Long before he got wise to the joys of mashing quarterbacks, Vince Biegel chased frogs for kicks. Wisconsin’s senior linebacker grew up running wild on his family’s 80-plus acre cranberry marsh — a wet, wide open space where a kid could be a kid and the wildlife ran for their tiny little lives.
“Listen to me, (there) was no better feeling (than) growing up on a cranberry marsh,” Biegel said at Big Ten Football Media Day. “Catching frogs. Plenty of good space to make forts. You know, I had a four-wheeler growing up, so I was definitely an outdoors kid growing up. And my brother and I, we were very blessed to have the position that we were. And it was kind of fun.”
The marsh — or merssssh, as Biegel pronounces it — is the family business in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisc., passed down from generation to generation over the past century and change. Every Independence Day, the Badgers’ returning sack leader brings eight or so teammates up to check out the scenery.
“It’s really special for me to able to show these out-of-staters and guys who wouldn’t necessarily be there what a cranberry marsh is like,” chuckled Biegel, who’s picked up 17.5 sacks and 33.5 tackles for loss for the Badgers over the last three seasons. “It’s fun. It’s really fun.”
Few Badgers take their play — and their work — as seriously as the 6-foot-4, 244-pound Biegel, who was so cheesed off at being named to the Big Ten’s all-conference third team last fall that it motivated him, in part, to come back to school rather than test his stock at the NFL Draft.
“See, you have this cranberry side and you have this football side,” Biegel explained. “And that’s why I am here today. It’s a fun thing to be a part of, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
And yet the coordinator is different. The schedule is different. The scheme is different. The responsibilities are different. The running buddies are different. Biegel isn’t partnered with Joe Schobert (9.5 sacks, 10 tackles for losses last fall) at outside ‘backer anymore; T.J. Watt — younger sibling of NFL great J.J. — is expected to get the first crack at Schobert’s old slot.
The Badgers hold their annual Media Day on Sunday and open camp a day later. For Biegel, it’ll be the third August he’ll hit with a new defensive coordinator, with linebacker-friendly, blitz-happy Dave Aranda — now at LSU, Wisconsin’s season-opening dance partner — giving way to Justin Wilcox.
“Yeah, three head coaches, three D coordinators, not a lot of college football players can say that,” Biegel said. “But, honestly, each coach that has come and gone, I’ve taken from. Even (our) strength coaches that I’ve kind of (borrowed) from and made into my own.”
Of course, the senior is used to marching to the beat of his own internal drummer, usually at the kind of tempo preferred by speed metal bands:
props to @VinceBiegel who told me to watch the waterboy so i’d understand the people here.
— Cocky Dave Aranda (@ArandaLSU) June 10, 2016
Brock. Is. Back. #UFC200
— Vince Biegel (@VinceBiegel) July 10, 2016
Ball players always get the girls #TheBachelorette
— Vince Biegel (@VinceBiegel) August 2, 2016
A nominee for the AFCA’s “Good Works” team, he helped the organize a “Badgers Go Bald” event in the spring of 2015 to raise cancer awareness, shaving his own locks in the process. If it involves kids, Biegel is more than happy to represent and light up a room. Or, in some cases, a practice field: A few days back, the senior went to his old stomping grounds, Wisconsin Rapids’ Lincoln High, and encouraged the current football squad to go out and “Find your why”:
— Steven Hepp (@WR_CoachHepp) August 3, 2016
From a football perspective, the ceiling has always been sky high. As the biggest dog left in the linebacker corps, the first man on the opposition’s scouting report, can Biegel raise his game enough to where he’s kissing the clouds, too?
“I like the kid,” veteran NFL talent evaluator Russ Lande told LandOf10.com. “Is he a ‘special’ guy? No. I don’t think he’s a special guy. He’s a good all-around player. To me, he looks like a good mid-round prospect.
“But he’s an interesting kid, because I’ll tell you one thing: Every time I look up, he is around the ball. He makes plays … that, to me, is the most interesting part of it.”
Just not the only interesting part.
“I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about cranberries,” Biegel said. “The amount of knowledge about cranberries and how (they’re) grown, it’s not very much.”
When a reporter pressed for more juice, the Badgers linebacker humored him.
“You’ve probably seen the Ocean Spray commercials,” Biegel continued. “We have beaters who go into the marsh — it’s actually a rotating arm. It hits the vine and the berries float to the top. And then we corral them all. That’s (the) thing (that) you see in a lot of those cranberry pictures.
“We actually sell our berries to Ocean Spray. So when you guys go back home, you guys are drinking cranberry juice, you guys are drinking our cranberries back home.”
Family legacy — and family pride — runs deep. Vince’s grandfather, Ken, was one of the most decorated prep coaches in Wisconsin high school history. His father, Rocky, was a hammer of a collegiate linebacker himself at BYU. Rocky and wife Jamie run the Dempze Cranberry Company, a portfolio that includes 80-some acres in central part of the state, another 80 acres in the north and 25 acres to the west.
“And our family actually owns bean crops and corn crops down in Iowa, too,” Vince explained. “Actually in my off-season, (and) I don’t like to admit this — I actually spend a lot of time down in Iowa hunting, farming and having fun. I actually like the state of Iowa a lot.”
Don’t worry, man. We won’t tell a soul.
“And it’s definitely turned me into the man I am today, from a hard work standpoint,” he mused. “I (can) still remember my dad busting me and my brother Hayden on the cranberry marsh on those hot summer days. That’s where our work ethic really started, was on the cranberry marshes, and developing that hard work ethic.”
Biegel already knows his “why.” The fun part this fall is going to be watching the “how” part play out. One giant bruise at a time.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler