristen allows as how she likes his baseball cap, and better backward than frontward: "It's cute." Davey laughs about being named Wisconsin's defensive player of the game after a 49-0 shellacking of the Badgers by Michigan early in the season. (He was similarly honored after the Illionis and Purdue games, as well.) He properly considers it a dubious honor. These are tough times for Davey; he played on a high school team that won all 24 of its games and two state championships during his junior and senior years. Says Kristen, "Don does everything until he gets it perfect." The two walk, hand in hand, along State Street in downtown Madison. Nice evening. It's great to be a Badger.
Later, Davey climbs wearily up into his bunk and says to Basten, "It kind of sucks that the season is over. But wouldn't it be great to beat Michigan State?" It is 12:43 a.m.
The windchill is—13° as Davey walks to his materials science class. The football player is overtaking the student today. Says Davey, "It's hard to concentrate on Fridays before a game. So you just go, take notes, do the best you can." Lecturer Samuel writes on the board, "Any interactions which impede dislocation motion increase the stress level required to cause further deformation." Predictably, Davey is interested. Suddenly, Lorenzo White is again on the back burner. On to statics.
Here a particularly exuberant Al-Abdulla gets quite worked up over force analysis involving friction and, in particular, the concept of impending motion. The chalk dust is flying, and Davey's mechanical pencil is smoking. Davey clearly is involved. Who the hell is Lorenzo White?
To The Shed for lunch (hot dog, BLT, tortilla chips, raspberry yogurt, milk; for $4.64) and back to looking at films of Lorenzo. White is again the focus of Davey's world. "Man, he's quick," mutters Davey. Meetings, films, a pause to pose for a photo for a local magazine.
In his office Morton appraises Davey as "solid, consistent. I don't know how good he can be. But he's doing some awful good things against quality competition." Yet Morton frets that Davey is an awkward size, not quite big enough to be a down lineman and not quite fast enough to be an outside linebacker. Davey plays the old-style defensive end, frequently brawling his way into the backfield and messing things up. Daly, the defensive coordinator, agrees and says, "He's so undersized and under strength. But he's a kid we believe in."
After a nothing workout the players are bused over to the Inntowner Hotel, where they will spend the night before the game in Camp Randall Stadium. Morton is working on their minds again, aware that his players are concerned because they have climbed so many mountains during the year, only to fall back as they neared the summit. Says Morton, "People with not much invested in Wisconsin football have labeled this season a failure. They are dead wrong. This season has not been in vain. And don't ever underestimate the human spirit. Anything is possible. We have every right to win this game." The players' eyes are bright. Of course they can beat Michigan State. It's great to be a Badger.
The players retire to their hotel rooms, where Davey's roommate for the night, starting defensive tackle John Banaszak, pulls off Davey's cowboy boots.
"Wouldn't it be great to beat Michigan State, John?"
"Yeah, sure would." They settle in for a night of fretful and mindless TV watching. Silently. Davey feels great. He can't remember his back ever having hurt. Goodnight, Lorenzo.
The day dawns bright and cold. Daly has his defensive players look at just a few more plays on film—of White. There is breakfast and a bus ride back to the stadium. By 11:56 a.m., Davey is sitting in front of his locker—in fact, he is almost inside his locker—concentrating.
At 12:12 p.m. he puts on his shoulder pads; at 12:16 he works his jersey over his pads; at 12:27 he snaps on his helmet; at 12:41 Engle shakes his hand, pats him twice on the left shoulder pad. And at 12:50, Morton tells the players to "grab a knee, grab a hand." Says Morton, "Men, I readjust the other day that walking the tightrope is living, everything else is waiting. So let's take advantage of these rare moments to lay it all on the line. You have a chance in the next 60 minutes to live those 60 minutes, to walk on that tightrope."
The fired-up Wisconsin team stampedes into the stadium. It's great to be a Badger. Then, two minutes into the first quarter, Lorenzo White rambles 17 yards—around Davey. A minute later, however, Davey sacks Spartan quarterback Bobby McAllister for an eight-yard loss. But that is his day. Davey plays hard, but the action is all away from him. Plus, he is held on nearly every play by State's 297-pound tackle, Tony Mandarich. Davey complains to the officials, who pay no attention to him.
At the half the Badgers are behind 23-9 and look awful. No need to talk adjustments and fine tuning. This is a team that has to block and tackle. Period. Morton is pleading: "Men, you have to go out there and compete. They aren't real fired up about being here today. Come on, give yourself a chance. Give us a chance." At which time, Wisconsin retakes the field and plays worse. Michigan State wins 30-9, with an uninspired effort. White gains only 92 yards on 19 carries, but his backup, Blake Ezor, destroys the Badgers with 150 yards on 28 carries. Wisconsin should have been thinking Ezor all week instead of White.
"Grab a knee, grab a hand," instructs Morton in the gloomy dressing room afterward. He thanks the seniors for their "dignity and class" and points toward this fall. Engle gets directly to the point with his defensive linemen: "I want you to make a commitment that you'll be a helluva lot better football players next year. Remember, everything starts with each individual saying, 'I want to be a success.' "
Davey is pulling off tape. He's bleeding from his forehead and hands and knees and elbows. "Not a whole lot to say, is there?" he mumbles. "Except I can hardly wait for next year. I've got to get big. I have to eat like crazy, lift like crazy."
Outside in the tunnel, Davey's parents, Ken and Gail, wait. Football parents are good at waiting. Ken is no braggart concerning his son: "Frankly, we're surprised he has done as well as he has." And Gail is similarly deprecating when she explains how Don got so smart: "It happens every other generation."
Davey appears, cap on backward. "Nice game," says Ken. "Thanks," says Davey. Above him the sign reads, IT'S GREAT TO BE A WISCONSIN BADGER. He has a lot to look forward to. First thing tomorrow, he gets to design an adjustable motor mount for a small electric motor at the drawing lab. "That's gonna be fun," Don Davey says.