INDIANAPOLIS - As Jacob Pedersen worked his way through the annual NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium this weekend, he did so realizing that it might never have happened – not his impressive University of Wisconsin career, not his opportunity to play in the NFL, none of it.
"I don't know, I can't exactly say it's fact," the Badgers tight end said. "I just try to make the most of it."
Pederson grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula in Menomonie, and after making varsity as a sophomore, he played just about everywhere you could play on a football field – both on defense and in Menomonie's single-wing offense.
"I started at D-end, tight end, I played some receiver, I switched to linebacker my junior year," Pedersen said, reciting the list. "Then, my senior year, I started out at linebacker and tight end. Our starting tailback unfortunately got hurt in the first game, so I had to go back to tailback. Then I also got moved back to safety. [So] I played all the way from the secondary to the D-line and receiver to running back."
And yet, despite being first-team all-U.P. and all-conference as a junior, despite helping Menomonie to the Division 5 state championship, despite lettering in basketball and track, despite being an honor student, he generated no college interest.
His senior year, when he was first-team all-state and named the U.P. and conference player of the year, as well as the team MVP and captain, didn't change that much.
"Up in the Upper Peninsula, we don't get recruited all that heavily up there," Pedersen said.
And then, Bob Bostad's phone rang at the UW football offices at Camp Randall Stadium. At the other end of the line was Dave Keel, the longtime coach at Homestead High School in Mequon. Keel, who'd coached for more than 20 years and just led the Highlanders to the 2008 WIAA state championship (his third), was well-respected by UW coaches. And he had a player he thought Bostad, who'd served as both the Badgers' tight ends coach and offensive line coach, should sign.
Not one of Keel's own kids, mind you. Pedersen.
"We played Menomonie Jacob's junior and senior year, and his senior year he never left the field – offense, defense, punt, kickoff. Heck of player," Keel said in a phone interview while Pedersen was going through Combine workouts. "I remember at halftime, we're up, and he's on the kickoff team. I kind of walk out onto the field – there's a little bit of lull – and I go, ‘Jacob, are you ever going to get off the field?' He said, ‘No, Coach, not me. Are you going to stop triple teaming me?' I said, ‘No, Jacob. No, we're not.'"
Keel made the call not long after that.
"I said to Bostad, ‘Have you taken a look at the kid from Menomonie?' He said, ‘No.' I said, ‘Take a look at him.' I think I sent up some film we had of our game, too. And they took a look at him."
Pedersen, in turn, got a call from UW tight ends coach Joe Rudolph "after my senior year was completed." Rudolph asked for a highlight tape, and Pedersen, who'd only been recruited by Division II schools to that point, was on his way.
Five years later – he redshirted in 2009 – he finished his UW career with 104 receptions for 1,394 yards and 17 touchdown receptions, which rank seventh in school history and first among tight ends. That's saying something, given the lineage of tight ends – Owen Daniels, Garrett Graham, Travis Beckum, Lance Kendricks – he followed.
Although Pedersen has talked to Keel since, he said he never asked whether the story is true about Keel calling UW, even though Keel got a thank-you note from Pedersen's parents, Paul and Rhonda, after their son signed with the Badgers. Although Keel confirmed the story, he did so reluctantly, and quickly added that he believes Pedersen would still be where he is today, even without his help.
"Coaches in general – not me in particular, but coaches in general – we're about helping kids. That's what we do. It doesn't matter if they're on our team or the other team. That's the way we do things," Keel said. "I liked Jacob a lot as a young man, I liked him as a player and I wanted him to be successful.
"I think Jacob's talent comes out one way or another – maybe at Wisconsin, maybe somewhere else. I don't know what he would have done if he hadn't gone to Wisconsin, but I'm extraordinarily happy for Jacob. It's pretty cool to see that from afar. I'm glad I had the opportunity to shake his hand on our football field a number of years ago. That's a neat thing."
It will be even neater if Pedersen is able to realize his NFL dream. The 6-foot-4, 238-pound Pedersen ran a 4.89-second 40-yard dash, had an 28.5-inch vertical leap and had one of the best 60-yard shuttle times (12.19 seconds) among tight ends. He's versatility and ability to serve as an H-back should help his chances.
He's projected as a third-day pick, but having made it this far, who would bet against him?
"I come from a small community; the Upper Peninsula is small in itself. So if I can go here, if I can be successful, if I can have a successful career in the NFL or just make a team, it's like that small-town kid pride. Like, ‘Hey, I went and I did something,'" Pedersen said. "I'm proud of my community, and I'm trying to make them proud of me.
"Growing up 45 minutes away from Green Bay, obviously, it'd be a childhood dream to play for your home team. But I'm just hoping to get drafted by a team. Whoever takes me, they're going to get my best effort."
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on "Green & Gold Today" on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.