Jared Abbrederis was initially set to join Wisconsin's track and field team until he was offered a preferred walk-on football spot shortly before camp started in 2009. He has since grown from a guy with no FBS offers out of high school to a guy few FBS secondaries have been able to slow down over the past four years.
In between, he has grown, well, kind of old. He got married two springs ago. He will be 23 if and when Wisconsin closes its season in a bowl game. Three years ago, he hosted his current quarterback, Joel Stave, on Stave's official visit. The two have since connected for seven scores over the last two seasons, and even Stave sometimes gets that you again? feeling that Big Ten defensive coordinators have become all too familiar with.
"That seems like forever ago for me," Stave said of his visit. "And the fact that he's still the playing is pretty incredible. But he's continued to do such a good job for four years. He's one of those guys you don't mind having stick around."
Abbrederis has stuck around for three Big Ten titles. He is one of the conference's top receivers, trailing only Penn State's Allen Robinson in catches and receiving yards per game, and he is coming off a career day at Ohio State, where he torched All-America corner Bradley Roby for 10 catches, 207 yards and a touchdown.
But Abbrederis would rather avoid such sidebars. That Buckeye game was a loss -- his Badgers' second this year, two weeks after an officiating gaffe cost them a chance to win at Arizona State -- and that was all that mattered. Wisconsin's last 12 losses since 2010 have all been decided by a touchdown or less, including three tight Rose Bowl defeats, leaving an admonition that continues to drum inside the senior's head.
"He's been around for some unbelievable losses," Wisconsin receivers coach Chris Beatty said. "So that's where I think a lot of it comes from -- 'Hey, I just want to win,' and it doesn't matter.
"He's one of those guys that says, 'Hey, if it means I've got to push, crack and go block a safety, I'll go block a safety. I just want to win. It doesn't matter if I'm catching passes or not.' And that's the most evident thing to me, is he's just a winner. Stats and all that stuff are secondary."
Abbrederis leads the Badgers in receiving yards (114.4 ypg) for the third straight season. His exploits as a return man were highlighted in 2011, when he finished third nationally in punt return average (15.75). He was still a walk-on that season, just like his first two years in Madison, paying to play while enduring a nagging toe injury as his seemingly imminent scholarship was delayed a year after Wisconsin added a quarterback transfer by the name of Russell Wilson.
Both Beatty and first-year Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen were familiar with Abbrederis before their arrivals in Madison, since their former schools (Illinois and Utah State, respectively) faced Wisconsin last year. Abbrederis missed the meeting with the Aggies because of a concussion and a chest injury. That was the only college game he has sat out.
This past July, he showed up to Big Ten media days in Chicago sporting marks under both eyes, a result of a broken nose suffered during summer workouts.
"You get what you see with Jared," Andersen said. "There are no secret agendas, no hidden agendas. He comes to work every day and he has a smile on his face. He loves life. That was my first impression of him and that carries through today."
Beatty was initially struck by the size of Abbrederis, who is listed at 6-foot-2, 190 pounds and whose prep coach said he was 175 pounds soaking wet as a high school junior. Then, he was hanging with some of Wautoma High's offensive linemen by squatting upward of 390 pounds. One year earlier, a broken right femur and ACL injury had cost him most of his first year as the varsity's starting quarterback, leaving him wheelchair-bound for parts of his recovery before he made it back in time to place in that spring's state track and field meet.
"That was the start of seeing that ‘If there's a challenge, I'm going to rise above it,'" said former Wautoma assistant and current head coach Mike Klieforth. "And he's done that every time he's had that challenge; he's met it and exceeded it."
Abbrederis has risen from walk-on to go-to threat while playing for three offensive coordinators in the last three years, but signature wins have remained just out of reach -- be it the trio of shortcomings in Pasadena, the three different overtime defeats in 2012 or the 2011 loss at Michigan State, a game that ended with Abbrederis, moonlighting as a defensive back, mistiming his jump on a Hail Mary that deflected into a completion for the Spartan win.
"We've been in some big games, some close ones, came up in short in a lot of them," said Abbrederis, who gained 346 all-purpose yards but lost a fumble late in a Rose Bowl loss to Oregon two seasons ago. "But I think that's just Wisconsin. The way we work, you always kind of have that chip on your shoulder to improve and get better, kind of always the underdog. So it's just the mentality, and also just being a walk-on, you kind of have that chip on your shoulder to make it and get better."
Abbrederis has caught the attention of former Badger walk-on receiver Luke Swan, now in his third year with the program as a graduate assistant. Swan sees a lot of himself in Abbrederis -- another undersize, in-state native with a strong Christian faith who grew into a starting role. And Swan appreciates his new pupil's need for feedback and initiative to get better.
"He really takes things personal, whether it's individual failures or team failures, they're very much links for him," Swan said. "He sees the small margin for a win and a loss, the small margin between being good and being great as a team. So I think he kind of has that constant quest of understanding that big perspective."
Five years ago, before his final high school game, Abbrederis wanted to show his teammates how much they meant to him. He penned a letter thanking them all, and it was passed around on the 90-minute bus ride to Camp Randall for the WIAA Division 4 state title. Then Wautoma went out and blanked previously undefeated Big Foot, 20-0, with Abbrederis rushing for one touchdown, throwing for another and picking off two passes.
Said then-Wautoma coach Dennis Moon: "You just want to play to the best of your abilities, above and beyond your abilities, when you've got a guy like that around you."