PROPHETSTOWN, Ill. -- Take a walk with Bret Bielema, down the main street of his hometown and into his past.
Bielema, the first-year University of Wisconsin football coach, pulls his red Lincoln Navigator Ultimate, into one of the many open angle parking spots on a Tuesday morning on the town's main drag. He's been gone for 18 years, but not much has changed in the brick storefronts that line the downtown of the farming community, with a population of 2,023, 30 miles northeast of the Quad Cities.
"The Subway wasn't there," Bielema says, motioning to a fast-food place. "It's really becoming industrialized now."
As a kid growing up on a hog farm six miles away, coming into town was a big deal for Bielema. He would tag along with his mother when she went to buy groceries, until his parents decided he was responsible enough to make the 30-minute bicycle ride on his own.
After walking about a block, Bielema comes to a cross street and a driver in a truck, who is waiting at a stop sign. The driver spots Bielema and does a double-take.
The driver is named Jamie Gerlach, and his brother Chad is three years younger and was in Bielema's class. He and Bielema greet each other warmly.
Bielema is one of their own. The people here know him as one of Arnie and Marilyn Bielema's five children.
After exchanging pleasantries, Bielema walks less than a block and runs into Dan Drummet, one of the owners of the hardware store. Drummet offers congratulations on the new job.
A few seconds later, two guys at the gas station across the street spot Bielema and yell out, wishing him good luck this season. "I know -- every game but one," Bielema says, referring to the Badgers' game against Illinois.
He's lived half of his life away from here, but strolling through town, greeting old friends, catching up on the news, it's almost as if he never left.
A member of the graduating class of 1988, he left Prophetstown to walk on to the football team at Iowa, where he eventually earned a scholarship, became a starting 285-pound nose guard and captain, won a Big Ten Conference title and began his coaching career.
This also is the place that helped shape the man he is today, at age 36, the second-youngest head coach in Division I-A football behind Northwestern's 31-year-old Pat Fitzgerald.
"I always say there are a lot of things that happen in life, you don't even know they're happening to you until later on," Bielema says. "I think growing up in an environment like this really taught me the basic core values of what you need to do to have success.
"You're going to go everywhere and there are going to be nice buildings and facilities and all that goes with it, but it's the people that make a difference."\
Home, sweet home
Some kids can't wait to leave a small town or get off the farm. Bielema sobbed all the way to Iowa City, Iowa.
"I was crying my eyes out," he says. "I was so upset. I really thought I would just come back and take over my dad's farm, because I didn't know anything different. You only know what you know."
The only things Bielema knew were the hog farm and his tiny hometown. The only time he'd ever left the state before college was during his freshman year of high school, when his father took him to a pig show in Minnesota.
Much has been made of Bielema's background on the farm, but it's really the twin aspects of the farm and this small town that form the foundation for what he has already accomplished in his life.
"A lot of this, what has happened with Bret, has accentuated his farm background," Arnie Bielema says. "But I always think of that whole community, all the people in town that supported him, all those things together. It's something you pick up in a rural area. It's not that kids wouldn't be like that in a larger city, but they just don't have the opportunity."
Prophetstown is on the Rock River, near the site of a former Native American village. It is named for Wabokieshiek (translated as "White Cloud"), a member of the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) in the 19th century, who used to advise chief Black Hawk.
The downtown seems to be thriving, with a new drugstore soon to fill a vacant storefront. There are some factory jobs in the area. The homes are mostly modest, but well-kept, with tidy lawns.
It looks like a typical Midwestern small town, though 75-year-old Mayor Howard "Bud" Thompson, who has lived here his entire life, insists there's nothing typical about it.
"I've always said, We're not typical, we're the best small town in America,'" Thompson says. "We've got some great people. It's a can-do community. If we want something done, we get it done.
"We built our own golf course. We have an indoor swimming pool with a big addition on it. We built that new park, Eclipse Square Park, and raised over $300,000 locally. There's not one cent of tax money involved. It's a pretty special town."
One of the most remarkable things about Bielema's small-town background is that he's still able to relate to recruits and players from much different places.
As an assistant coach at Iowa and Kansas State, Bielema quickly established a name for himself as a recruiter in south Florida. It's hard to imagine more different places from his hometown and his favorite recruiting area.
But Bielema manages to find a common ground. As a kid, he liked to fish for bullheads on a creek near the family farm.
"People are people," he says. "You've got to get to know (them). I'm interested in how they grew up. Some of the first kids I ever recruited from Glades Central (in Belle Glade, Fla.) in the Lake Okeechobee area. They grew up trying to catch rabbits. That's probably a little tougher than a bullhead.
"There's something that's going to make that kid tick. Something that's going to make him feel comfortable with who he is or where he's going to go. You've got to find out what it is."
There are no signs here that make mention of Bielema as one of the town's favorite sons. But Thompson made it official July 18, when he presented Bielema with a certificate naming him Prophetstown's No. 1 Favorite Son.
"That's quite an honor for a town this size, to have a young man become a head football coach of a Big Ten school," Thompson says.
