Patience Key For Hazuga

Defensive end Jeff Hazuga broke his shoulder blade Sunday night and will miss the rest of the season, but he is used to adversity while making his football goals a reality.

This wasn't the way it was supposed to be. This wasn't the college football experience Jeff Hazuga envisioned.

After spending four years attending classes, working out in the weight room and laboring on the football field, Hazuga had had enough. It was his life. He was still in control of his own destiny. Even though it may have, at first glance, appeared as if it was too late to make a change, Hazuga wanted to renege on his collegiate selection.

At face value, it certainly looked like an attractive package. And to many it was, but not to Hazuga. Not the kid who grew up on a rural dairy farm in Thorp, Wis., taking hogs to county fairs and spending spare time playing softball in the front yard with his family and neighbors.

No, Hazuga thought it would be different at college.

He had an invisible blueprint in his mind, an architectural design of what life would be like after high school. Thorp High had posted a 30-5 record with Hazuga as a starter, including a state championship in 1993 and a state runner-up finish in 1994. It appeared he had a shot at advancing his football career. The plan was he would attend a mid-sized college, play Division II football in the well-respected North Central Conference and continually hone his skills with the goal of making it to the NFL.

Hazuga was recruited by Division I Wyoming, but opted to stay closer to home and go to St. Cloud State University, where he had a shot at more playing time. Most importantly, he thought, he would be afforded more plays to exhibit his defensive skills and demonstrate his talents.

But after Hazuga's third year with the Huskies, St. Cloud State athletic administration made a coaching change. Long-time coach Noel Martin was ousted. So, too, were some members of Martin's staff, some whom Hazuga respected and didn't want to see leave. Randy Hedberg, who previously coached the University of Minnesota-Duluth in the Northern Sun Conference, was named as Martin's replacement.

Hazuga, who redshirted his freshman year, was entering his junior season. He figured he'd give the new coaching regime a chance. After all, he had already invested three full years playing for St. Cloud State. "(Hedberg) came in … and we ran a defense that didn't fit my style of play," Hazuga said. "So I decided to transfer to a school where I could play more."

Hazuga's actions were understood by some, misinterpreted by others.

Bolting from a struggling team that was going through leadership changes didn't set well with some of his teammates. They may have thought he was bailing on a program in a state of flux. A few may have thought he was being self-centered. Others may have labeled him an individualist, one who isn't concerned about his team, only himself. Hazuga felt some of his greatest critics should do an about-face and look in the mirror.

"I heard people saying things and heard some things others were saying through some friends of mine," Hazuga said. "Most of the people saying things were the ones who weren't committed to the team, anyway. A lot of the kids were on the team just to be on the team. They didn't want to make the sacrifices necessary to be on a good team."

Understanding that was nothing new to Hazuga. After a few weeks with St. Cloud State, he knew it wasn't a roster full of players totally committed to the cause.

"I almost transferred to Wyoming after my first year of school there," Hazuga said. "I talked to them a little bit after my freshman year and really considered leaving (St. Cloud). I just decided to see if things would get better, but they really didn't change at all in the four years there."

So he left for greener pastures. After a frustrating junior season at St. Cloud State — his first under Hedberg — Hazuga departed for the University of Wisconsin-Stout. He was transferring to a Division III school in Menomonie, Wis., just an hour's drive from his home in Thorp.

"I had to be selfish about it and leave my teammates in St. Cloud, but some of my real friends understood why I left," Hazuga said. "Some of the guys on the team thought I was jumping ship because we weren't doing well. I was a leader at the time, but it was something I had to do."

When Hazuga was considering a transfer, he had spoken with friends at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, another Division III school — like Stout — in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Stout had finished near the bottom of the WIAC during Hazuga's junior year at St. Cloud State. But his friends told him Stout had some talented players returning and would be much improved.

Knowing the team would be competitive made the move attractive. But so, too, was the chance to play every down and unleash the defensive prowess he knew, at times, had previously been caged. Because he was dropping from Division II to Division III, Hazuga instituted self-imposed expectations of finishing his college career with a stellar season.

He did just that. He not only harassed quarterbacks and running backs, he'd punish them. In one season at Stout, he racked up 15 sacks and 30 tackles-for-loss. It didn't take long for the conference to recognize who Hazuga was. After just one year there, he was named the WIAC Player of the Year.

In retrospect, transferring to Stout for a season was a self-given litmus test that he passed with flying colors.

"I knew going in I'd dominate there," Hazuga said. "If I didn't absolutely dominate there, that would be a sign to show me I wasn't good enough to play in the NFL. If you play in a Division III school, you have to stand out to get a shot."

He didn't stand out by reputation. Before the 2000 football season, the WIAC football newsletter focused on the shakeup the conference was going through with 20 or so transfers landing on teams for the upcoming season. Hazuga's name was nowhere to be found. A Stout Blue Devils assistant coach approached Hazuga during two-a-day practices and showed the preseason prospectus to the transfer from St. Cloud State.

He proved the prospectus wrong. And even surpasses expectations by his own coaches. "I looked at that and looked at the coach and we both smiled," Hazuga said. "The coaches had seen me play, but I remember the first day after we had practiced with pads on. I was hitting people and they were like, ‘This kid can play.' That was kind of funny, how he had that press clipping and no one knew my name."

Week by week, team by team, the entire WIAC was quickly introduced to Hazuga. The Blue Devils were 2-8 in 1999, 10-0 in 2000 after the addition of Hazuga. But Stout's postseason was spoiled by the Division III neighbor to St. Cloud State, St. John's University.

Hazuga's glorious season with Stout ended in disappointment. And soul searching.

"We shot ourselves in the foot against St. John's," Hazuga said. "I took a lot of that on myself. I thought we could've run a different defense and I should've spoken up earlier in the game and I didn't."

It was a difficult way for Stout to end such a breakthrough season. It was even more difficult for Hazuga to come to grips with the reality his college career was over.

"That was really hard," Hazuga admitted. "I pretty much walked off the field without talking to anybody. Some people said I was a (jerk) for not shaking people's hands afterward. I went straight home, didn't even talk to my parents. I felt we were a better team than we were. We worked so hard and there were a lot of guys who played well and worked so hard. To end the way we did … It's one thing to lose, but to lose when you think you should've won, that really hurt."

The pain slowly subsided. By April, the pain had converted into excitement and optimism for the NFL draft. Not so surprisingly, Hazuga's named wasn't called. But even though he didn't hear his name on ESPN, the phone did ring. It was the Vikings, and they wanted to sign Hazuga as a free agent.

Minnesota had done its homework. It was hard to ignore the WIAC Player of the Year, who spent his Saturdays playing just two hours east of the Metrodome.

"I always thought it was something I wanted to do and something I'd be able to do," Hazuga said. "God blessed me with talent and I was lucky enough to be in the right situation at the right time." VU

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