MADISON, Wis. -- When Randy Schobert expressed concern about the lack of football scholarship offers for his son, he used to hear a common refrain meant to assuage any fears. Joe Schobert's prodigious high school talent was so obvious, it seemed, that it was only a matter of time before Division I programs realized what they were missing.
Parents and high school coaches alike told Randy not to worry. Joe was the star of a state championship team at Wisconsin's Waukesha West High School in 2010, a two-way all-state player at running back and safety as a junior. The question, really, was this: Who wouldn't want Joe Schobert on their team?
"And then, nobody called," Randy said. "I mean, nobody. We didn't get a call from anybody. I don't get it what people didn't see in him. It was kind of strange."
Schobert's story is one that highlights the occasional inadequacies of evaluating high school talent during college recruitment. Despite tremendous success playing in the largest high school classification in Wisconsin, he did not receive a single Division I full-ride scholarship offer. And if not for a last-minute phone call from former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema in July 2012 asking Schobert to consider a walk-on spot with the Badgers, he would have been headed for North Dakota of the FCS -- also as a walk-on.
More than three years later, it seems silly to think so many schools could pass on Schobert. He has developed into one of the sensational staples to Wisconsin's defense, a two-year starter at outside linebacker who is as athletic as anybody on the field. During Wisconsin's 35-17 season-opening loss to third-ranked Alabama last Saturday, Schobert led the Badgers in total tackles (13) and added four tackles for a loss and two sacks.
Yet during Schobert's high school career, he faced an inexplicable uphill climb. In 2010, he set the all-time rushing record for the big-class football state championship game in Wisconsin, totaling 296 yards on 38 carries. As a senior, his rushing numbers were exceptional (1,452 yards with 23 touchdowns), though he rarely played full games during several blowouts, which his father suggested might have affected his recruitment. The fact he was seen as more of an athlete and didn't project as a running back also didn't help.
Randy considered spending a few thousand dollars on a recruiting service that would produce highlight tapes and find his son a school, but he said coaches told him to wait because it wasn't worth the money. By the time Schobert participated in the annual Wisconsin Football Coaches Association all-star game in July 2012, he still didn't have a scholarship and was all set to walk on at North Dakota.
That's when a combination of hard work and luck set Schobert on a path that changed the direction of his football career. Injuries to several players ahead of him forced Schobert into action as a running back, safety and kick returner. He finished with 145 all-purpose yards and tallied two tackles, two pass-breakups and an interception.
It was enough to wow former Kenosha Bradford coach Jed Kennedy -- who coached Badgers Heisman Trophy finalist Melvin Gordon in high school. When Schobert told him he was headed to play at North Dakota, Kennedy couldn't believe it and quickly used his contacts with Wisconsin's staff.
An assistant coach soon called Schobert about a potential walk-on spot at Wisconsin. He drove to Madison, took a physical exam, filled out the necessary paperwork with the admissions office and waited. But the paperwork was never properly processed, and Schobert was only three days from loading up a car and making the 10-hour drive with his mom, Christine, to Grand Forks, North Dakota.
"It came down to Friday," Randy said. "We said if we don't know anything by Friday, then he's going to North Dakota. Friday came and went and nobody contacted us at all. We assumed they couldn't get it done in time, and off to North Dakota we were going to go on Monday."
Then, on Sunday afternoon, Joe received a call from Bielema. Though Joe had not yet been admitted to Wisconsin, Bielema assured him it would not be a problem. He was welcome to join the team as a walk-on at the school he dreamed of attending.
"I just had to trust that I would get in, and my mom was kind of hesitant about it," Joe said. "My dad and I and my mom all really wanted me to come here, so I gave it a shot, and it worked out."
Schobert ultimately earned a scholarship and became the full-time starter at outside linebacker last season. His defining series came in overtime of Wisconsin's 34-31 Outback Bowl victory against Auburn, when he recorded three tackles on all three Auburn offensive plays, which amounted to minus-three yards and a missed field goal.
"Joe's amazing, to be honest with you," Badgers cornerback Sojourn Shelton said. "He's a freak as far as just being athletic."
An athletic freak Wisconsin nearly missed out on and is now grateful to have.
"It's kind of strange how it all worked out, but it definitely did work out," Randy said. "So we can't have any regrets for that."