MADISON, Wis. — Before he was Three-Sack Jack, he was Forty-Sack Jack.
As an earnest young naif at the Hill-Murray School in Maplewood, Minn., Wisconsin linebacker Jack Cichy volunteered with the campus chapter of Amnesty International, carrying sacks of groceries to local homeless shelters and assisting on a food drive for students at a nearby elementary school.
“(That) was a poking from my mom,” Cichy explained to Landof10.com. “She wanted me to get into it. At first, I was like, ‘Uhhhhhhhh.’
And cue the eye rolls.
“But then, once you get into it, you realize that you just — you don’t know what you don’t know. And once you know, it’s fun, it’s interactive.
“And once you start doing it, it’s hard to stop. You don’t want to stop.”
Hill-Murray School had launched an Amnesty International Club in 2006 with eight students and religion teacher Tim Cooper at the wheel. By 2009, that enrollment was up to 80. Members of the club volunteer at shelters and would walk in a Homeless Memorial March every December.
Community service is central to the mission at Hill-Murray, a 20-mile commute across the St. Croix River from the linebacker’s hometown of Somerset, Wis. At Cooper’s urging, Cichy dipped a toe in the water. By his junior year of high school, that dip was a full-on wade, following the current from lost soul to lost soul.
“I heard about it my freshman year,” the Badgers’ defender recalled. “And we had a lot of those types of organizations in my high school. But that was one that really stuck out to me. It really guided me.”
With Amnesty International as his compass, Cichy helped to pack food for children in Africa. He packed goods for homeless shelters in the area. He volunteered with the Salvation Army.
“It feels good to help,” Cichy said. “It’s (a gesture) that honestly is so miniscule, but it makes a huge difference.”
It takes all kinds to keep the world spinning. Givers. Takers. Dreamers. Doers. Cichy walks in the former camp, an impact guy in the community, the classroom and the field, lessons ingrained from his father, Steve, who played football at Notre Dame; and mom, Lisa, who played basketball at Marquette.
“I had two older sisters and did sports, did golf lessons, days were full,” said Cichy, whose big sister, Tessa, was a guard on the Badgers’ women’s basketball squad.
“My mom would probably light her hair on fire, driving around, trying to get me here, trying to get my sister there. And that’s what kind of dominated our childhood. But once we had a little bit more time in high school, I started getting into some of that (volunteer) stuff.”
— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) October 6, 2015
It’s not so much a primrose path as it is the destination. Cichy took the winding, gravel road to Mad City, leapfrogging potholes along the way. He elected to walk on at a Big Ten program rather than pursue scholarship offers to North Dakota State and Holy Cross, doubling down on himself.
A redshirt in 2014, the last 14 months have played out like a whirlwind, from a scholarship granted last summer; to four starts and 60 tackles last fall; to the targeting call in the second half of a 31-21 win over Minnesota, a flag that sentenced him to spend the first half of the 2015 Holiday Bowl confined to the locker room, snarling at the television set above.
The 233-pound Cichy made up for lost time, squirting through the middle of the USC front for three sacks on three consecutive plays, a performance that notched him Holiday Bowl Defensive MVP honors and cemented the online love:
Pro Football Focus listed 25 breakout candidates to know for 2016.
— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) August 1, 2016
In addition to crowning Cichy as a “Breakout Player” for 2016, PFF charted that in 349 snaps during 2015, he’d recorded five sacks, four quarterback hits, eight hurries, and four pass break-ups. A downhill guy who can also move in space. The best of all worlds.
At 6-foot-2, Cichy runs small and hits big. A scatback who closes like a tiger shark.
“He’s a fast, kind of elusive guy,” said center Michael Dieters, who’s seen the shark, up close, too many stinking times. “He’s kind of hard to get hands on. He can make you look silly at times if you’re not careful.
“And for me, that’s kind of his calling, how he does that stuff. You watch that USC game, he’s just slippery. That’s kind of how he is. He’s an athlete — that’s kind of what helps him, that he’s quick, he’s very athletic, and he’s able to use that to his advantage and beat guys like us.”
A squirrel darting through — and around — giant trees. With inside linebacker T.J. Edwards on the mend with a broken foot, the Badgers could very well hit Lambeau Field against LSU on Sept. 3 with Cichy starting in the middle alongside Chris Orr.
It’s also the formal debut of new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, with his successor, Dave Aranda, having — ironically — jumped to the staff to LSU. Before, Cichy noted, Wisconsin schemes were drawn up to funnel ball-carriers and skill guys toward a certain area or tackler.
Now: DIY. Kind of.
“I think it’s going to be a little bit of a (mix), too — but that is fun,” Cichy said. “Whereas before, we were pretty much (a) gap-sound defense, like, ‘Everything is going to work out like this, and this guy’s going to end up making the tackle.’ With Coach Wilcox, he taught us a lot in spring ball and he coached us up a lot on doing your job but then being better than the other guy and beating him, so you have that opportunity.”
In 2015, orchestration. A controlled score. New for 2016: A bit more jazz riffing.
“I’m thinking that’s one thing that we as linebackers have bought into,” Cichy continued. “I mean, it gives us an opportunity to hopefully make plays where we wouldn’t normally make plays.”
As a reporter approached the Badgers’ linebacker, a teammate spotted the digital recorder and started grinning mischievously.
“Three-Sack JAAAAAAACK!” he bellowed.
Vince Biegel’s idea. Of course.
“But again, you can’t change your own nickname,” Cichy shrugged. “So I guess I’m a — what’s the phrase?”
“I’m a victim,” Cichy cracked, “of my own success on that one.”
Sometimes, it really is better to give than to receive.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler