WISCONSIN RAPIDS, Wis. -- A year's worth of careful preparation has distilled into the final few frantic days, and Rocky Biegel has disappeared again behind the wheel of his red pickup truck, flecks of dirt spraying as he fades into the distance toward a water reservoir.
It is a crisp, chilly October morning, with temperatures hovering in the low 40s. For the past eight days, Rocky has traversed the roads on this 80-acre cranberry marsh constantly. He rises at 4:30 a.m., powered by four hours of sleep and the adrenaline of completing what could be a record crop during harvest season. The berries have colored into a burst of bright crimson, ready to be picked while glistening beneath the sun, and he must spare no details.
For Rocky Biegel, the father of standout Wisconsin Badgers linebacker Vince Biegel, that means funneling water through pipes and out a series of bulkheads into his 22 sandy, rectangular cranberry beds throughout the day. When water rises, berries float to the top and become easier to corral, clean and ship off to Ocean Spray headquarters in trucks stuffed with 60,000 pounds of cranberries -- the literal fruits of his family's labor.
"Harvest is a joyful time," Rocky said, wearing blue jeans tucked into neoprene camouflage boots, a blue long-sleeve Ocean Spray jacket and a camo-colored Wisconsin Badgers trucker hat. "That's probably the best thing about being a farmer is the harvest process. Seeing what you've done over the summer and what God's given you."
This is the world into which Vince Biegel was born. Some may know Biegel as the mullet-wearing, sack-getting emotional leader of one of the toughest linebacker units in the country. But there is another side to Biegel, that of a fifth-generation cranberry grower who spent his adolescent years working on the marsh and whose farming background has influenced everything about him. So passionate is he about the business that he even once started a cranberry blog for a college class.
Rocky and Jamie Biegel are proof of the value of maintaining discipline and an unwavering work ethic. They continue a tradition that began on Jamie's side of the family back in 1919, when the Dempze cranberry marsh produced its first harvest. If there is one message they have imparted to their two sons and one daughter, it's that there are no shortcuts in life. Not following the necessary steps can lead to consequences that affect entire families, and those successes or failures hinge on even the most minute of chores.
"Growing up on a farm, it's not necessarily the most flashy of jobs," Vince said. "You can't cut corners when it comes to growing crops and when it comes to farming. That was a big life lesson for me. I was very thankful to be able to grow up on a cranberry farm, and it's something I cherish and I take seriously. I'm proud of being able to be in the cranberry industry because it's shaped who I am today."
'There's nothing glamorous about a shovel and dirt, but what it taught me is if I can do this kind of labor, it will set me up for the real world.'
-- Vince Biegel's class cranberry blog
The most miserable days on the marsh left Vince Biegel's hands raw and throbbing. You think shedding blocks and sacking quarterbacks is difficult? Try standing in a cranberry bed for eight to 10 hours on a hot day with nothing but a pair of pliers, repeatedly bending over to pull hundreds of tiny pine and willow tree seedlings off the bottom of the sandy soil.
Rocky Biegel is a stickler for details, and keeping the beds tidy represented not only a source of pride but also a necessity for a healthy cranberry ecosystem. That job responsibility generally fell on Vince and his brother, Hayden, who is two years younger.
"What's hard about this job is you can't just go and snip it," Vince said. "You have to go down to the base of these little trees and pull the root out. It's actually killing and taking away nutrients from the cranberry vines around it. You can't cut ends by just cutting it because the next year, it'll grow right back. You have to meticulously do this for every single one that's on the bed."
Once, Vince was put in charge of planting roughly 3,000 HyRed cranberry plugs as part of a family partnership with the University of Wisconsin. He organized a two-day, weekend affair in which 20 members of his high school football team came over to assist.
"I'd be like, 'Hey, my dad will pay you 10, 15 bucks an hour if you help me plug in all these plugs,'" Vince said. "We had screwdrivers that have a little drilling system to drill it out, plug it in, sand it down, and we would do this for a while."
Vince loved working on welding projects in the shed with his father, as they fabricated new tools to utilize on the marsh. And the brief harvest season represented Vince's favorite time of year. As a child, he would sit in his father's lap while Rocky drove a beater over each bed to separate the cranberries from their vines. When Vince grew older, he would slide on hip waders and stand in the cranberry beds with a boom, a floating containment device that collects the detached berries, which would be loaded into trucks to be pressed for Ocean Spray juice.
