Leave it to University of Wisconsin strong safety Jay Valai to put teammate David Gilreath's Big Ten Conference career record for kickoff return yardage in perspective.
Using his best Muhammad Ali voice, Valai told Gilreath in the locker room, "You're the greatest of all time."
"I'm like, ‘I guess I am,' " Gilreath said a little sheepishly after practice Tuesday.
Actually, Gilreath doesn't claim to be the best kickoff returner in Big Ten history. He now has 2,677 career yards on 120 returns, both records.
His first kickoff return for a touchdown — he took back a punt all the way against Northwestern last season — came on his 117th return, which was a 97-yarder on Saturday against Ohio State on the opening kickoff.
More than anything else, Gilreath is a testament to perseverance. He just might be the most resilient kickoff returner in Big Ten history.
"There have been things going on," said Gilreath, a senior from Minneapolis. "I've had my ups and downs. Some real lows, just to have the concussion a couple weeks ago and people saying, ‘That's the end of that.' To happen like this is pretty cool."
Gilreath suffered a concussion against San Jose State in which he left the field in an ambulance after getting knocked unconscious on a helmet-to-helmet hit on a punt return. He returned against Michigan State but didn't regain the kickoff return job until midway through the Minnesota game the following week.
Freshman running back James White took the place of Gilreath, who kept lobbying the coaches to get his job back.
"I was kind of whispering, ‘I don't remember the hit, I'm ready to go,' " Gilreath said.
"I thought I could go back (returning kicks) right away. I was like, ‘Hopefully, they put me back out there.' (The concussion) happened, it's part of the game."
Going into the Ohio State game, Gilreath felt he had a chance to take one all the way back. He shared that with tight ends coach Joe Rudolph, who coaches the kickoff return team. Miami had an 88-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Buckeyes in the second game,
"I was like, ‘They're coming down five by five (on either side of the kicker), it's nothing spectacular,' " Gilreath said. "They just do their thing, they think they're Ohio State, you know?
"I said, ‘I think we can take one.' I didn't think it was going to be the opening kickoff. It worked out kind of the way we planned, everyone blocked great. It was perfect. I think anybody could have ran through there."
In addition to the concussion, Gilreath battled painful stress fractures in both feet as a sophomore. He had surgeries after the season but it took most of the following season to get his explosion back.
He never lost faith, even when UW's kickoff return teams were some of the worst in the nation the past two years — ranking No. 106 in 2009 and No. 119 (last) in 2008. UW ranks No. 66 this season.
"I guess I couldn't script it any better for it to happen," Gilreath said of the touchdown return. "I was always hoping it would happen and thinking, ‘It just takes that one time for something to open up. I don't want to miss it.' "
White vs. the noise
If White were a typical first-year player, the UW coaches might be concerned about him crashing soon into the "freshman wall." So far, White has handled that as well as everything else.
"I think if it was going to happen, it probably would have happened a couple of weeks ago," running backs coach John Settle said. "He's only getting better."
After rushing for 75 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries against Ohio State, White will get a chance Saturday to go against another top-flight run defense in Iowa. What makes this challenge even stiffer is it comes on the road.
"The thing I have to do as a coach is try to bring him up to speed as to how physical this game is going to be (and) what's at stake," Settle said, "We're going into a very hostile environment."
As the third-down back, White will be challenged to hear calls when the crowd will perhaps be at its most deafening. The Badgers are using crowd noise in practice to help prepare.
"James played at a school (St. Thomas Aquinas in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.) where they traveled and played all over the country," Settle said. "I think that has prepared him for the things he's going to face around here.
"When we hit the field on Saturday, he'll be ready to go."
Sophomore running back Montee Ball might have been pushed to the background by the success of the tandem of John Clay and White. But Settle praised the approach Ball has had to practice.
"Montee had an unbelievable practice (Tuesday)," Settle said. "The thing he understands, he has to prepare, every opportunity he gets. You never know when his number is going to be called. He has taken that approach. I think he has matured."
Ball, who came into the season as the backup, didn't play at all against Ohio State. He had five carries the previous two games for 16 yards.
"Everybody wants to play, obviously," Settle said. "When you put the film on and we do it week in and week out, the two guys that are playing are pretty darn good. (Ball) knows we're here to win ballgames. I have no doubt, if he ever has to play, he'll be ready because of his approach to the week."