Through the tunnel: senior has fond memories

John Gillen's college football career comes full circle with final game at Camp Randall

John Gillen's name does not roll off the tongue of fans of the University of Wisconsin football team. The third-string sam linebacker is largely invisible to the crowd of 80,000 at Camp Randall each home Saturday. So it has been for four years on the UW-Madison campus, as Gillen carried forward as a student-athlete, almost never playing.

Saturday, however, John Gillen's family will stand proudly on the Camp Randall turf before Saturday's 2:30 p.m. kickoff against Minnesota, greeting John as one of 24 seniors who will play their final home game that afternoon.

John Gillen will run through the players' tunnel for the last time and greet his father, John Sr., his mother, Wendy, his brother Conor and his five-year-old sister Grace.

"It just came fast. There have been highs and lows here and this year has just been just remarkable," Gillen said. "It is going to be hard I'm sure. Just kind of soak it all in then."

Football did not end up being John Gillen's calling but it has always been with him.

John Sr. was a four-year letter-winner at the University of Illinois, a linebacker who played in the NFL with the St. Louis Cardinals and New England Patriots. His uncle, Ken Gillen, was a defensive end for the Illini. Conor Gillen, like his older brother four years before him, is a senior at Glenbard West in Glen Ellyn, Ill., a star linebacker who is being recruited by Wisconsin, among others.

John Gillen's Badger football career has not followed the dreams that began when he verbally committed to Wisconsin in December 2000. He has not lettered and has only played a few special teams snaps in one game this season.

Surely, there were frustrations along the way but Gillen is a picture of contentment as he looks upon his four Badger seasons. There is no hint of regret, no pining for personal football glory that almost certainly will not come with just four games remaining in his career.

Rather, Gillen is jubilant; happy to assist his teammates in any way he can, proud of the team's 8-0 start, anxious for the next game and amazed that the journey will be over so soon.

"You couldn't ask for anything better," he said. "The experience of college football at a wonderful place like Madison, with the teammates that you have and coaches that treat you like you were their son. Everything's been great. I'm going to look back on this four years with the highest regard."

Gillen technically has a year of eligibility remaining, having redshirted in 2001. He is ready to move on, however, and will reach his primary goal in the May, graduating in four years with a communications degree. Had a course that was required for his major been offered in the fall, he would have graduated a semester early.

"Plus, I wanted to have that semester to still be around the guys even though my playing days would be done," Gillen said. "These are friends that were made for life."

A journey begins

John Gillen took his official visit to Wisconsin the first weekend of December 2000, the same weekend the Badgers host their annual banquet.

"There he is seeing the entire football team, and seniors being honored and guys getting up and giving these spontaneous talks and John just said, ‘This is just a family. This is a really cool thing,'" John Sr. said.

Sunday morning John and the other recruits were brought into the locker room. There they found a locker with their name on it, a jersey with their name on it, football pants and turf shoes. Donning the gear, they headed out to the field.

"It was very emotional then and I remember when we walked down everybody kind of stood in the end zone and Johnny walked out to about the 40-yard line and kind of stood there," John Sr. said. "He was looking around the stadium and he motioned for me to come over. I walked over to him and he looked up at that area there that says ‘Dayne' and ‘Ameche' and he pointed back to the tunnel. And he said, ‘Dad, I'd like to be coming out of that tunnel next August. Do you think that would be OK with you and mom?'"

Coincidentally, John Sr.'s linebackers' coach at Illinois was Kevin Cosgrove, the same Kevin Cosgrove that recruited John Jr. and served as his linebackers coach his first three years at UW. John Sigmund, a senior tight end on that 2000 Wisconsin team, is now the tight ends coach at Glenbard West.

Off to camp

Gillen's first UW training camp was a nerve-wracking experience.

"It's hard as players come in here," he said. "Everybody was the guy on their team."

A cold, hard truth set in then and throughout his Badger career: he was playing behind linebackers who were better than him.

"That's probably been one of the toughest things for John to deal with," John Sr. said.

John, however, made a conscious effort to bring his perseverance with him to Madison.

"I was at home the night before going to training camp, watching ‘Men of Honor', with my family, just saying no matter what happens, just don't give up," John said.

It was an experience he recounted to his father only once.

"I think that experience brought him almost from childhood to manhood," John Sr. said. "Having that stark realization—that event in life that says, wow, the door is now open and I am outside it."

John Jr. walked right through.

"It gets to you sometimes but when you are out there and you've got the ‘W' on your helmet and you know how many little kids, especially in the state of Wisconsin, wake up and just want to be a Badger. You just put a big smile on your face," John said.

A concussion suffered during his sophomore year further set back his football career.

"He knew right then and there that he was going to walk out of there with that degree and there was nothing that was going to stop him from getting it," John Sr. said. "That was why he was there. Whether he ever played a down or not."

Though he has almost never played, Gillen strove to remain a productive part of the team.

"He shows up every day and does what he's supposed to do, does a great job of coaching up on the sidelines," defensive coordinator Bret Bielema said. "I think those are the things that we appreciate as coaches that maybe the general public doesn't get a chance to see."

All in the family

John started playing football in sixth grade, later than many kids because his parents felt, "Johnny doesn't need the pressure of going out and trying to be a little professional football player in the third grade," John Sr. said.

John Sr. further attempted to abrogate the pressure on his sons to follow in their NFL father's footsteps by directing them to a variety of recreations, including canoeing and fly fishing.

The pressure still came, however, as John continued with football.

"I've tried to be conscious of that," John Sr. said. "We also sometimes set the bar high. We want to challenge our kids….but sometimes we forget that they are kids."

John was also a standout baseball and basketball player in high school but college football recruiting letters swayed him to the gridiron.

One more day at the Camp

John Gillen can run onto the field at Camp Randall once more, through the tunnel he pointed to that fateful December morning four years ago.

"It's a remarkable place, a place that when you leave here you are just going to be wondering and just thinking about it all the time, just watching it on TV," he said. "It has an impact on a player that you can't really describe…When you walk out there with the fans cheering, it's a bigger family. You really, truly feel special when you are coming out of there."

John Sr. said he and his wife were already fighting back tears just thinking about Saturday.

"I'm going to look at my bride and I know she's going to be wet in the eye and I'm going to look at my son and I know he is and I'm not going to be able to stand there and act like some tough guy," he said.

"I'm very proud of him as my son," John Sr. said. "He doesn't even really know or grasp yet today what this whole experience is really going to mean to him and how it will have prepared him for things outside the classroom and off the football field."

John Gillen never held onto personal gridiron glory. But he could hold on to Paul Bunyan's Axe Saturday with a Badger win and he is rightfully proud of his role on a team enjoying extraordinary success.

"[I'll] look back on it and get that alumni bumper sticker and put it on the back of the car and be a Badger for life," John Gillen said.

He can always hold on to Wisconsin.

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