A tragedy, an unbeaten season, odd coincidences and the 'perfect' community celebration

Photo courtesy of Kim Zuelsdorf

A tragedy, an unbeaten season, odd coincidences and the 'perfect' community celebration

Football

A tragedy, an unbeaten season, odd coincidences and the 'perfect' community celebration

CAMBRIDGE, Wisconsin – A rosary dangles from a weathered 2-by-6, swaying in the warm summer breeze.

The board, beaten gray by 14 winters, stands at the edge of a cornfield a few feet off a small county highway. The letters were washed out too, before a recent paint job made them pop:

“DOZER #52” “7-27-04”

This wooden marker serves as a somber tribute at the spot a popular Cambridge High School football player died in a motorcycle accident on a sunny afternoon 14 years ago, shortly before his senior year.

But while it has faded, another colorful, upbeat memorial continues to grow.

Teammates and parents and coaches and friends relive an amazing football season inspired — and eerily prophesied — by the stocky lineman they affectionately called Dozer.

Dozens of people who didn’t even know the Zuelsdorfs fly in from Washington, D.C., and drive from Illinois and Minnesota to join those who knew him well, to splash and laugh and turn strangers into friends.

And under a blue-and-white flag bearing Zuelsdorf’s uniform number, 52, a small town pulls together the way small towns do. For Cambridge, “Dip for Dozer” has become a welcome winter break.

“When people come up to me — people that didn’t necessarily know Dustin all that well — and they say, ‘Oh, this is a weekend we look forward to every year. We plan around this weekend,’ it’s like, ‘Wow,'” said Kim Zuelsdorf, Dustin’s mother, who grapples with a mix of pride and melancholy every time.

“Even if some people aren’t really aware of the story and why we started this, they still come out and support what’s going on and visit our town and see what a great community we have.”

* * *

Cambridge is quintessential small-town USA.

A state highway slows to 25 mph for a Main Street flanked by coffee shops, offices, pottery stores, boutiques and a café that stays open till 10 p.m. on weekends. Don’t worry much if you left your car doors unlocked when you went in.

The oldest buildings date to the 1850s, and the town square honors local residents killed in wars from Civil to present.

This village 20 miles east of Madison is ringed by farmland and, more closely, by subdivisions built on former farms.

It’s a place where high school football isn’t just for the high schoolers and their families. The game is still a community event. And every fall – practice begins next week – the small town’s rhythm again turns to Friday nights.

* * *

The Cambridge High School Blue Jays finished 3-6 in Zuelsdorf’s sophomore season and 2-7 when he and his classmates were juniors. Expectations, at least from the outside, weren’t much better for the 2004 season.

“We were picked to finish maybe sixth in the conference by the people that pontificate about those things at the beginning of the season, and we were the smallest school in the conference,” said Bryce Chinault, a tight end and defensive end.

Perhaps the seed of that hope led Zuelsdorf to the topic and title for his junior creative writing assignment, “A Perfect Season.” Its 10 pages ended with a 15-14 comeback victory sealed on an opponent’s missed field goal.

“We had won. It was our first conference championship since changing conferences 4 years ago, as we were heading into the playoffs,” the final two sentences read.

* * *

Dozer liked to write, even enjoyed poetry.

He was a solid student, maybe a little better than he’d let on, and seemed to fit in with a wide cross-section of students. Five-foot-10 ½-inches and about 235 pounds, he’d become a big boy with a personality to match.

Zuelsdorf probably would have headed to UW-Platteville to study engineering or construction management. He also had the idea — stemming from struggles of his own — to build adaptive equipment for motorcycles.

“Dustin’s challenge was he was born with a very severe club foot and he had several surgeries when he was young and even as he got older,” his mother said.

“It was going to be a life-long problem, and I don’t think people knew the extent of what he went through with the pain and what it meant to play football and come home and be laying around with bags of ice. That wasn’t going to prevent him from doing it.”

Motorcycles were another passion for Zuelsdorf, and if he could make it easier for someone else to enjoy riding the way he did, that would be gratifying.

* * *

Just east of Cambridge, County A runs for two miles, connecting Hwy 18 on the north, the road along which the high school sits, with Hwy 12, the extension of Main Street, on the south. It’s just twisty enough to be an interesting drive.

On a sunny summer day just weeks before the start of football practice, Zuelsdorf was riding his beloved bike, rounding the right-hand bend on A past the farm where teammate Zach Probst and his family lived. At the same time, a semi swung wide to make the turn into the farm.

“Doing something they both probably had done dozens of times — and probably both would have done exactly the same way again — and just happened to be doing it at the same time,” said Chinault, who learned of the accident while out of town. “I don’t know the speed Dozer was going; I don’t know exactly where the semi was. I just imagine it was probably a confluence of events that happened at the same time.”

Probst heard the accident, called for help and then discovered the injured rider was his friend. Among the first responders who came to the scene was Joe Evans, a longtime friend of Kim and Dale Zuelsdorf. He was holding their son when he died.

* * *

“A small town, something like this happens, the town kind of gets shell-shocked by it,” Chinault said. “Nobody’s really sure what to do.”

