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Tackling Whatever Life Throws at Him: Rusk County

Thank you, Rusk County, for the talents of Jim Leonhard and his determination to exemplify what it takes to be a leader.

Jim Leonhard

MADISON, WI – SEPTEMBER 25: Defensive back/punt returner Jim Leonhard #18 of the Wisconsin Badgers returns a punt against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wisconsin on September 25, 2004. The Badgers beat the Nittany Lions 16-3. (Photo by David Stluka)

Jim Leonhard ’06 is unstoppable.

He was a legendary three-sport athlete in his hometown of Tony, Wisconsin, in Rusk County. He once gained more than 500 total yards in a football game, buried 10 three-pointers on the basketball court, and struck out 19 of 21 batters as a pitcher in baseball.

But even with all of those exploits under his belt, Leonhard did not receive a single Division I scholarship offer. That didn’t stop him, though, from earning a place on the Wisconsin Badgers football team as a walk-on after former Wisconsin football coach Barry Alvarez clocked Leonhard running a 4.4-second 40-yard dash.

“I always felt my role (as a player) was to be that mentor to young guys, to help guys learn.”

After joining the Badgers for the 2001 season, he quickly established himself as one of the best defensive players in school history. Leonhard went on to play in every game of his four-year career, including 39 starts at safety, and matched the UW’s career record with 21 interceptions, the fourth most in Big Ten history. He was named first-team All-Big Ten in each of his final three seasons and earned at least one first-team All-America nod in each of those years as well.

Surprisingly, though, when the National Football League draft was held in 2005, Leonhard went undrafted. He didn’t let that stop him, either, and went on to a 10-year NFL career with the Buffalo Bills, Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets, Denver Broncos, New Orleans Saints, and Cleveland Browns.

A 2006 UW–Madison graduate who earned his bachelor’s degree in education, Leonhard retired from the NFL in 2014 and took one year off before joining the Badgers’ football coaching staff as the defensive backs’ coach.

“I’ve always loved teaching the game,” he says. “I always felt my role (as a player) was to be that mentor to young guys, to help guys learn. So the transition to the coaching side has been pretty natural for me.”

And after one year of coaching, it wasn’t Leonhard who didn’t stop — it was head coach Paul Chryst. Even though Leonhard was only 34 years old, it didn’t stop Chryst from handing him the keys to one of the best defenses in college football and promoting him to Wisconsin’s new defensive coordinator.

“The expectations are extremely high right now, and I’m comfortable with that. I’m excited to be the next in line (as Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator). At the same time, I understand there are high expectations and high goals. We have our work cut out for us to reach them.”

Don’t for a second doubt that Leonhard will stop in exceeding those expectations — and many more to come.

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