The top 5 NFL stars to make the grade from the Wisconsin Badgers
The University of Wisconsin has been the breeding ground for all kinds of academic and sporting talent through the decades, not least in American Football. The Wisconsin Badgers are one of the longest-serving teams in the Big Ten Conference, having been one of the founding members in 1896. It’s more recently that the Badgers have found their feet, with five West Division titles between 2011 and 2019. Given the heritage surrounding the team and its Camp Randall Stadium, we thought it would be a good idea to celebrate the wealth of gridiron talent that’s graduated from the Badgers into the big time of the NFL through the generations.
There are members of the University of Wisconsin alumni that have reached their own “big time” in their respective professions too, with the “Poker Brat” Phil
Hellmuth studying here in the early 1980s, where he was introduced to the game of no-limit Texas Hold’em that has so far earned him almost $25m in live poker earnings.
Nevertheless, $25m is a drop in the ocean for Badgers’ five best exports into the NFL, who have gone on to achieve Super Bowl and Pro Football greatness.
Mike Webster: At the heart of the Steelers’ Super Bowl success in the 70s
“Iron Mike” Webster was a huge part of the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line during the 1970s. Having graduated with the Badgers and deemed the leading center in the Big Ten, Webster was a fifth-round pick by the Steelers in the 1974 NFL Draft. Webster and Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw proved to be a hugely dominant center-quarterback duo. The pair combined to steer Pittsburgh to four Super Bowl victories in Super Bowl IX, X, XIII and XIV respectively.
Joe Thomas: A sure-fire Pro Bowl pick during his ten years with Cleveland
Joe Thomas is a born-and-bred Wisconsin graduate. Star of the Brookfield Central Lancers high school team, Thomas later enrolled in the University of Wisconsin, playing a key role for the Badgers between 2003 and 2006. In his final year, Thomas opted to return with the Badgers after sustaining a serious cruciate ligament injury the previous season. Such was his potential that the Cleveland Browns snapped Thomas up in the 2007 NFL Draft in only the third pick of the first round. Thomas didn’t let the Browns down, spending the best part of a decade with the team. His first contract – a six-year deal worth a guaranteed $23m – blows Phil Hellmuth’s career earnings well and truly out of the water. The offensive tackle has been a stalwart Pro Bowl selection throughout his decade with the Browns.
J.J. Watt: The NFL’s first defensive player to post two 20+ sack seasons
After forgoing his scholarship with Central Michigan, J.J. Watt made the move to Wisconsin-Madison in 2008. By the time 2010 rolled around, Watt was a Badgers stalwart. Both Sports Illustrated and AP rated him a second-team All-American and a first-team All-Big Ten pick, as well as the Badgers’ MVP. At 6ft 5” and 288 lb, there was no doubt that Watt would be a fierce prospect at defensive end in the NFL. It was clear Watt was ready for the big time and he skipped his senior season with the Badgers to enter the 2011 NFL Draft and join the Houston Texans. In his sophomore year with Houston, he posted 20.5 sacks and 69 solo tackles in an outrageous defensive season.
Elroy Hirsch: “Crazylegs” became a Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee
A Wisconsin native, Elroy Hirsch represented the Badgers as a halfback. Hirsch, who was endearingly nicknamed “Crazylegs” for his awkward running style, was an inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967 and latterly the College Football Hall of Fame in 1974. As a player, Hirsch spent three seasons with the Chicago Rockets and nine years with the LA Rams. He won the NFL Championship once with the Rams in 1951, but it could have been so much better for the Rams and Hirsch, having lost three of his four NFL Championship appearances. Hirsch consoled himself after his football career with a stint in Hollywood on the silver screen.
Russell Wilson: The star quarterback ranked #12 in the NFL Top 100 in 2021
32-year-old quarterback Russell Wilson is a star for the Seattle Seahawks. Having initially represented North Carolina State, Wilson transferred to Wisconsin after the 2010 season. He set a season record for passing efficiency in the 2011 season, helping the Badgers to a long-awaited Big Ten title as well as the Rose Bowl in the following year. Wilson has played for the Seattle Seahawks ever since being selected in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft. He won the Super Bowl XLVIII against the Denver Broncos and in 2020 was ranked number two in the NFL Top 100. He’ll have to make do with being ranked 12th in the upcoming 2021/22 NFL season, which may explain why he’s rated above the likes of Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen in the new Madden 22 release.