At one point in our youth we all had the dream. Played out in our backyards or empty fields, our NFL dreams came to life.
We were all the starting quarterback for the Green Bay Packers. None of us ever made it, though Kaukauna’s Reed Giordana came closer than any of us, as the record-setting quarterback from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point signed as a free agent with the Packers in 1978.
But for the vast majority, the dreams die with nothing but a few grass stains from those backyards and barren fields.
The Fox Valley will never be confused with a football factory. We don’t produce NFL-caliber players like widgets. We produce the rare gem that is unearthed, molded and shaped into something special.
We may not care for the Falcons or the Panthers, but we root for Neenah’s Peter Konz, a second-year player expected to be the starting center for Atlanta, and Kimberly’s A.J. Klein, a rookie linebacker with Carolina, because they are our own. And they are living the dream we all once had of playing in the NFL.
They are a source of pride for anyone over 25 and a reason for hope for everyone between the ages of 10 and 24 who don the pads and line up on Friday nights or Saturday afternoons.
Talent counts, of course, but when it comes to football, the playing field can be leveled with drive, determination, dedication and desire.
“A guy like A.J. Klein, who isn’t too far removed from our program, was not a top-end kid coming through our youth program and coming in as a freshman,” said Kimberly head coach Steve Jones. “But through hard work, dedication, commitment, it made him a great football player.
“And now he comes back and talks to our players and talks about those things that enabled him to play in college and, hopefully, the NFL. And maybe it gives those kids who may be thinking of doing that, knowing that through hard work it can be a realistic goal.”
We are not only fortunate to have the stories of Fox Valley Super Bowl champions like Rocky Bleier, Dave Casper, Clint Kriewaldt and Eric Jensen to pass on, but the stories of guys like Mike Verstegen and Matt VandenBoom and Konz and Klein who made it to the game’s highest level.
And there are many more who have gone on to play at major D-1 programs like Jason Kidder (Appleton West, Oklahoma State), Cody Evers (Little Chute, Indiana), Gabe Roberts (New London, Pittsburgh), Pat Gill and Chris Gill (Xavier, Wisconsin) and players who had no scholarship but walked on and succeeded like John Pawielski (Waupaca, Minnesota), Ben West (Appleton North, Minnesota) and Kyle Zuleger (Appleton East, Wisconsin).
This is just a partial list but it represents the many different ways players have found a way to the top no matter where they began. Some, like Kriewaldt, came from Division III. Others, like Bleier, overcame near-crippling injuries in Vietnam to become a starter on four Super Bowl teams in Pittsburgh.
It’s not just the stories these players provide that give hope. Some have returned to pass on their vast knowledge and experience as high school coaches, like Verstegen at Kimberly and Kriewaldt at Freedom.
At Kimberly, VandenBoom’s jersey with the Buffalo Bills and Verstegen’s with the New Orleans Saints hang in the hallway that leads to the locker room and weight room.
“Just that constant visual reminder that it is possible that someone from your hometown, like Kimberly, can make it,” said Jones. “If I was in high school and passed those everyday, it would certainly motivate me to work hard toward those goals.”
We don’t know who or where the next Division I or NFL player will come from in the Fox Valley.
But starting Friday, on a high school football field near you, there will be players working toward that goal.
We know this because we have a history of players who have done it before and who to this day provide inspiration to those who are following in their footsteps.
— Mike Woods: 920-993-1000, ext. 232, or email@example.com; On Twitter @PCMikeW