Bobby Dunn’s favorite place to sit in Camp Randall Stadium is Section M. You can get a nice tan up there. On second thought, maybe it’s Section O. Locking your fingers together and contorting your body into a makeshift vowel is pretty cool. Hold that thought—Section E’s the best. You get to sit right behind the Badgers’ bench, close to the dizzying flurry of activity that dominates Camp Randall for seven Saturdays every fall.
Regardless of Dunn’s seating preferences, he won’t have much of a choice this upcoming season: He’ll be on the sidelines, next to head coach Paul Chryst, his shorts and t-shirt swapped out for shoulder pads, a form-fitting Cardinal red jersey and a white helmet with the motion “W” affixed to each side. Dunn, a sophomore, is now taking snaps at Wisconsin’s spring practices with Bart Houston and Alex Hornibrook, having earned a walk-on spot on the team after an impressive showing at a tryout in late February. The tryout was necessitated in part by Austin Kafentzis’ transfer to Nevada last summer, D.J. Gillins’ transfer to Pearl River Community College in Polarville, Miss., after the Holiday Bowl and Joel Stave’s graduation and subsequent foray into NFL waters this past winter. Early enrollee Kare’ Lyles’ left hip injury is also keeping him out of spring camp. With Houston and Hornibrook as the only other active quarterbacks on the roster, Dunn is taking full advantage of his opportunity.
“It’s been really good so far,” Dunn said at a recent spring practice. “Bart’s been around for—this is his fifth year, but he’s been with a bunch of different coaching staffs, but he knows how to transition and how to help me kind of jump right in, and Alex has been with this coaching staff for—this will be his second spring. Even though Alex is a year younger than me technically, he’s almost like a veteran to me because he knows the offense, he’s learning it a lot faster. They’re just helping me transition pretty quickly.”
While the past few weeks have been challenging for Dunn, who last played in a football game when he quarterbacked the Madison Edgewood Crusaders in their 23-19 first-round loss in the 2013 WIAA State Tournament, his transition has actually been a long time in the making. When former head coach Gary Andersen left the Wisconsin football program in December 2014 and was replaced by Chryst later that month, Dunn knew it was time to get back into football.
The Chryst name in the Dunn household has a very special meaning. Dunn’s father and Chryst go as far back as grade school at Blessed Sacrament School in Madison, having met before Chryst’s father, George, became the head coach at UW-Platteville in 1979. Since elementary school, Chryst has been a “lifetime friend” to the family, and his hiring at UW prompted Dunn to reach out.
“So, about a year ago when coach Chryst first got here, I wrote him a letter and said, ‘is there anything I can do to help the team? Help with the staff, be a manager, anything like that?’” Dunn said.
His correspondence was quickly rewarded, as he leveraged both his ties to Chryst and his deep love for Badger football to earn a spot with the program.
“And that led to an internship with recruiting and kind of as a coaches’ assistant up in the offices,” Dunn said. “So, last year I did a lot of recruiting work, on game days, kind of in between games, helping build the 2016 and ‘17 class a little bit.”
Dunn’s experience as an intern with the recruiting office allowed him to learn about the inner workings of administration in college football while further building relationships within the program. That paid off in a surprising fashion when Andrew Marlatt, the Badgers’ recruiting director and Dunn’s “boss” in the football offices, informed Dunn last fall that a spring tryout was imminent.
Thus, fall 2015 turned into Dunn’s training camp. He worked relentlessly to get back into football shape, seeking guidance from Brian Bott, a former UW strength coach and current trainer at Sports Advantage, a “youth-to-pro” athletic training facility in Verona, Wis., who Dunn has worked with since 2012.
“I just kind of got reconnected with [Bott] this fall, and he still trains a lot of college athletes, so he’s in the business now of training kids to get ready for tryouts and get ready for college football,” Dunn said. “I went back and trained with him this fall and just got ready with him. I’ve been training with him a long time, so I just felt comfortable with it and he did a great job. He’s worked with a lot of strength coaches who are here right now, so he kind of knew what the program would be like so he got me as ready as I could have been.”
After testing well at the tryout and demonstrating proficient quarterback skills, Dunn was immediately worked into the Badgers’ offensive system. He’s picking up the playbook quickly and has looked solid at spring practices despite his noticeably slim 5-foot-9, 197-pound frame, but he understands his role on a team where he will likely serve as the fourth-string quarterback.
“When you’re a kid like me who’s just here as a walk-on, you weren’t recruited out of high school, just do whatever you can to be a part of something,” Dunn said. “I’ll hold extra points and hand signals for three more years if that’s what it takes to be on the team.”
In fact, Dunn, a frequent user of the infrequently seen #TeamHandSignal hashtag on Twitter, is elated to stand next to Chryst during games and help signal in the plays.
“I am so excited to be the hand signal guy,” Dunn said. “I’ve been watching—when I used to come to games [when I was younger] we used to sit right in Section E over there, so I mean you’re looking right down over the bench and you see there’s three guys every game with backwards hats on and a headset signaling, and I never knew what they were signaling or what it meant.
“That’s something I’m really excited for. Just anything I can do to be a part of this and to help the team out. I’ll be the best hand-signaller in the Big Ten if I have to. Whatever will keep me on the sideline over there.”
Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph has a lot on his plate this spring, having to replace a three-year starter in Stave and his favorite target, wide receiver Alex Erickson, while bringing along an offensive line that is still very raw. But he’s been intrigued by what Dunn has brought to the offense during camp.
“I think it’s cool. He’s jumped in, kind of proved he’s willing to do anything and work his tail off, which is No. 1,” Rudolph said at a recent spring practice. “And then he jumped into the walk-on tryouts and he busted his tail and I think it’s great. I think he will definitely bring a passion to it if nothing else and I think he’ll do some things to really help this team function better, he’ll make this team better by being a part of it.”
Dunn’s long-term goal is to get into coaching, as he hopes to someday work at the collegiate or even the NFL level, so he’s focusing on picking up any intricacies and skills he can glean from rubbing shoulders with Rudolph and Chryst on a daily basis. However, he’s keeping his short-term goals grounded, a reflection of his open-minded approach to accepting the fact that he’ll likely not see the field in his three years of eligibility at Wisconsin. One of his primary benchmarks heading into the spring game, interestingly enough, is to be sporting a full mustache on the sidelines.
“I would just tell everyone to watch out, by the spring game I might have a nice mustache going to go with the hand signals and the backwards hat and the headset,” Dunn said.
While it might not be immediately obvious, the mustachioed hand-signaller Badger fans will see on the sidelines this fall has been working his entire life to earn the chance to don the Cardinal and White, and he’s not about to take that opportunity for granted any time soon.