Wednesday morning was that of dreams coming true at the MHS library, as seniors Jon Gruetzmacher and Jake Collinsworth signed official Letters of Intent to extend their football careers to the collegiate level.
This fall, Gruetzmacher will head due west to Brookings, SD, home of the South Dakota State University Jack Rabbits. Located on the far eastern edge of the state, the Jack Rabbits compete in the Missouri Valley Conference with perennial Division I-AA powerhouses Youngstown State, Western Illinois and North Dakota State. The Rabbits finished a strong 7-4, riding a triumphant three-game winning streak into the FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) playoffs; eventually losing to Philadelphia Eagles rookie sensation Carson Wentz and the North Dakota State Bison; 36-10 in the 2nd round of the playoffs on Dec. 10.
Collinsworth will be fulfilling a dream he has entertained since childhood, heading south to Madison as a preferred walk-on with his beloved Wisconsin Badgers. The Badgers capped off yet another successful season in January, finishing a strong 9-2 in the regular season after riding a dominating six-game winning streak which landed them in the mix for a FBS playoff slot, and a Big 10 Championship bout with Penn State. Despite falling to the Nittany Lions in the conference’s big dance, Bucky rebounded well with a thrilling 24-16 win over 12th ranked Western Michigan in the 2017 Goodyear Cotton Bowl held in Arlington, Texas on Jan. 2.
While both athletes enjoyed memorable and successful high school football careers as Bluejays, their respective roads to fulfilling their dreams of playing college football were much different.
Standing a towering 6 feet 8 inches, weighing in at nearly 311 pounds and pulling in three-time All-Conference accolades along with selection to the 2016 Wisconsin Football Coaches’ Association All-State team; there is little wonder as to how or why Gruetzmacher would draw any college football coach to his beck and call.
After all, who wouldn’t want such a mountain of a young man protecting gun slingers and ground pounders?
As Gruetzmacher explains, his interest in playing at the next level has been strong since childhood. As an 8th grader, he took his first step in exploring the college football world and recruiting process.
“I knew I wanted to play college football from a pretty young age,” he said. “When I was in 8th grade I attended the National Underclassman Combine and did well enough locally as an offensive tackle to be invited to regionals and eventually to nationals where I placed second. That was a great experience for me as I learned a lot about college recruiting, how recruiting camps work and so on. It’s highly recommended for anybody who wants to play college ball.”
Gruetzmacher received his first collegiate interest as a freshman and readily admits his size was a basis for most initial interest. As fate would have it, the very first coach to contact him was a member of former Badger coach Gary Andersen’s staff.
“I visited Wausau’s gridiron club and Coach Andersen’s entire staff was there,” Jon explains. “They showed an interest in me right away due to my size. The more we talked and they learned about me, the more interest they showed. It was a pretty cool experience to meet them.”
Then following his sophomore season, the full press of the recruiting chase was on as phone calls and letters poured in from around the country, as well as multiple visits from coaches.
Topping the list of schools to express interest in Gruetzmacher were Wisconsin, Iowa, Texas Christian University (TCU), SDSU and Arkansas to name a few.
Then this past summer Jon narrowed his choices down to Wisconsin, SDSU and Iowa.
“I really liked all three schools, I’ve always been a fan of Iowa and Wisconsin,” Gruetzmacher adds.
But in the long run, it was the home-like feel of Brookings, SD, as well as the personable coaching staff and excellent Jack Rabbit facilities, which wooed Gruetzmacher into making his final choice and signing the line Wednesday morning, in the company of his parents, Fred and Jackie.
“I really like this area where I grew up,” Jon explains. “Merrill and Tomahawk are the perfect sized towns. Brookings and the surrounding area are very similar and remind me a lot of home. I’m pretty happy with my choice and excited to play football there.”
As for the future, Gruetzmacher is already projected to step into a starting role next season for the Jack Rabbits’ pro-style balanced offense, at either the left or right offensive tackle position.
“It was very nice and comforting to sign on to play Division One football with my parents and teammates at my side,” Jon adds. “It’s a great feeling to have everything I worked for pay off in getting a full scholarship.”
Standing 6’1” and tipping the scales at 225 pounds, Collinsworth also bears the physical attributes of a prototype college prospect.
His natural ability and instincts are quite evident in looking back on his production from prowling the middle of the Bluejay defense from his Middle Linebacker position. Along with 138 total tackles in three years as a varsity starter, the burly senior piled up 1.5 sacks, two pass break-ups, an interception, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Rounding out his resume is 725 career rushing yards and eight scores to boot in addition to being a varsity letter winner on the Bluejay varsity track and field team.
Like his comrade Gruetzmacher, such a resume leaves little wonder as to how Collinsworth ended up on the road to not only big time Division 1 football, but the Big 10 – arguably one of the toughest conferences in Division 1-A football.
For Collinsworth, the recruiting road began the summer before his junior year, following his selection as a 2nd Team All-Great Northern Conference Middle Linebacker.
Then the following spring, the recruiting press was in full swing for Jake.
“Colleges began showing interest by sending me letters and invites to various camps,” he explains. “Then as time went on, coaches from various colleges began visiting school to meet with coach (Nick) Sturm and I. During the visits they would have me perform various drills such as strength and agility and then discuss my grades and answer any questions I had about their schools.”
