During the summer, University of Wisconsin offensive lineman Ricky Wagner helped his former high school coach during football practices.
Scott Otto is now the football coach and athletic director at Greenfield High School, but before that he coached Wagner at West Allis Hale.
“All the kids are like, ‘Coach, what did he play in high school for you?’ ’’ Otto said. “I said, ‘Tight end and receiver.’ They’re like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ He’s just a mountain.”
Wagner has grown to 6-foot-6 and 320 pounds and might be UW’s new starting right tackle in Saturday’s home opener against San Jose State at Camp Randall Stadium. UW coach Bret Bielema has not been satisfied with current starter Josh Oglesby and threw the job open this week.
At the very least, Wagner, a sophomore, is the likely left tackle of the future after senior Gabe Carimi departs.
It’s hard to imagine another player in the program who has come further in the past three years than Wagner, who never played on the offensive line until moving there midway through his redshirt year in 2008.
But Wagner’s impressive weight gain represents only a portion of what has become a nice success story.
Last week, an emotional Wagner was one of three walk-ons who were awarded scholarships.
“I was so thankful they have enough confidence in me and trust to offer me that,” he said.
The scholarship came a couple of years later than expected, after Wagner made a costly mistake early in his senior year of high school. An athletic code violation, which Otto confirmed was for “a drinking-related offense,” caused Wagner to be suspended for eight games.
Although it was not a first offense for Wagner, Otto insisted it was “totally out of character. That was the crazy part about it.”
“He made a mistake,” Otto said. “He was 17. I tell you what, he has paid the price for it, but he’s a stronger man because of it.”
Hardwood to hard knocks
Wagner grew up playing basketball and traveling around the country on top AAU teams. He had five Division I basketball offers, including UW-Milwaukee and UW-Green Bay. Even after Wagner elected to play football, UWM coach Rob Jeter made a late plea.
“Coach Jeter said, ‘If he decides the day before school starts he wants to play basketball, we have a scholarship for him,’ ’’ Otto said.
Wagner was not going to play football as a 6-4, 195-pound sophomore, because of injury concerns. But Otto, in his first year at the school, convinced him it would help his hands if he played receiver.
As a junior, the starting tight end broke a hand and moved to guard. So, Wagner, who had grown to 6-6 and 240, became the starting tight end.
“He made me look pretty good,” Otto said. “We’d throw the ball to him and how do you stop the kid?”
By his senior year, Wagner decided football was his best option, based on the quality of teams interested in him. In addition to UW, Michigan and Illinois visited the school and Ohio State sent letters.
After the suspension, the only football offers Wagner had were Northern Illinois and South Dakota. UW offensive line coach Bob Bostad remained interested throughout and asked Otto if he would vouch for Wagner.
Otto knew his reputation was at stake but never hesitated. He considers Wagner to be like another son. “I had no doubt in vouching for Ricky Wagner,” he said.
The soft-spoken Wagner always wanted to play for the Badgers. He enjoys fishing, just like another former UW left tackle of note who also starred on the basketball court: Joe Thomas.
In fact, Otto thinks Wagner is in the mold of both Thomas and Carimi in terms of athleticism.
“I’m not saying he’s as good as Gabe Carimi, but he’s like that because he’s a basketball player,” Otto said. “His feet are unbelievable. He’s not your typical offensive lineman. He caught passes for a long time.”
Bostad saw a raw, athletic talent when he got Wagner, but also saw something else in his demeanor and willingness to walk on at UW.
“I think at a position like offensive line, there’s not a lot of glory in it,” Bostad said. “It’s hard work, it’s physical, it can be painful. The way he has taken it on, obviously, he’s got some internal drive to want to play here, to play football and be a good player.”
Not only has Wagner helped the Greenfield players on the field, he has talked to them about his own experiences and the consequences that can come from one poor choice. Those words carry more weight coming from Wagner than a coach.
“When this whole thing came down three years ago, I said, ‘Ricky, you can be the kid that people are talking about and saying, ‘What a waste of talent,’ ” Wagner said. “Or you can be the kid people talk about and say, ‘A great success story.’
“He has chosen to be the success story.”