Putting 'The Center' on the map
It is a town best known for being the birthplace of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Nestled in between the rolling hills of southwestern Wisconsin, Richland Center is about to be known for something else, its first professional athlete.
Off the field, Bradie Ewing looks like the kid next door. With a genuine smile, humble charm, and rock-solid family values, he could be mistaken at the store for the local mechanic's son who someday will take over the family business. Or maybe he is the spitting image of that farm kid who makes a couple of extra bucks doing odd jobs around the barn?
In other words, as he meets the eye, Bradie Ewing hardly looks like he belongs in the NFL.
That is, until you see him in uniform, where the nice-guy persona and baby-blue eyes disappear and are taken over by one of the fiercest competitors Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema has coached in his six seasons in Madison. Ewing is listed in your game program as a fullback, but his versatility in blocking; catching passes out of the backfield, and his work on special teams has caught the attention of the NFL, who extended the invitation for him to attend this week's annual scouting combine in Indianapolis.
"I think I've learned how to transition from the nice guy off the field to being kind of mean on the field," Ewing says. "When you get out there, it's pretty brutal. Guys are going after you, trying to do their job to try to win games too. You've got to be able to flip that switch."
For the last several weeks, Ewing and Wisconsin teammates Patrick Butrym, Antonio Fenelus, and Louis Nzegwu have all been preparing to enter North America's most popular sports league not at a flashy training mega-complex in California, Arizona, or Florida like many of their counterparts; but rather at a nondescript, tucked away, industrial park location in Waukesha that at least one reporter (me) couldn't find on first pass.
Brad Arnett was a two-year starter on UW-Whitewater's defensive line in the 1990s. Even today he still looks like he could be anchoring now-coach Lance Liepold's three-time defending champions. Arnett spent 13 years as the strength and conditioning coach at the universities of Minnesota then Arizona before returning to Wisconsin to open his NX Level training center.
Among the professional athletes that Arnett and his staff have trained are NFL players J.J. Watt, Chris Maragos, DeAndre Levy, Joe Thomas, Tyron Smith, Nick Hayden, and Brian Calhoun; MMA fighter Anthony "Showtime" Pettis and former Milwaukee Buck Joel Pryzbilla.
As for Ewing, while some draft prognosticators have him pegged as high as the fourth round, much will be made of the time he spends this week in Indianapolis in front of the watchful eyes of every scout in the NFL.
That is what the last several weeks have been all about.
But much like Arnett's prize pupil, Watt, Ewing wasn't always thought of as a legitimate prospect. That is, until a conversation shortly after the Badgers lost to TCU in the 2011 Rose Bowl.
"After my junior season during our exit interviews, Coach B (Bret Bielema) told me that if I continued to take care of business and be a leader on the team, and to just continue to progress as a player and as a fullback, he said it was a possibility," Ewing recalls.
With that motivation, and buoyed by his teammates naming him one of the four captains on this past year's Badgers team, the graduating senior's stock has been on a steady rise.
"I don't know if it has even occurred to me yet," Ewing says of competing in the NFL. "At the Senior Bowl it became a lot more real, playing with that type of talent and knowing that I fit in."
But to get to that next level (no pun intended), he asked around to former teammates in Madison that have gone pro; notably Watt, the No. 11 overall draft pick of the Houston Texans last year, and Maragos, now a member of the Seattle Seahawks. They both swear by Arnett's training regimen, with Watt's relationship with his trainer beginning not long after the facility opened its doors.
"J.J. started coming in here when he was a junior in high school, coming in three days a week at six in the morning before class," Arnett says. "This is right when we opened the place and started doing this. He was 16 years old ad had ability, but as far as a skills set, he was pretty raw. But he worked his rear end off. He knew what he wanted, he was goal-oriented, and he wasn't going to settle for anything less."
Arnett adds that he sees a lot of Watt in Ewing.
"Bradie is an amazing athlete," Arnett says. "You don't really get to see that on the field because of the position he plays. But when you watch him go through the drills; the body control, the change of direction, and acceleration, he's pretty amazing to watch."
Much of Ewing's training routine ironically has little to do with football, but rather how he is perceived. The scouting combine is far from an exact science, but that is the system the league has used since the 1970s, for better or for worse.
"Maybe a third of what he is doing is football-specific, the rest of what he is doing here are the tests he is going to have to do at the combine," Arnett admits. "Agility drills, jumping, both vertical and broad, things like that. Everything that he needs to perform what we call 'his Olympics,' because he has got to be ready to go on all of those tests."
Like Watt, Ewing's down-home personality is infectious. In today's age of athletes caring more about their "brand" than about wins, this is a most refreshing departure. Ewing, the third of four children (two sisters and one brother) in a very close-knit family, gets as much joy talking about his hometown than he does talking about playing in the Rose Bowl.
"There is a lot of farmland outside of town," Ewing says with a broad smile. "We have a Wal-Mart, a McDonald's, a Culvers, you know, all the things any normal town has. I love it there. I enjoy the outdoors. My friends and I call it God's Country."
It was that down-home attitude that allowed Ewing to put any ego aside and enthusiastically embrace playing special teams as just a way of getting on the field at Camp Randall Stadium, a dream of his since childhood.
"I think a lot of guys come into college just wanting to play their position," Ewing says. "But I just wanted to get on the field and help the team and contribute. And then from getting on the field, it helped me adjust to the college game while helping the team win some ballgames. I carried that into my sophomore year and then even on into my junior and senior years as I developed into more of a fullback."
While it may seem like Ewing is all business as he prepares for the most important athletic test of his life, he does have two major off-the-field pursuits that have been occupying his attention; his upcoming marriage in April to longtime sweetheart Rachel Dahl and his college graduation. Ewing first started dating Dahl when he was a freshman in high school; he is also just six credits away from his diploma.
But up first is impressing his future employer; whoever it may be.
"I'm excited for whoever wants me and who wants to invest in me," Ewing concludes. "For any team to put that much trust and faith in my ability is enough to make be buy into what they've got going on there."
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