Culmer St. Jean purchased a suit for the occasion about a month ago.
"I'm going to look fresh," he said, beaming.
The fifth-year middle linebacker for the University of Wisconsin football team will graduate next month with a degree in consumer affairs. St. Jean is the fifth of immigrant parents Dirogene and Ydora St. Jean's six kids. He will be the first from his immediate family to graduate from college.•
"It's a big deal," St. Jean said. "My mom makes a big deal of it. She always told me, ‘Do football, that's something you want to do, but make sure you get your education because football is not guaranteed.' ''
It's not the only good advice St. Jean got from his mom. His parents are from Haiti, then moved to the Bahamas, where St. Jean was born. The family came to Florida a few years later, finally settling in Naples, on the Gulf Coast.
"My mom raised me to be a good person and do what's right," St. Jean said. "She's a hard-working woman. Every day she went to work and did what she had to do. I got that from her and my dad."
St. Jean's mom worked at a hotel, while his dad worked in construction.
"Most Haitians I know are hard-working people," St. Jean said. "We come from a Third-World country. They've seen the worst and they're just working to be better. I feel that's how I approach things. I know how it is to come from nothing and work your way up to everything."
It also describes St. Jean's career with the Badgers. Before the season started, UW coach Bret Bielema said he's never been around a player who came as far in his college career as St. Jean. He has developed into one of the leaders of an improved defense, which must contend with Indiana's potent passing attack today at Camp Randall Stadium.
St. Jean, who initially struggled with his adjustment to the Midwest, also has become a mentor to many of the Florida players who followed him, including junior free safety Aaron Henry.
As a captain and member of a senior class that has seen both highs and lows, St. Jean is doing everything in his power to help the Badgers close out a special season with at least a share of the Big Ten Conference title.
Last week in UW's 34-13 win at Purdue, St. Jean had a momentum-swinging interception early in the second half, a sign of the progress he has made against spread teams in the passing game — and evidence he is healthy after quietly battling ankle, knee, hip and groin injuries this season.
"It was the first game, I can tell you, he's been healthy all season," said defensive coordinator Dave Doeren, who coaches the linebackers. "Obviously, that helps our defense if our (middle linebacker) is playing fast."
More than a few people, including Doeren, wondered if St. Jean ever would reach this point.
"He was just lost, like a lot of guys are, a long way from home, wondering, ‘What in the heck am I doing here?' " Doeren said of his first memory of St. Jean as a freshman. "He was trying to figure it all out. He was out of shape and out of position. To his credit, he never quit."
A quarterback at Lely High School, St. Jean was recruited as a safety, then moved to outside linebacker.
He was made the backup middle linebacker during fall camp as a redshirt freshman but tried to put on weight fast and lost most of his speed.
"I wasn't moving as fast as I was moving at safety, so I got frustrated with myself," he said. "They had me in the two-deep but I couldn't get the job done. I was upset. When you get upset, you tend to lose yourself."
But if there has been a hallmark of St. Jean's career, it has been slow and steady progress, becoming the full-time starter last season as a junior.
"I've just watched him understand what it means to be accountable and be a leader, to know what each day means," Doeren said. "He's got a child, he's going to graduate, he's had an internship at Merrill Lynch. He's got his life in control right now. He's a very serious human being.
"Coming to practice is a job for him right now and he loves it."
St. Jean's daughter, Melanie Lynn, will turn 1 later this month. That's one of many life experiences St. Jean has not been reluctant to share with his teammates, including a recent discussion with another player about to become a father.
"I was telling him, there was one day I had a tough practice," St. Jean said. "(My daughter) was visiting for my birthday in September. I came home and was kind of sad and she crawled into my arms. She was smiling and giggling. You kind of look at life a little differently. It might be hard today but there are more things to enjoy in life."
Henry can't say enough good things about how St. Jean started him down the right path in college.
"He was on top of me," Henry said. "He was making sure I was going to class, looked out for me if I ever needed something. If I was hungry, ‘Come over and eat.' ''
The word Henry uses to describe St. Jean is "loving," not the first word that comes to mind in describing a Big Ten linebacker. Henry spent time with St. Jean and his family in Naples over the summer.
"He's a hard-nosed player, but he's so caring about other people, family and teammates," Henry said. "If you meet Culmer, you can consider yourself like a family member to him.
"Nobody's a stranger to Culmer. I met him in Naples. I was around his family. I was like, ‘You build up that family-like brotherhood here and you take it back (to UW) with you.'"
St. Jean didn't transform himself in a day. The changes were incremental. But he never stopped working, trying to make himself better.
"I don't really make huge steps, just one day at a time," he said. "That's the best way to be a better football player; when a coach coaches you, you take it personally and make that change."
Bielema said NFL scouts who have been through have talked about one more change — possibly looking at St. Jean at fullback. He's all for anything that will allow him to keep playing football and said UW coaches discussed playing him at fullback this season in the red zone, before the injuries.
The high ankle sprain came near the end of camp and when St. Jean favored it, it led to the other problems. But he got healthy during the bye two weeks ago and hasn't missed a game, leading the defense with 53 tackles.
St. Jean is proud of his Haitian heritage and the ability of people in his parents' homeland to persevere in the face of the earthquake and floods that have ravaged the country in the past year. His family is across the island from Port-au-Prince, the capital which suffered the brunt of the damage in the earthquake in January. His parents went back for more than a month and did what they could to help, but the damage is still devastating.
"I take advantage of everything I can get," St. Jean said. "Being successful is using all of your resources. That's what I try to do."