Amidst the many schools expressing interest, such as Division I-AA schools University of Minnesota-Duluth, Bemidji State University (Minnesota) and Ivy League Heavyweight Harvard, recruiting staff from the Badgers remained a consistent visitor.
Collinsworth credits MHS Physical Education Teacher and multi-sport assistant coach Dave Arneson for opening the gate to the recruiting trail with UW-Madison.
“Coach Arneson played a huge role with helping draw interest from the Badgers,” Collinsworth adds. “He was keeping them posted with updates and videos of me on the field which led to a meeting with (Badgers Offensive Coordinator and co-head coach) coach Joe Rudolph. One of our first meetings included an agility drill and afterward he told me how impressed he was with my work ethic. He liked the fact I am willing to learn to get better in areas I need for improvement. I must admit that was pretty big hearing that from the Badgers offensive coordinator.”
In the fall of 2015, the Badgers upped the ante by inviting Jake and his family for a game day visit as well as a tour of the campus and facilities.
The 2015 football season would be one for the books for Jake, as he was named a unanimous 1st Team All-Great Northern Conference selection as a Middle Linebacker as well as being named 2nd Team All-GNC at Running Back.
In the wake of the successful season, Jake was invited to the Badgers’ recruiting camp this past summer.
“The camp was a great experience,” he explains. “The camp began with me being asked to perform various drills and football specific activities. Then later I was placed in a special group and given a number so coaches could keep track of me in camp and evaluate my progress.
“I started off playing linebacker, then they moved me around to tight end and a few drills at running back. At the end of camp, Coach Rudolph told me he was impressed with my blocking skills and he told me he felt I could play for the Badgers. He wasn’t sure about a scholarship, but he told me if it was my goal to play down there, I definitely could make the team.”
In June, the Badgers made their move with making Collinsworth an offer as a preferred walk-on, an offer he would go on to eagerly accept.
“They invited me for a visit in July and explained to me what a preferred walk-on meant. In college recruiting there are three levels of offers; a scholarship which pays for education and an offer to play for the team, a preferred walk-on and a walk-on. A preferred walk-on means I would get all the same privileges as a scholarship recruit with the exception of not paying for my education.”
Following the visit, Jake accepted the offer and made Madison his focus for his collegiate football career, and in turn turned down an official visit offer from Harvard University, scheduled for December.
“I contacted the other colleges who showed interest and thanked them, but informed them Madison was my choice. I have always wanted to be a Badger and the coaches were very understanding about that.”
Headed into the 2016 season, it seemed as if the hard hitting, ground pounding senior was Madison bound with nothing but a three-month football season and his senior year of high school in between.
Unfortunately, tragedy would strike.
“I’ll never forget it,” he adds. “It was Sept. 2 and the third game of the season versus Lakeland. In the third quarter, I took a hand-off and was running the ball when my knee got caught in a weird position. I ended up hyper-extending it and ruptured three major ligaments in my knee; ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament), PCL (Posterior Cruciate Ligament) and and LCL (Lateral Collateral Ligament).”
The injury would bring an abrupt end to Jake’s senior season.
Most athletes on a college recruiting board and in Jake’s sudden precarious position, would most likely be on the brink of losing any interest garnered by any college athletic program; much less that of a prestigious program such as that of the UW-Badgers. However, as Collinsworth would soon learn, his future was as secure as ever in the state capital.
“The day after my injury, we went down to watch the LSU game, but being it was a neutral site recruits aren’t allowed to have any contact with coaches. So the next home game was with Georgia State. After the Georgia State game I met with Coach Rudolph and he told me to focus on getting healed up and I would always have a home with the Badgers.
“He told me if I needed anything, he would do his best to help me out. To hear that was so re-assuring, it said a lot about the coaching staff and the Badgers program. I was very excited!”
Jake underwent surgery in October and now the future with the red and white appears as promising as ever.
As for the future, Jake is projected to figure in to either the middle linebacker position for the Badgers or possibly a fullback slot.
“Coach Rudolph said they would find a spot for me. I will be happy to play wherever the coaches decide. This really is a dream come true for me,” Jake adds.
As of Wednesday morning, that dream officially came true for Jake as he signed the official Letter of Intent for the Badgers, in the company of his parents Chad and Amy.
“The road has had its share of ups and downs but I’m very thankful to be in this position and for the help and support of my parents, coaches and teammates. This has been something I have been working very hard for since I was 10 years old. It’s a great feeling to know all my hard work is paying off to make my dream come true.”
“It’s been a pleasure knowing and coaching both of these young men and watching them develop into the talented athletes they have become,” comments Bluejay head football coach Nick Sturm.
“They have both worked very hard to get where they are. Both Jon and Jake possess tremendous work ethics.”
“I know Jon will fit in and do very well at South Dakota State. I fully expect him to excel with his athletic ability and pass blocking skills. South Dakota State picked up a very talented athlete in Jon. The same goes for Jake. He has worked very hard and overcome adversity to secure a walk-on with UW-Madison. This is a great opportunity for him as the Badgers are known to give everyone a shot to play on the field whether a scholarship or a walk-on. Jake’s tremendous work ethic will serve him well, he will not be outworked that’s for sure.”