Monday, October 22, 2018

Sports

College football: Menomonie alum Stokke never quit on way back at UW

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    Wisconsin’s Mason Stokke, a Menomonie graduate, warms up before the Badgers’ game against New Mexico on Saturday, Sept. 8 in Madison.

    Associated Press

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    Menomonie’s Mason Stokke runs for a first down in the first quarter against North on September 4, 2015. Stokke was the L-T’s All-Northwest player of the year that fall.

    Staff file photo

Randy Stokke was at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes event in Iowa one summer day in 2017 when he got a call from his son Mason. — MADISON

For months, Randy had watched his little-boy-turned-hulking-235-pound-linebacker rehab from an ACL tear suffered during Wisconsin’s Cotton Bowl prep to close out the 2016 season. And boy did he work, getting the green light to resume movement activities after about four months. 

Mason had an injury-riddled first year in Madison after a monster senior year in 2015 at Menomonie High School, where he was the state’s defensive player of the year as well as a first-team all-state running back. 

After a concussion, sprained MCL and torn ACL, Mason was resuming all football activities and looked ready to go headed into fall camp in 2017. He was doing a basic back-peddling drill. But as he planted on a fateful step, the tendon connecting the calf muscle to the heel bone shot up his leg. A torn Achilles. Done for another fall. 

When his father picked up the phone in Iowa, he was — obviously — crushed for his son who had worked so hard to get back on to the field. And then Mason said two words that assured Randy he’d see his boy play in red and white.

“When he was done talking, he just said ‘Round 2,’ “ Randy Stokke said. “I think I would have been crying and devastated. But he said that, and he was a fighter and never gave up.”

Fast forward to today. After a year of rehab that tested Mason’s patience in what was maybe the hardest thing he’s had to go through in his life, he’s back on the field for the Badgers. 

Not only that, but his athletic makeup allowed for the Wisconsin coaching staff to move him to the other side of the ball at a position that lacked depth — fullback. 

After one day of practice in late August, Mason was listed on the Badgers two-deep chart behind incumbent Alec Ingold. At long last, Mason Stokke is back on the football field and ready to contribute to the No. 18 team in the country.

“I just look at every practice as a gift now,” Mason Stokke said. “I’m just having a blast getting back.”

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Born to the son of a football coach and little brother to a future Divison II quarterback, Neico, at Minnesota State, there’s no other place for him to be than a gridiron in the fall. 

“He was immersed into football at a pretty young age,” his mother, Bobbie, said. 

When Mason first entered the spotlight as a member of legendary coach Joe LaBuda’s team at Menomonie High School, he shined on both sides of the ball. During his senior season with the Mustangs, Stokke ran for 1,740 yards and 29 touchdowns while making 151 tackles. That year, with current Iowa starter Nate Stanley at quarterback, Menomonie went all the way to the WIAA Division 2 state quarterfinals. 

He was also a standout wrestler after winning consecutive Division 1 state titles at 195 and 220 pounds his junior and senior seasons. 

Stokke committed to Wisconsin in the spring of his junior year as a linebacker. He and Stanley became the first of a wave of Big Rivers players in recent years to sign on with Big Ten schools.

After playing in the WFCA All-Star Game, Stokke headed to freshman fall camp. That’s where the first of four injuries began. A week-and-a-half in, he sustained a concussion and missed the rest of camp. He was back for a good part of the season, and then he wound up spraining his MCL and missed two to three weeks. To top it off, he then tore his ACL as Wisconsin was preparing to play Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl. 

And then, of course, the Achilles that put him out an entire year. 

“It just seemed like he couldn’t catch a break,” Randy Stokke said.

One such break, though? Landing at the University of Wisconsin. Stokke was around some of the best trainers in the country and a coaching staff that, Randy said, treated him so well. Just quality, caring people, he said. 

While it was tough to be sidelined, Stokke also had a front-row seat to seeing how some of the best players in the country went about their business. Before he switched over to fullback, he observed UW’s stellar linebacking corps and what set them apart from their peers across the country. 

“It definitely helped just sitting back and watching T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly and Chris Orr and learning from them and watching them and seeing how they do things, it really helps kind of learn the technique and how to do it,” Stokke said. “Their attention to detail and their work ethics really stood out.”

To those who know Stokke, he’s got a quiet demeanor about him. Just a casual conversation wouldn’t come close to painting a picture of the true warrior he is out on the field. He’s the type of person who goes about his work as hard and efficiently as possible without creating much fanfare around himself. Perhaps that’s why it’s so rewarding for others to see him back on the field this fall.

“He always had a relentless work ethic,” LaBuda said. “Based on that, I’m not surprised at all. What made him special is that he worked for everything he got.”

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Randy Stokke received another phone message from his son in late August, just a couple of weeks ago. 

Except this time, there was good news to tell. At least non-injury news, anyway.

Mason shared with his family that the Wisconsin coaching staff — the same group that stuck with him and took such good care of him during his injuries — inquired about him making the move to fullback. After all, Wisconsin’s depth chart was quite packed at the linebacker spot and not so much at fullback.

At first, according to Randy, he wasn’t entirely sure what to think. It didn’t take long though for Mason to completely warm up to the idea and then some. 

“He had one practice, and the coaches left it up to him,” Randy said. “They kind of presented it to him and then wanted what’s best for him.”

According to every report out of Madison since, Stokke has been a rock at the position already. It took him just one practice to crack the two-deep.

“He is picking it up so fast,” Ingold told the Journal Sentinel’s Jeff Potrykus.

Wisconsin utilizes the fullback position more than many programs in the country. Derek Watt squeezed a roster spot with the Los Angeles Chargers out of it. He’s currently a contributing member of LA’s offense. And Ingold is in the midst of a solid career at Wisconsin.

Stokke seems to be a strong fit at that position with his versatile skillset.

He even had two carries for six yards against New Mexico on Sept. 8.

“I always thought — he was a great player on both sides of the ball,” LaBuda said. “He had tremendous offensive instincts. He always knew what he had to do with the ball in his hands, he’s a good blocker and has a great hands. And Wisconsin uses their fullback in the passing game.”

Of course, Heisman trophy candidate Jonathan Taylor is the featured guy in the backfield and go-to player at running back. Much of what Wisconsin does with its fullback spot is let it serve as a lead blocker in a traditional offensive set, and Stokke’s frame and physical nature fit that role well too.

“He’s just so physical, and that’s a big part about the fullback position at Wisconsin is being able to block,” LaBuda said.

Stokke’s quite a story already in his ability to overcome injury after injury. He hopes there’s quite a bit more of it to tell. 

Right now, he’s in Round 1 of his college football playing days. 

He’s certainly earned himself a role on a team that’s become a perennial January bowl participant. 

“My role right now is just taking things day by day and trying to get better,” Stokke said. “Really just trying to become the best football player I can.”


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