There are zombies with less persistence than the Wisconsin defense, biker gangs with better table manners. Did you see what they did to East Lansing? The carnage left in Ann Arbor? Every play is a headache, every yard a personal affront. Surely, there must be some kind of moat between civilians and this lot, the way a zoo distances its prized tiger from a curious public.
And then Paula Nordwig shows you a picture. The one that made her a Badger for life, the one that melts the heart like wax to a tiny flame. The one that cycles through the screen saver. The one that pops up on the laptop every now and again, randomly.
The one that somehow washes away all the day’s worries and aches. Every time.
In the right corner, Badgers safety D’Cota Dixon is scrunched over, baring his teeth. In the left corner, Paula’s daughter Cathy is meeting him eye-to-eye, molar for molar.
Cathy has Down syndrome. Even with loved ones, she’s not that verbal. And yet, here she is, palling around with Dixon, fearless and free, grinning like it’s Christmas morning.
“Sometimes, you’ll introduce a person with special needs to somebody and they’re a little bit uncomfortable because they’re not sure what to say or how to act,” Paula explains. “Or they might do something that might offend somebody.
“D’Cota, he was just himself. And he did things with these kids that anybody of a peer group would do. He didn’t talk down to her and didn’t treat her like a little child. Just treated them like friends. That just warms my heart every time that happens. It’s just being a good person; that they recognize that that person they’re standing next to is a person, also. That just stuck with me.
“Nobody had told him what to do. He just did it.”
Come for the wins, stay for the warmth. Wisconsin (4-1, 1-1) hosts unbeaten Ohio State on Saturday, and as crazy good as the Badgers have been this season on the field, you should see some of the crazy good they do off of it. Linebacker Jack Cichy, Captain “A” Gap, used to run around with Amnesty International. Injured pass-rushing dynamo Vince Biegel, who treats quarterbacks the way the Tasmanian Devil in those Warner Brothers cartoons treats Bugs Bunny, shaved his head for cancer patients, reads to kids and helps build new homes.
And there’s Dixon, the 5-foot-10 Florida native who picked up a sack and forced a fumble at Michigan State on Sept. 24, then swatted away two passes at Michigan a week later. Hell on wheels, havoc with a heart of gold.
On June 9, Wisconsin Upside Down, a local advocacy group for individuals with Down syndrome and their families, brought more than 150 people to Camp Randall Stadium for a day with the Badgers, a peek behind the curtains. From 3 p.m. to 7-ish, Upside Down toured the facilities, tried on equipment, roughhoused with Bucky Badger and traded autographs with their heroes.
As part of the visit, kids were paired with players to serve as guides and coaches. Cathy ran — and jumped and caught and blocked and tackled — with Badgers long-snapper Connor Udelhoven and Dixon, beaming with every giddy step.
“I think it was more so her that picked me,” Dixon says. “It was something about her. She had a glow to her and I just gravitated to it. She was just amazing. She was funny. She was making me laugh the whole time. She was so cute.”
And so totally in her element. Cathy is 20 and in her senior year at Arrowhead High School in Hartland, Wis., a suburb of Milwaukee. She’s a three-sport Special Olympian — volleyball, gymnastics and track. Likes videos. Loves to sing.
“Chorus is her favorite class,” mom says.
When she first spied our man D’Cota, she didn’t say much.
Then again, she didn’t have to.
“But (when) she did, it was enough to get me smiling,” Dixon says. “I think it was more her smile that made me smile. The fact she was happy really made me happy.”
As it turns out, Cathy was happiest with the rock in her hand, sprinting to daylight. So Dixon handed her one of his No. 14 jerseys and started drawing up plays. He and his pals worked out a drill in which one player would hand her the ball, another player would block and another would chase her.
But the best part? The best part was the end-zone celebration they cooked up. At the end of a run, Dixon heard Cathy growl, menacingly.
The light bulb went on.
“Every time you score,” he told her, “this is our celebration.”
A few minutes later, another handoff, another block, another wild goose chase, another touchdown. Cathy spiked the rock. Dixon ran over, crouched down, and the pair started GRRRRRRRRRRRRRRing like there was no tomorrow.
“The two of them really clicked,” Paula says. “It was more than just walking the kids around and showing them what Camp Randall was all about and the equipment and everything. It was more like, ‘Let’s be Badgers, for real.’