Especially a group of teenage boys who’d never experienced the death of someone their own age and whose most important immediate goal — winning football games — was so inextricably linked with that someone, a team captain, a two-way starter and a friend.

Coaches gathered the team at the high school, and they went to Zuelsdorf’s wake together.

By Week 6, the Blue Jays had chalked up more victories than in the two previous seasons combined and were on on a collision course with Columbus, a school with about 400 students to Cambridge’s 250, and the top-ranked team in Division 4. Cambridge played in Division 5.

Sound familiar?

* * *

“We were down early, 14-0, and it wasn’t looking so good,” Chinault recalled.

Zuelsdorf’s story had that detail, as well.

Cambridge, playing on adrenaline, inched away in the second half, but in the fourth quarter Columbus had the ball, and with a break or two might have a chance to come back. A long score … an onside kick … a turnover … who knows?

“I knew the quarterback was throwing, so as the defensive end, you get to pin your ears back and just go get the quarterback,” Chinault said.

“As he was throwing it, I hit him. In the game film, you can see him kind of buckle as he’s throwing it. The ball sails errant a bit, and Zach Probst … intercepts the ball to win the game, to prove the story true.”

“And after he gets tackled, the clock stops at 52 seconds,” Chinault said. “The score was 31-21, which adds up to 52. And that was Dozer’s football jersey number.

“Someone had the wits about them to take a picture of the scoreboard.”

* * * 

Like Zuelsdorf’s story, the Cambridge football fairy tale didn’t go far enough.

The Blue Jays pummeled Kenosha St. Joseph, 49-19, in a first-round playoff game but the lost, 20-7, to eventual state champion Brillion in the quarterfinals.

“I just remember thinking, dang it, if we just didn’t play our worst game. …” Chinault said. Then he chuckled.

“We blame Dozer because he didn’t write that we won state that year.”

* * *

Kim Zuelsdorf stumbled across her son’s English paper while gathering mementos for his funeral and couldn’t help but to be moved by it.

“The chances that they were going to be conference champions was pretty remote, right?” she said. “To see that develop and how they made that happen, to me was the most incredible story. They pulled together.”

* * *

Not long after Dozer died, the idea came to start a scholarship in his name that would go to a player or players on the team for college or tech school.

Initially, it was funded through raffles and those sorts of things, but while away on vacation in northern Wisconsin, Jana Evans — a classmate of Kim and Dale Zuelsdorf and the wife of Joe Evans, the volunteer fireman — heard of a polar plunge for charity in a nearby town.

“When you have someone that young pass away so tragically, we just thought it would be healthy to find a way to bring the community together in something that Dustin and his age group would find fun and entertaining.”

Thus the Dip for Dozer was born. The first, in February 2006, drew 27 dippers, all of whom pledged or raised at least $52.

“It started out with a little hole with people changing in an ice shanty and a pickup truck,” Evans said. “The pledge amounts we collected were $3,964, which we thought was phenomenal. So it’s like, ‘Hey, maybe we got something here.’ ”

* * *

Thirteen Dips later, 54 Cambridge football players have earned scholarships totaling more than $110,000, said Jana Evans, a vice president of Badger Bank and manager of the Cambridge branch.

This year’s event raised more than $21,000 from 112 people who jumped in Lake Ripley on a sunny 23-degree day and several hundred more who watched.

Zuelsdorf’s teammates, friends and coaches dipped, and scholarship recipients as well. Kim jumped in, as did Dustin’s younger brother, Kiefer.

“Our (high school exchange) student from Germany this year jumped, and she thought it was a great experience,” Evans said. “We gave her a medal for the longest distance traveled to dip in Lake Ripley.”

Chinault brought his wife and two dozen friends from Washington, where he works at George Washington University.

Some work in government. Some have employers who match donations. None of them knew Zuelsdorf personally.

“I might even meet somebody random and strike up a conversation, and it’ll be the middle of June and I’ll say, ‘Do you have any plans the second Saturday of February?’ ” Chinault said. “Most people say no, like, why would I have plans?

“So I get a little chuckle out of it, and I said, ‘I didn’t think so. Well, I’ll be jumping in a frozen lake in Wisconsin if you want to join me.’ Usually their first reaction is, why would I want to do that? ‘Well,  let me tell you a story. …’ ”

“But it amazes me that something that we started maybe as a one-time thing has lasted 13 years,” Kim Zuelsdorf said. “We just wanted to go out, have some fun, and yes, it was intended as a fundraiser initially, but nothing like what it’s grown into.”

* * *

The obvious question, then, is where will it go?

With each passing year, direct connections to Zuelsdorf himself grow more tenuous. The core group behind the Dip has aged.

But the Cambridge youth football program has become involved, and other fundraising events have been added on the same day at a nearby bar. So all signs point to the Dip for Dozer continuing to grow, at least for now.

“Until I pass, the intent of the day is to honor Dustin and to bring together the community,” Evans said. “So, the money, yeah, it’s great. It’s wonderful. It’s helping people. But at the end of the day, it’s not really what it’s all about.”

It’s about a small town pulling together to make something good out of something bad.

For more, visit the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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