But Vince's prodigious high school football talent eventually precluded him from many of his cranberry duties. His father, once an all-conference linebacker at BYU, understood the rigors required to earn a college football scholarship. By the time Vince had turned 16, he was one of the best linebackers in the state and attending summer camps at BYU, Iowa and Wisconsin, among others.
Despite interest from half the Big Ten and three Rubbermaid totes full of handwritten letters from coaches, his decision came down to two schools: Follow the family footsteps to BYU, where his father and uncle had played. Or carve his own path at Wisconsin, the home-state school he grew up cheering for on the marsh.
'Our family is proud to give back to the community of Wisconsin Rapids and let the community members enjoy what Wisconsin has to offer.'
Vince and his mother were sitting at the family dinner table with BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall and a throng of Cougars assistant coaches, when a text message popped up on Vince's cell phone. The sender: Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema.
There are only so many flights in and out of the Madison area, and members of Wisconsin's coaching staff had crossed paths on the recruiting trail with BYU coaches, who were on their way in to visit Biegel. When news reached Bielema, he grabbed his phone to ask Biegel: "How's it going?"
"It was more like, 'I'm going to pretend I don't know you're meeting with coaches,'" Jamie recalled. "Kind of to feel out Vince for what his response was going to be."
The following day, Jamie said, Bielema showed up at Vince's high school. There was no way he was going to lose one of the state's prized recruits, even if the family ties ran deep elsewhere. That 24-hour stretch encapsulated the intense recruiting battle for Biegel, who was named the state's Gatorade player of the year as a senior.
"I don't think he's looked back since," said Bielema, who became the Arkansas head coach in December 2012. "He's a truly inspirational kid on and off the field."
But Vince's decision was about more than football. Badgers teammates like to say there are three pillars to Vince Biegel: cranberries, football and faith, and those three factors guided his choice to play for the Badgers.
"I felt that Wisconsin was the place where I needed to be," Biegel said. "I knew if I went to BYU, I would be kind of another Mormon kid on campus. But if I went to Wisconsin, I could really be someone that could make a difference and show the person who I am and have the biggest impact."
Jamie provides another example to illustrate why Wisconsin is so important to Vince. He was home on the marsh during the Badgers' bye week a couple of years ago, when a group of elementary students walked through the area as part of a class field trip.
Vince was knee deep in cranberries, wader boots and a coverall over a black Wisconsin sweatshirt, aiding in the annual harvest process, when he stopped, stepped out and called them over.
"Hey, I'm Vince Biegel," he told them.
"The kids about fainted," Jamie recalled.
When Vince returns to town, Jamie said, he routinely visits his elementary school. During Wisconsin's bye weekend this season in early October, he attended his high school's Friday night football game and spoke to the players before they took the field. And it's a relationship that works both ways. When Jamie pulled up to the marsh during the October harvest, two women were waiting to inquire about Vince's healing process from surgery for a cracked left foot. Everywhere the family goes in town, folks offer encouragement and show an interest in Vince's football career.
That impact is not lost on Vince.
"He wants kids in a small town to know that dreams are possible," Jamie said. "If you work hard, anything is possible. Just because you're in a small town doesn't mean you can't develop and be somebody. I think that's what he likes."
'The lessons I learned as a child still follow me to this day as I attack my workouts in the weight room, on the football field, or even in the classroom.'
There is no denying Vince could be in the middle of an NFL season right now. After submitting his paperwork to the NFL draft advisory board last season, the 6-foot-4, 245-pounder received a letter that indicated he could be drafted as high as the third or fourth round.
But the letter contained a list of weaknesses on which he could improve, and he returned to school for his senior season with the same mindset he carried on the marsh. Finish what you start. Work hard enough, and the results will sprout. He needed to elevate his pass coverage skills and strength. He wanted to be better than a third-team All-Big Ten selection, as he was a year ago.
"We definitely talked about it," Rocky said. "He asked me what I thought. I just said there's something special about playing your senior year, having the opportunity to be a captain -- all of the things that you don't necessarily get if you come out as a junior. You think about the guys who come out early who could have stayed an extra year and been able to develop. He thinks he can be a higher draft pick."
