Gifford receives kudos from former foe

WFCA all star will walk on to the University of Wisconsin football team next month

Mike Stassi is glad he is not coaching against Matt Gifford this week.

When last they met on a football field, Stassi, the head coach at Monona Grove, was competing against Gifford, a wide receiver and free safety at Waukesha West, in the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association Division 2 state championship game. West prevailed 24-7, with Gifford, who will walk-on at the University of Wisconsin next month, catching four passes for 63 yards.

Saturday, however, they will each be on the South All Stars' sideline for the annual Wisconsin Football Coaches Association Shrine Bowl: Gifford as a wide receiver and Stassi as one of retiring Brodhead-Juda coach Gary Larsen's assistants. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at Titan Stadium on the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh campus.

"He's just such a great athlete," Stassi said of Gifford, following a South squad practice at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Monday afternoon. "And he's such a class act of a person. I've gotten to know him. And although I didn't appreciate his great catches against us then, I do now.

"I have an awful lot of respect for him and all the things that he brings to the table. Because he's just an extremely hard worker."

Gifford (6-foot-1, 198 pounds) had partial scholarship offers from some Division II schools, and also received a walk-on invitation from Indiana.

"I didn't want to go far away but I guess the bottom line was I knew I could play Division-I ball and I knew I just didn't get a good enough look from any (coaches)," Gifford said. "I just really wanted the opportunity to prove myself."

"I had several D-II options," he said. "In my heart I always wanted to be a Badger. I just wanted to push myself… to be at that level."

Stassi certainly is a believer in Gifford's abilities.

"He'll be a success at whatever he chooses to do because he's the type of kid who is just going to work extra special," Stassi said.

Gifford said he learned he would receive a walk-on opportunity with the Badgers in mid-to-late January. A three-year starter at wide receiver and a two-year starter at free safety, Gifford was an Associated Press second-team all-state pick at defensive back. And he was a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel honorable mention all-state wide receiver. As a senior, he caught 33 passes for 670 yards and eight touchdowns and had seven interceptions. He also returned a punt and an interception for a touchdown.

"I played receiver my entire life," Gifford said. "That's my bread and butter, you could say. I started playing free (safety) my sophomore and junior year. I pride myself on never dropping passes. That's a big thing with me. And free, I'm still trying to develop. I feel I have not really found my defensive…. I'm not really defensive sound."

A sprinter on West's track team, Gifford said he can cover 40 yards in 4.5 seconds. He is expected to begin his Badger career as a wide receiver, but Gifford said he was not sure what position he would play.

"I've played wide receiver my entire life," he said. "But I mean, if they want me to play somewhere (else), I'm not going to put my word on it."

A hamstring injury has limited Gifford during the South's practices this week, but Stassi knows what he is capable of accomplishing.

"He's got great balance, got great speed and great leaping ability," Stassi said. "And of course he seems to be extremely smart. And that will always help him out in everything he does. He's a good decision maker out on the field. He's a playmaker. He's one of those kids that you love to have but don't like to coach against."

Gifford has fond memories of the state title he and his West teammates won at Camp Randall in November.

"It was just the culmination of four years," Gifford said. "Most of the players we had, we've been friends and been playing together for six or seven years. We were just a part of that group and just played through one another."

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