The Brookfield Connection

Wisconsin freshman Joe Thomas, Ben Strickland and Steve Johnson have carried a childhood friendship to the Badger gridiron

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Everyone knows that friends come and go. It is not very likely that one goes to elementary school, junior high, high school, and even college with the same close friends. Freshmen Joe Thomas, Steve Johnson, and Ben Strickland, though, entered the next chapter of their friendship as teammates on the Wisconsin football team this fall.


Before they became Badgers, the trio could be found on the football field at Brookfield (Wis.) Central High School. During their senior year, they had earned many accolades and helped lead the Lancers to a solid 11-3 record.


The 6-8, 260-pound Thomas was not only well-known in Brookfield but throughout the nation as well. He was among the top 20 offensive tackles nationally and was a second-team All-America offensive tackle according to USA Today. Defensively, he tallied 85 tackles and 12 quarterback sacks his senior season.


Johnson, a 6-3, 230-pound linebacker, was another hot prospect within the state. He was the Greater Metro Conference Defensive Backfield Player of the Year and Offensive Lineman of the Year during his senior season and named first-team all-state by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.


Strickland tore up the field as one of the conference's best running backs. His speed helped him tally up 2,104 rushing yards, 311 receiving yards, and 27 total touchdowns.


Once the Central trio left Brookfield and entered Madison, they knew that they would have to start over and not be known as "big men on campus" quite like they were at Central. This was no concern to them.


"I think it helped coming from a program that really emphasized team a lot," Thomas said. "You come here and you're taking a little bit of a backseat to some of the other guys but the most important thing is that you're winning games and you're doing everything that you can to help the team."


Though the three had to start over, the process was not as difficult for them thanks to their strong friendship.


"I've grown up with (Thomas and Johnson) ever since I was in elementary school," Strickland said. "It's been kind of easy because I know I have somebody to talk to if I have a bad practice or I'm just not happy or if I'm excited about something that I did. It's just kind of nice because I feel like I can share things with these guys."


"When you really don't know anybody, you have to earn everybody's respect," Johnson said. "But I could always just go to Joe or Ben and whine to them if I had a bad practice or something and they're not going to tell me to shut up."


Besides adjusting to a new atmosphere, new teammates, and school, these three have seen their roles change significantly on the football field. Playing time has gone down dramatically for all and Johnson and Strickland are seeing themselves in different positions than their expertise during high school.


Despite being known as one of the best linebackers in the state, Johnson was a long snapper at Center and is No. 2 at the position on Wisconsin's depth chart.


"I'm happy because I'm just glad I have a spot," Johnson said. "I concentrated on being an offensive lineman and a linebacker in high school and long snapping was something I just kind of did on the side and I didn't think I was really that good at it. I just kind of got put in here. There was another guy (Tim Ovadal) in front of me so I could kind of ease my way in but then he had to leave in summer camp and he hasn't come back so I just got thrown into the second string position. I have to pick up where he left off, so I don't really have the grace period that some of these guys on the scout team have."


For Strickland, he is getting his time during the scout team, but on the opposite side of the ball. He had to abandon his running back position and opt for playing cornerback on the scout squad. The coaches have been impressed with his performance as they gave him Scout Defensive Player of the Week honors after the North Carolina game.


"It was a nice reward but I mean at the same time you just have to keep working week in and week out," Strickland said. "It's nice to get those accolades, even though it's not much, it's something to remind yourself that you're not going unnoticed."


Of the three, Thomas is the only one that has contributed during a game. This is quite a feat considering he is the first true freshman offensive lineman to see playing time during coach Barry Alvarez's reign. Thomas knows that it is frustrating for his Brookfield buddies to not be on the field as much as they would like but is impressed with how much effort they still give.


"When Ben first came in here he was really rough," Thomas said. "He really worked hard on playing running back in high school and we came from a conference that rarely ever passed the ball so his cornerback skills definitely need a lot of work. He's really been working hard on the scout team. I mean he's going against Lee Evans who is the best receiver in the conference. He's gotten so much better; you can even see it because the coaches are noticing him.


"Steve is doing really good on being able to just concentrate on being a long snapper now. At the beginning he was struggling a little bit because he wasn't used to being just a long snapper. They demand a lot out of long snappers. The guys are a little smaller here so he's definitely had to work on his accuracy but I think he's gotten a lot better and it's only going to go up from here."


For these three, it is hard to imagine them not being friends. Strickland and Thomas have been friends since they were eight or nine and then as Johnson put it, "they found their diamond in the rough" a few years later, turning the duo into a trio.


"I don't see us not being lifetime friends," Strickland said. "I'm sure we'll still be shooting hoops together and passing the football when we're old."


"I'm going to divorce myself from these guys after football," Thomas joked. "No, we'll always be friends. It's been a test of time so far and I'll always have a little place in my heart for Steve and Ben."

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