“So that was amazing. And, of course, the hot dogs.”
The visit ended with a giant cookout for players, kids, parents and staff. As the sun started to set and the day’s activities wrapped, Paula went to look for Dixon to say thanks and to return any belongings. She approached Udelhoven, who’d already given Cathy a pair of his gloves as a souvenir.
“Did you see D’Cota anywhere?” she asked. “I’ve got to give him back his jersey.”
“No, no,” Conner said, gently correcting her. “He gave it to Cathy. She gets to keep it.”
Mom’s jaw dropped.
“And tears are welling up,” Paula says.
“(We’re) like 45 miles away from Madison. I had just finished work and I’d had a split-second thought in my head that was, ‘Do I really want to go to this?’ And I can’t believe I had that thought. Because if we had missed that opportunity, I would have never forgiven myself.”
The road that led D’Cota Dixon to give Cathy Nordwig the shirt off his back was paved by several loving, careful hands. A seed planted first by Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst and tended by Badgers safety Blake Mielke and Upside Down president Robbin Thomas Lyons.
Lyons founded the organization with a small group of parents at her kitchen table in 2007, a collective that’s now more than 2,500 strong. Her daughter, Kelly, is 14 with Down syndrome, while her son, Reed, played football with Mielke in Hartland. Blake’s brother, Brock, is a sophomore at Arrowhead with Down syndrome.
“I was really touched, I had to say, when I got the phone call from Blake,” Lyons says. “He said, ‘Hey, Coach said you guys are welcome. Let’s do an event. Let’s bring all the kids (in the organization) in and give them a taste of what it’s like to be a Wisconsin Badger.’
“And it was magical.”
Even more magical was the fact the whole thing came together in about 10 days. Mielke, a redshirt freshman, had been sitting in a 1-on-1 meeting with Chryst when the coach asked about Brock, whom he’d noticed interacting with Blake during spring ball.
“He said, ‘Blake, I don’t want to throw more on your plate,’” Blake’s mother Marybeth recalls. “And (Blake) said, ‘Yeah, throw it on my plate.’”
Community service is a bedrock of the athletics department’s mission and mantra, but this was different. Personal. Chryst and Blake and Brock’s dad, Dave, both played football for the Badgers, back in the day; the eldest Mielke lettered in 1983 and ’84, Chryst from 1986 through ’88.
One of Marybeth’s favorite snapshots is of Brock and Chryst posing together, with the teen playfully holding one hand precipitously close to the Wisconsin coach’s belly.
“And he started rubbing it a little bit,” and I said, ‘Don’t you dare,’” Marybeth recalls. “Paul just laughed when it happened.”
“Heck, there are some great stories, people with unbelievable perseverance and a spirit,” Chryst says. “And I think whenever you do good things such as that, you get a lot more out of it than what you give. And when I had a chance to step back and look at it, it was really neat seeing everyone enjoying it.”
Brock Mielke isn’t just the life of the party. He’s the soul, the wind and the engine. Brock’s the second youngest of four kids. He grew up playing basketball with his siblings, swimming with them, shooting golf with them, matching big brother Blake pace for pace, stroke for stroke.
“Their relationship is a very typical brother relationship,” Lyons says. “I see them wrestling. I see them pulling pranks on each other. When they’re together, somebody’s pulling the other one’s legs.”
“I forget that he has Down syndrome, really,” Blake says, “because he’s just so involved with everything.”
And everyone. A natural smile, a natural charm, a gregarious charm. A joy de vivre straight from The Chris Farley School of Awesome.
“Loves to laugh, and everybody loves to be around him,” Marybeth says of Brock. “We were at the airport, some kid yells over, ‘Hey, Brock!’ We’re like, ‘Who is that?’ Nobody knew, but Brock knew him and he knew Brock. Oh, yeah.”
Big heart. Big hugs. Big everything.
“When he was younger, he’d go wander off during football and basketball games,” Blake recalls. “My mom didn’t like it, obviously, because he was taking people’s money. He’d go up … and just (be) like, ‘Oh, I’d like a cheeseburger, however, I’ve got a penny.’ Or he’d go up to someone and say, ‘Hey, can I get some money?’”
