There is no doubt that one member of the Wisconsin Badger football team enjoys playing the role of big brother.
When the Badgers left the field on November 18, 2006, it marked the last time that Zach Hampton will get to step into Camp Randall Stadium as a player. The fifth-year senior from Lancaster has left an indelible mark on the program. One that future Wisconsin natives hoping to play for the Cardinal and White can strive to match.
If you are one of the near 4,100 residents of the quaint, working class town in southwestern Wisconsin, then you probably know about Zach. Not because he makes himself known to you, per se, but because that is what the townspeople are about.
"When I go home, everybody always says hello to me." Hampton said. "It is like being at the Cheers bar because everyone knows you. I love it there." When you achieve what he did during his high school career, it might help you be a bit more documented around town.
During Hampton's four years at Lancaster High, he was a starter on the varsity football team for three of them. In that three year stretch, the Flying Arrows combined to go 41-1, and win two state championships (his junior and senior years). Zach was named small school player of the year by the Wisconsin State Journal as a junior and a senior. He earned first team all-state from the Associated Press and Wisconsin Football Coaches Association as a senior. Hampton set school records in five different categories. Add in state track meet and wrestling appearances and you have yourself a small school hero for kids from age five to 95. He would then decide to walk-on to the Badger football team rather than accept scholarship offers to other institutions. But in general, those things are not what really matters to Zach.
IT'S ALL IN THE NAME
He grew up knowing that he had to get his work done and his homework done before anything else. That is what parents Buck and Jackie Hampton instilled.
"My folks are pretty great people." Zach proclaims. "They know what it takes for me and my brother to succeed at this (football), but know that it comes after everything else. I am lucky to have them." One of Zach's aunts, Laurie, calls him ‘her favorite nephew'. In return, of course, he calls her ‘my favorite aunt'. The family has a real closeness. You would expect nothing less from a small town kid. In fact, just last week when brother Adam was help leading the Arrows to the state title game he had to be there for support.
"I told Coach (Bielema) that he had to hurry practice up," joked Hampton. "I got there in like the third quarter of the game and started cheering right away. We were losing 14-0 at that time, but the ending was awesome."
The ending was all so familiar for Lancaster and Wisconsin high school football fans, too.
Down 14-0, the Arrows scored three times in the final 10:00 of the game – including a game winning run with :47 seconds remaining – to win the school's sixth state championship (which is the most by any Wisconsin school in any class) , 21-14. Oh by the way, Hampton, he of the Adam variety, scored the first and second touchdowns on receptions of 40 and 22 yards, respectively. Adam also carried the ball six times, returned three punts/kicks, and threw the ball once (completing it for nine yards). He seems to be a chip off the old, and very familiar, block. Older brother is pretty happy for him as well.
"Adam is a good football player," big brother says. "He is smart and knows where to be and what he is doing out there. I am pretty darn proud of him." It sounds like they enjoy hanging out together, too. "He is just outside the door (of the football weight room where interviews take place post-game) waiting on me. We need to celebrate the win."
PLAYING THROUGH THE PAIN AND THE CRITICISM
Perhaps celebration will serve him well, given the fact that he has had to deal with a lot of undue stress and heat from media and fans alike this season. But, what most of the fans that criticize Zach do not realize is that he is playing through the pain. In more ways than one.
Hampton has incurred the following injuries this season – broken fingers, strained ligament in his thumb, fractured ribs, and a separated shoulder. The shoulder injury is something that will need surgery to repair. In fact, he was urged by a physician to have the procedure done at the beginning of the season. That would have caused Zach to miss a significant portion, if not all, of the 2006 schedule. He was not going to have any part of that.
"My shoulder hurts almost all the time," states Hampton. "When I walk, it hurts. When I get hit, it hurts. But, you have to play through the pain. Do I use the injur(y/ies) as an excuse? No. That is a sign of weakness. I try to be a strong teammate."
Fans have really started to take offense to Zach's play this season. He has had some difficulty with handling punts this season. Coach Bielema has stated the sun caused some troubles. Teammate Ben Strickland has taken the blame for poor blocking on another. But Hampton is not one to stray away from responsibility.
"Yes, I have had some trouble with handling punts," Hampton says. "It all comes down on me. I am a man and can take it. The injuries are not the problem. People are not the problem. I just want to get it done for my team." If you noticed, he used the pronoun "I" a lot. He is not going to run from the heat.
Zach also doesn't read internet message boards that much.
"I don't really pay much attention to them (message boards)," he exclaims. "People can say what they want because they have an opinion. I am fine with that. But I really don't worry too much about it."
When you are a part of a team that has the most regular season wins in the history of the program, I would not think it matters that much either. The Badgers are fresh off their 11th win of the season against just one loss. They are awaiting bowl announcements, which could come as early as tomorrow (Tuesday).
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS FOR HAMPTON(s)
Having taken the field at the legendary Camp Randall Stadium for the last time as a player was a bit bittersweet for Zach. It seems like just yesterday he was winning two state championships for Lancaster on the very same field. Or he was watching the games from the stands with this family, not yet being able to drive a car. Time sure flies when you are having fun.
"It was weird leaving the field today." Hampton says. "I love this place and always have – and always will. To hear the crowd cheer for you is a pretty, well, amazing thing. I never could have dreamed this would happen for me. I wanted it to, of course."
There are small school kids everywhere in Wisconsin that look up to Hampton. He may not get his name in the paper every week like John Stocco, PJ Hill, or Travis Beckum, but he joins a long list of former walk-ons who have made key contributions to the Badger football program.
"I always wanted to be a Badger." Hampton proclaims. "There is nothing like it anywhere else. My brother wants to do it, too."
It is imagination becoming reality.
"I will never forget this experience." Hampton states in a child-like way. When asked if this was a dream come true, Zach states very matter-of-factly, "Oh yeah. This is my dream."
If only Nelson Dewey were around to see this play out. He would be proud.