In reality, Bielema didn't have a lot of competition for the honor. There was a state senator and a couple of state representatives to come from here, along with Fred Adams, who invented the Eclipse self-sharpening lawn mower in 1901.
And then there's Bielema.
Karyn Sommers-Buck was Bielema's prom date during his senior year of high school. They were mostly just friends in high school, though they dated for about a year. She remains one of Bielema's closest friends back home and when he sees her, he greets her with an affectionate hug.
One of the things Sommers-Buck likes to do when Bielema returns home is help keep him grounded, with good-natured ribbing about his past. "I try to put him in his place, that I knew him when," she says.
Their prom date was spent with friends on a riverboat in the Quad Cities.
Bielema was a gentleman, she insists, and provides no details, other than to chuckle at his occasional dorkiness.
"He was always very motivated and his dad kept him on a straight-and-narrow track, as far as having goals and being goal-oriented," Sommers-Buck says. "As far as making it this far, once he got into coaching, he did have a big drive to do something."
It's hard to find anyone from Bielema's hometown who offers a disparaging word.
"He's just always been a great person," says Irvin Sanderson, who was Bielema's track coach and math teacher. "Easy to work with and pleasant. I can't think of a negative thing about Bret. He's worked for everything he's gotten."\
Bielema was something of a self-made athlete. He followed his older brothers, Bart and Barry, into wrestling and football. As a wrestler, Bielema did not have the best technique, but few opponents could match his dedication and desire.
"He would give it 100 percent, because that's the way he was," says Karen Wiersema, who works as a custodian at the high school. "He really wasn't a good wrestler. It wasn't skill. It wasn't form. It wasn't technique. He just was dedicated."
It was the same in football, where Bielema was a tight end, defensive end and linebacker in high school. When he wrestled as a freshman, he weighed 135 pounds. By the following football season, he weighed 185. Before he was old enough to drive to the high school to lift weights, he set up his own gym at home in a barn.
"I was just by myself in the evening and I'd be able to lift and train," he says.
Bielema pushed himself hard in everything he did, including academics, eventually earning a spot on the National Honor Society in high school. He also took part in student council, 4-H and the band.
"If they go to a bigger school, they have to make choices, where their interests are going to go," Marilyn Bielema says. "If you're at a small school, you cover all the bases."
Standing next to his high school football field, Bielema is asked about his favorite football memory. He vaguely recalls a victory over Amboy, the conference powerhouse, when he was a junior.
But he has a keen recollection of his worst memory. Bielema used to play the tuba in the band. When he was a sophomore, he would play in the freshman-sophomore game, then dress for the varsity game. In between, he would take off his jersey -- leaving on his football pants and cleats -- then get his tuba and perform with the band.
"I got dinged in the game and didn't know it. I came and fell right about here," Bielema says of a spot on the grass, between the band room and the field, where he was discovered lying unconscious.
"The janitor came and found me with my tuba, lying in a pile. Everybody was out there (on the field). They came and got my mom. Next thing I remembered I was in the hospital."\
At that time, the best high school football players in the area may have aspired to play at Augustana, a Division III powerhouse in Rock Island, Ill. But Bielema always dreamed of playing in the Big Ten.
He visited Northern Illinois and Illinois State, but attended a wrestling camp at Iowa and really liked Iowa City. In his usual thorough manner, Bielema did his research and found out the Hawkeyes had a history of playing walk-ons.
"To me, that was like going to New York City, so I was a little apprehensive," Bielema says. "The big thing was, I wanted to go somewhere and try to continue playing football as far as I could. That's why I really chose it. They had the longest tradition of letting walk-ons be successful."
There were plenty of doubters back home and they did not hesitate to express their opinions. "There's only a handful of people that believed, when I was walking on, that I was going to be anything more than a guy holding up a dummy," Bielema says.
That's another thing about small towns -- people aren't reluctant to stick their noses in other people's business.
"You also know in a small town who isn't behind you," Arnie Bielema says. "I had people come up to me, when (Bret) was going to walk on at Iowa, and get right on my tail. One of them was one of his high school teachers, (who) said I didn't have a right to encourage my son to do that, (that) I was making a mistake. I had some discussion with him."
Bielema brushes aside any memories of the hometown neighbors who doubted him. That was just a small part of the forces that motivated him. "The more people tell you, you can't, the more you think you can," he says.
Whatever hometown skeptics there may have been back then were quickly won over as Bielema began his amazing ascension to his current job. These days, the entire community can revel and share in what he has achieved.
"We're very proud of him," says Thompson, the mayor. "I think anyone you talk to, they think it's really great and they're wishing him all the best in the world."
From small town to Big Ten
Bret Bielema's roots can be traced to a rural community in western Illinois and a pig farm just a few miles outside of town. In the first of his three-part series on the Badgers' first-year football coach, State Journal reporter Tom Mulhern made the trip to Prophetstown, Ill., where Bielema is the "No.1 Favorite Son."
Monday in Sports: Down on the farm.
Tuesday in Sports: Ready for 2006 debut.