Once, in eighth grade, he left his seat for a few minutes only to return with a cheeseburger, fries, a Coke and $5 in cash.
“And my mom had sent him out with no money at all,” Blake laughs. “That’s the record.”
The boys were born four years apart, almost to the day. Even as a toddler, Blake knew, given the mess of tubes connected to his baby brother and the worried looks from adults, that things might be different. His mother told Blake the boy would be fine; Brock just needed patience. And love.
He got both. Blake has volunteered for years with Wisconsin Upside Down, as well as with the Special Olympics. He launched a petition in eighth grade for his peers to “Cut Out The ‘R’ Word” — an age when such terms are tossed around at their most cutting and cruel — and provided wristbands to those who would sign the pledge. He and sister Meghan raised more than $3,000 in one month for Upside Down.
Blake even got his Arrowhead High teammates involved with the organization, rallying the crew with an emotional speech about Brock and what his little brother meant to their family.
“It’s a forever bond,” Marybeth says.
Lyons has championed the Down syndrome community in Wisconsin for more than a decade now. She’d been through these sort of meet-and-greet shindigs before, but says she could only think of two sports celebrities as engaged as Chryst’s Badgers were at Camp Randall: former Marquette and current Virginia Tech basketball coach Buzz Williams and newly retired quarterback Peyton Manning.
“With coach Chryst, it was his idea, he was totally behind them,” Lyons says. “It was very obvious, I would say, just the overall feeling in the presence of his guys. They just wanted to hang out with the kids. And they were having as much fun as the kids.”
Lyons still gets notes of thanks, “and pictures from parents, and notes from the some of the kids,” she chuckles. “And it hasn’t really stopped.
“We had our golf outing and some people that were there came up to me again and said, ‘You know, I think it was a special thing and, hands down, the most special thing this year.’ I spent all those times planning things and the thing that was the most special was that day.
“It’s just added a completely different perspective on the game, when you know the people (involved). It’s not just a number. It’s not just your team. But you know them on a more personal level. It’s really, really something.”
As Badgers and kids ran from the tunnel at Camp Randall and into the sunshine, Paula Nordwig noticed something else.
“The only time I saw a cellphone in anybody’s hands was to record themselves running out with the (Upside Down) buddy that they had been paired with,” she says. “And it dawned on me that I did not see a cellphone with anybody from the minute we arrived to the end of the day when we left. Typically with that age group, they’re checking their texts. These guys were 110 percent focused on the kids.
“Here were these gentle giants that took these kids under their wings and treated them like royalty, basically. Like athletic royalty. It was such a cool thing to see.”
It got even cooler the day after the event, when Paula pulled up her Facebook feed to find a video of the Badgers running a play, opening a lane for Cathy, and her daughter breaking the plane of that gorgeous red end zone.
And growling. Sweet, sweet growling.
“I’m glad she’s still happy,” Dixon says. “Because it’s moments like that are where everything (clicks), when you see all the blessings, truly. And it’s nice to win a football game, to catch interceptions. But a lot of those things are temporary.
“The weeks are temporary. The games are temporary. When you have memories like that, they’ll always last.”
No. 14 lasts, too, hanging in a place of reverence inside Cathy’s closet.
“D’Cota’s an unbelievable person,” Chryst says. “But who was impacted more, I don’t know. Was it our players? Was it the kids that came?”
Or was it the moms? Paula always fancied herself as more of the Packers type, but the Badgers are now appointment viewing in the Nordwig home on Saturday afternoons.
“Look, Cathy,” Mom will say as No. 14 goes flying by. “There’s D’Cota.”
“Ohhh, D’Cota,” Cathy will reply.
“If she happens to be upstairs and will look downstairs and see the Badgers are on, she’ll say, ‘Ohhh, Wisconsin Badgers,'” Paula says. “She’s turning into a Badgers fan. She’s starting to recognize the numbers — No. 14 and (Udelhoven’s) No. 60.”
She’s starting to recognize the players. The ones on the computer screen. The ones that Mom can’t stop smiling about.
“She’ll go, ‘Ohhh, Badgers. D’Cota,’” Paula says. “It’s an ongoing thing. It was a very special event that’s really stuck with us.”
A forever bond. A forever moment. A forever thanks.