It serves as a silent memorial to sacrifice and support.
It also represents a powerful tribute to family and loved ones.
When members of the University of Wisconsin football team take the field this season, they bring a regulation-sized Motion W helmet that sits empty on the bench, but everyone wears it in a figurative sense.
It’s a novel project instituted by first-year coach Gary Andersen. He asked his players to think of people in their lives who have inspired and influenced them. He then had his charges identify those supporters using the helmet and a Sharpie.
The result is a solemn, emotional exhibit that answers this question: Who in your life gives you added strength and focus?
That was an easy choice for senior strong safety Dezmen Southward, who chose his mother, Caprice.
“There’ve been a lot of struggles we’ve been through, things that people have no idea about,” he said. “Through thick and thin, my mom’s always been there. I want to play for her and honor her in everything I do.”
Southward, from Sunrise, Fla., said he spent a lot of time playing AAU basketball as a youngster.
“My mom never really had the money, but she always found a way to get it to help me get those shoes or the jersey or the money to go for a trip,” he said. “It paid off because keeping me in those things kept me out of other things. I probably wouldn’t be here if she didn’t make those types of sacrifices.”
The helmet looks like it’s covered in hieroglyphics, but it’s really initials and back slashes, all in the name of appreciation. It’s a mix of men and women, of living and deceased, of obvious and subtle.
Sophomore tailback Melvin Gordon said he’s one of several players — including junior wide receiver Kenzel Doe and junior nose guard Warren Herring — who put “AO1.”
“It means ‘Audience of One,’ ” Gordon explained. “I’m playing for God. That’s my big thing.”
Next to each player’s initials is their chosen source of inspiration. The helmet is displayed during team meals and is propped on an equipment trunk on the sideline during games.
They may not know until they read this because they hadn’t been told as of this week, but sophomore wide receiver and Madison resident Jordan Fredrick paid tribute to his father, Craig, and grandfather, Fred Kubsch. Craig played football at UW from 1979 to ’81 and Fred played at Marquette from 1954 to ’56.
“Those two guys are huge inspirations in my life,” said Jordan, who played at Memorial High School. “Just knowing how much it means to them is so huge. They care so much. They care about me doing well and care about the team winning.”
For senior tailback James White, the helmet gave him a chance to acknowledge his late grandfather and namesake, James Willis.
“He was probably my biggest fan growing up,” said White, who is from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “I lived with him for a little bit when I was in elementary school. I actually have his name tattooed on my wrist.
“He’s somebody who’s always fresh in my mind. If he was still alive, I know he’d be here watching me.”
Senior tight end Jacob Pedersen got emotional talking about his choice. He recounted something his grandfather, Edwin Pedersen, said when Jacob was a grade-schooler in Menominee, Mich.
“When I was little I did everything with my grandpa,” Jacob said of putting “EP” on the helmet. “We went to a Pop Warner game and he said, ‘I can’t wait to watch you play.’ He passed away before he could ever see me play. I know that he’s definitely up there watching me play.”
Sophomore quarterback Joel Stave put the first initial for all his family members: father Karl, mother Barb, brother Bryan and sister Rachel.
“Obviously you’re playing for yourself, playing for your team,” Joel said. “But you want to have someone outside that who’s really helped you get to where you are that you want to be playing for.
“I think it’s important to give credit to people who have helped you get where you are.”
Senior defensive end Ethan Hemer, from Medford, designated his father, Jeff, “because he was a great inspiration, a very hard worker, somebody who cared about people, someone I try and emulate.”
Until cornerback Sojourn Shelton came to UW to begin his freshman year last spring, his mother, Rachel Victor, attended every game he played. That’s harder to do given she lives in Fort Lauderdale, but her son keeps her close via the helmet.
“She’s my No. 1 support system,” Shelton said. “I love her to death. She raised me in the right direction and raised me to become a man, so every time I get a chance to step out here (on the field), I do it for her.”
Senior inside linebacker Chris Borland, from Kettering, Ohio, said he put the initials of some family members, including father, Jeff, and mom, Zebbie, but had a pragmatic view.
“Really, at the end of the day, I think you should be playing for yourself because it doesn’t matter how much you love your mom, you probably won’t play hard,” he said.
Of course, the Badgers play for those who fill Camp Randall Stadium for every game, but there’s only so much room on the helmet.
“We play for the fans also,” Fredrick said. “It just doesn’t work out that we satisfy them all the time.”