"We'll just drive around and he'll just talk about cranberries. Honestly, he could do it for hours. He's done it multiple times. I've heard the same story probably five times. I feel like I've got a pretty good understanding of cranberries now thanks to Vince." Wisconsin safety Leo Musso
Biegel's value to the football team is unquestioned. The cracked bone in his left foot required surgery, and he missed arguably the two biggest games of the year against Michigan and Ohio State. They represent the Badgers' only two losses of the season. Biegel believes he certainly could have helped alter the outcome, and teammates don't disagree given his passion and high on-field motor.
"He definitely brings the juice at all times," Wisconsin safety Leo Musso said. "If momentum is not necessarily our way, he'll try to create that. Maybe if it's through a little trash talk, maybe if it's through making a play. He kind of does whatever he needs to do to get the defense going and get our team going."
Before the season, Vince was named a team captain, as his father was at BYU. He also has better positioned himself to have an opportunity to do something his father did not. Rocky had an NFL tryout scheduled with the Buffalo Bills but didn't pass his physical and went undrafted in 1992. So, he graduated that August, moved back to Wisconsin with Jamie, and has resided on the marsh ever since.
Biegel said he "wouldn't trade any of this for the world," in spite of his injury and decreased statistical output. His return for his senior season wasn't just about improving his NFL draft stock, but also about enjoying one more season at Wisconsin.
"That's why the guys voted him as a captain because they see that's who he genuinely is," Wisconsin outside linebackers coach Tim Tibesar said. "And you can't help but be around him for a little bit of time and you see the true passion he has for this place and this football team."
'To be completely honest, I thought blogging was what bored people do on Pinterest. However, after spending a whole semester blogging about something that I'm passionate about and know a great deal, I have learned a great deal about myself and the industry.'
Ah, yes. The blog.
Last spring, Biegel took a social media class and was tasked with developing a website based on a topic for which he felt a real enthusiasm. The kicker: Its subject matter should also be something others didn't already know about him.
Biegel's choice was a no-brainer. And so, https://dempzecranberry.wordpress.com was born.
Over the course of the semester, he created 10 blog posts, including "Growing up on a cranberry marsh," "Equipment frequently seen on the marsh," "Biegel family's top 3 cranberry recipes" and "3 things that separate the Biegel family from other growers." He featured pictures of his father, as well as an image of a 3-year-old Vince with his grandfather, Jim Dempze, during the 1996 harvest.
"I thought that was a perfect opportunity for me to share in the class through my peers about the side they see less of me," Biegel said. "They see me as a football player, but they don't see this other side of me as a farmer. It was great. I was able to share some family recipes, some background history on my family, some fun things on it."
Biegel takes a particular sense of satisfaction in educating others about his family's cranberry business and the area where he grew up. Since Biegel arrived at Wisconsin, he has hosted a Fourth of July weekend gathering for teammates every year at the family marsh. At least a half-dozen players drive north to spend a day on boats in the Wisconsin River, golf at a local course, cook steaks on the grill, play games in the front yard and watch fireworks. There is good food, lots of laughs -- and plenty of cranberry conversation.
"We'll just drive around and he'll just talk about cranberries," said Musso, who was Biegel's roommate when they arrived on campus. "Honestly, he could do it for hours. He's done it multiple times. I've heard the same story probably five times. I feel like I've got a pretty good understanding of cranberries now thanks to Vince."
While on the marsh, Musso said, Vince takes each teammate on his own personal tour, explaining the process of growing cranberries. Even in the locker room, he'll occasionally share the latest products his family has produced for Ocean Spray. Musso said Biegel has discussed owning his own marsh someday, and Musso noted that "it's in his blood."
Vince is singularly focused on finishing out his final year at Wisconsin for now. Saturday will mark senior day for Vince, whose Wisconsin team plays host to rival Minnesota in a game that can clinch a Big Ten West championship and position the Badgers for a potential College Football Playoff spot. After the season, Biegel intends to pursue a pro football career for as long as he can.
He is only 23 years old, with a world of possibilities in front of him. But given how much the marsh has shaped his values and his genuine passion for the industry and the state, he certainly wouldn't ever rule out a return. The marsh, he said, is a way of life.
"If the cranberry marsh is in the picture down the road, I'd definitely be interested in that," Vince said. "It's not just our family, but it's my cousins. I have relatives, aunts and uncles, and we're all a big cranberry family. I'm sure I'll have some cranberry opportunities down the road. We'll see what happens down the road, though."