MADISON - Senior defensive end Tyler Dippel always knew he had the support from his long-time teammates and his first-year coaches, but it took a family emergency to remind him how special it is to be a part of the Wisconsin football program.
"It's one thing to be able to say I think they would be there for me or I know they would be there for me," said Dippel. "But when they're actually there for you through a situation like this, it's definitely eye opening and makes you appreciate the little things and appreciate every person you encounter in your life, whether it is for 10 minutes or every day."
The sensitive subject is still fresh for Dippel, who talked to the media for the first time since the incident that caused him to miss the Iowa game Nov.2.
While he declined to get into the specifics of the situation, it was important for Dippel, a day before Thanksgiving and three days before his final home game against Penn State, to express his gratitude for a program that has been behind him every step of the way.
"What I really want to talk to you guys about is how much this team, how much all the players and staff and how much this university in general has been such a support to me through all this," said Dippel. "Honestly, I have now a deeper connection with this school, these coaches, these players, everybody here. You can't describe the amount of support and just love from everywhere. From the whole state. It touches me and has really helped me through some tough times."
Dippel was having a little fun on Halloween, dressing up as Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen and addressing the team before practice, but said a call later that night started what he called "the toughest experience of his life."
Following the call, Dippel said he immediately called Andersen, who helped Dippel get things arranged for him to fly home to California for a week. He returned the following Friday around 11 p.m., a little less than 15 hours before Wisconsin hosted BYU.
Senior Pat Muldoon, one of Dippel's closest friends, flew out to California to spend time with him and to bring him the playbook. Dippel responded by playing upwards of 40 plays in a 27-17 win over the Cougars.
"That is a guy that, especially over this past season, we have grown so much closer as friends," Dippel said of Muldoon. "I feel like he is a brother to me. Anytime I need to talk about something, we can go one second laughing, having a good time, to the next second he realizes I'm upset about something and he knows how to handle it.
"I don't have to say a word. It is kind of a non-verbal thing. He is always there and whenever I've got to sit there and spew some stuff and he just listens. It's a great thing to have. It's not just him. It is coach Andersen. It is all the players. Anytime I need anything, they are always there for me.
"(BYU) was a whirlwind of things … Everyone was great. Everyone was just focused on the game. Everybody was helping me get my mind right for the game, going over plays and going over all the checks and the calls. I couldn't have done it without them."
Dippel has made a career high four starts this season for No.14 Wisconsin, which has the fifth-best scoring defense (13.4 points per game) and sixth-best total defense (278.5) in the country. While not logging any stats against BYU, Dippel made two tackles, including a half tackle for loss, against Indiana and had one tackle against Minnesota, but was one of the many seniors who celebrated with Paul Bunyan's Axe.
"Honestly, it is good to have something to focus on, focus your energy on," said Dippel. "As much as you want to say I want to take a break or forget this, I think about what all these guys have done for me."
Dippel briefly considered not coming back to the team, but said was never a viable option in his mind, even though he admits to feeling guilty for being with the team and not with his immediately family.
"I just could not imagine just walking away from this, from these guys," said Dippel, who added he's using his teammates' support as motivation. "This is what I know. This is my family, even more now. This is my family forever … This is the right thing and this is where I need to be. And honestly, I don't think that my spirit and my state of mind would be where it is if I didn't come back here."
One of 26 seniors who will be honored Saturday, Dippel said his uncle, sister, dad and girlfriend will great him on the field while his grandfather, aunts and cousins will also be in attendance. He's undecided if he will head back to California following the game.
After the victory over Iowa, several members of the defensive line talked about how they dedicated their performances to Dippel, who was watching with his family in California. Senior outside linebacker Brendan Kelly wrote Dippel's name on athletic tape while senior linebacker Chris Borland, relegated to cheerleader status because of an injury, reminded the players who they were playing for.
Wisconsin responded with a 28-9 victory, the start of a current three game streak of not allowing a Big Ten team to score an offensive touchdown.
"I couldn't describe the amount of joy and pleasure I got out of watching that game," Dippel said. "That was a real, real tough day for me. That few hours I got to watch those guys play, it didn't just help me. It helped my whole family. It was a time of joy in a very, very sad time. It brought light to a very dark time for me getting to watch that game to see the guys play the way they did and come together."