MADISON — They are neighbors off the field. On the field, they are classmates competing for the same starting spot for the University of Wisconsin football team.
Both junior strong safeties Joe Stellmacher and Johnny White have had that position in his grasp, only to see it taken it away, presenting an opportunity to a close friend instead.
The latest reversal of fortune came in Saturday night’s dramatic 23-20 win over Michigan. Stellmacher left the contest in the second quarter with a “stinger” in his shoulder, but not before overcoming intense pain to make one of the biggest plays of the Badgers’ season, tackling UM tailback Kevin Grady inches shy of the goal line on a fourth-down play to preserve a scoreless tie.
White replaced Stellmacher and made arguably an even more significant play, forcing a fourth-quarter fumble that led to UW’s first touchdown and its first lead of the game at 16-13.
On UM’s next drive, White made an exceptional play to intercept a pass. He had eight tackles, including a team-best four solo.
It was the kind of game the Badgers long envisioned for White, a strapping 6-foot-2, 220-pound safety with an ideal blend of athleticism and strength.
Who starts at strong safety may not be a pressing concern this week. Against three-receiver sets, Indiana’s personnel of choice, the Badgers have often modified their base 4-3 defense, replacing the strong safety with cornerback Levonne Rowan.
Furthermore, Stellmacher is still nursing his injury. Though he expected to suit up Saturday, as of Wednesday he had not practiced this week and he will likely be limited if he does play.
As they showed last week, however, both players can have a major impact on the success of UW’s defense, and they each have the fortitude to overcome extraordinarily difficult circumstances.
White faced long odds on even playing college football. During his junior year of high school he was misdiagnosed with a heart condition. But before the mistake was cleared up he had lost half a season and most colleges had stopped pursuing him.
“That’s the main reason why I came here, because Wisconsin was the only school that kept the offer there,” White said. “They kept telling me everything was going to be okay”
White entered this season a starter, but struggled with Bowling Green’s complex no-huddle offense in the opener and was supplanted by Stellmacher.
His confidence waned. White’s mind, however, was understandably focused elsewhere.
Before the BGSU game, White was preoccupied with the illness his father has been dealing with back home in Pearland, Texas, and with the plight of family members in Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Fortunately, it turned out his family there was safe, and their homes had escaped with only relatively minor wind damage.
Last week, White worried as Hurricane Rita made its way toward Houston. His suburban home is just 15 minutes from the Gulf Coast, and as Rita approached landfall, White’s parents evacuated to northern Louisiana.
“I was really worried about our home in that situation and them getting out,” White said. A trip that should take four hours took his parents 20 hours as Houston emptied en masse. “And I couldn’t talk to them the whole time. I was a little worried… but they were fine before the game and they talked to me and told me not to worry about things, that they were okay.”
White did not find out his parents had safely reached their destination until 3 a.m. Sept. 24, the morning of the Michigan game.
“I just feel blessed that I had a game like that in the situation,” White said. “I was down and just to have a game like that does a lot for your confidence.”
“You look at life a little differently when stuff like that happens,” White said. “It means a little bit more to you.”
White’s chance, though, was at the expense of Stellmacher, his friend and next-door neighbor in an off-campus apartment complex.
“We do a lot of things together,” White said. “We’re real close. I think that’s part of the reason why we don’t have any problems on the field with our competition. We want to help each other.”
Stellmacher initially suffered the stinger two weeks ago in practice. It flared up when he tackled Grady midway through the first quarter.
Joe Stellmacher, right
(Matthew Kutz/Badger Nation)
“As soon as I hit him, my neck went numb, my shoulder went numb, my arm was numb, my legs were numb, which was kind of scary at the time,” Stellmacher said. “I was really scared. Just laying there, and I was like, ‘All right just move your legs.’ I moved those but then (my) neck was jut like flaming, my shoulder… it was like on fire. Kind of numb and tingly at the same time.”
Stellmacher missed the next 11 plays, but he returned in the goal-line defense following a timeout late in the first quarter in spite of considerable pain and discomfort.
He made the stop on Grady on fourth-and-goal from the UW 1, and tried to keep playing, but the pain was unbearable.
Said Stellmacher: “Every time I made contact with that shoulder I’d get that stinging sensation down my arm. My arm was just kind of like a noodle….
“I was like playing with one arm, so I figured get Johnny out there (with) two able arms. I didn’t want to hurt the team being 50 percent out there.”
This is not the first time Stellmacher lost playing time due to injury.
As a redshirt freshman in 2003, he won UW’s nickel back job out of camp and unseated then-senior Ryan Aiello as the starting strong safety for the third game of the season. He might have become UW’s primary strong safety, but in week five at Illinois he sustained a broken leg, ending his season.
“It’s frustrating. I’ve missed enough games in my career already and I’m still a junior,” Stellmacher said. “I mean it’s frustrating but I remain optimistic and will do everything I can to get back out there.”
Stellmacher was back on the field last year, but he was a shadow of himself. He was a few steps slower and not quite as physical or instinctive as he had been the season before. He competed hard on special teams but played sparingly in the defensive backfield.
White started the Badgers’ first two games in 2004, but he was late to a team meeting prior to the road game at Arizona and was benched in favor of Robert Brooks, another close friend of White’s. The then-senior Brooks grabbed the position by the horns and would not let go, and White’s playing time tapered off substantially.
Fall camp was much different for each player this year. White made marked improvements in his coverage skills and Stellmacher was healthy again and making plays all over the field, as he had two years before.
Stellmacher opened the year nipping at White’s heels for the starting spot and he played very well after replacing White in the lineup.
Had Stellmacher stayed healthy, White may not have had another chance to play regularly this season. When his opportunity arose, however, White answered the call.
“He was one happy clam after the game,” Stellmacher said. “I was very proud for him too. He needed a game like that. He was down on himself pretty good…
“He did his job, he stepped in and I was his No. 1 fan when he was out there. I was very happy for him. Couldn’t be more proud of him.”