When Leo Chenal used to fire up the family Xbox for a game of NCAA Football with his brothers, John and Gabe, there was little doubt about which college team he would select. The Wisconsin Badgers had won their hearts from a young age, and mashing the video game controller for hours on end represented the closest they could get to actually suiting up for the cardinal and white.
“We would always talk about crazy things like playing for the Badgers and stuff like that when we were younger,” Chenal said. “Just growing up dreaming about those things.”
Over the past year, however, it became clear Chenal might possess a legitimate opportunity to turn that dream into a reality. Badgers coaches had begun to take notice of the way he terrorized opponents on the high school football field for Grantsburg, a town of roughly 1,300 people located in the northwest corner of Wisconsin.
So when Chenal was invited to Wisconsin’s football game last Saturday against Florida Atlantic as a prospective recruit — his first time attending a Badgers game in person — he hoped it might lead to a scholarship offer. During a pregame lunch in the recruiting tent next to Camp Randall Stadium, he finally heard the magic words from special teams coach Chris Haering.
Chenal’s first reaction was complete elation. His second thought was that he had no reason to wait on making a college decision. The following day, he committed to Wisconsin, becoming the first player in the 2019 class to commit to the Badgers
“I talked with my family and considered all the possibilities and things in the future that if I didn’t commit, what would be the benefit?” Chenal said. “Really the only thing that came up was, ‘Yeah, this offer will make other schools offer me’. But really I don’t have any other school that I’d like to play at more than Wisconsin. That was the main thing.”
Chenal, who is a 6-foot-2, 215-pound junior, is being recruited as an inside linebacker. But he has demonstrated for his high school team that he is willing to play anywhere on the field. Grantsburg football coach Adam Hale has used Chenal at every spot on the front seven defensively. He also is one of the team’s best offensive players.
Leo Chenal’s sophomore season highlights
Through three games, Chenal has rushed for 220 yards with 3 touchdowns. He leads the team in receiving yards with 136 and 2 touchdowns. But, in at least one area, he has been overshadowed by the amazing performance of his brother, John, who ranks fifth in the state in total rushing yards (834) and has scored 13 touchdowns.
John rushed for 435 yards and 6 touchdowns in Grantsburg’s season-opening 72-52 victory against Cumberland. The Chenal brothers have accounted for an astounding 1,323 of Grantsburg’s 1,539 yards of total offense (85.9 percent).
As one might expect, the two have developed a healthy competitive spirit on the football field.
“We always get on each other,” said John, a senior who has committed to play football at North Dakota. “If I break a 60-yard touchdown, he’s like, ‘OK, now watch this. I’m going to break a 65-yarder.’ We just go back and forth like that. There’s no other feeling than having your brother there to challenge you and make you better in all aspects of the game. It makes you want to push yourself harder and harder so you can take that next step and beat your brother out.”
John Chenal said his younger brother’s leadership has stood out on a team that is off to a 3-0 start and ranked No. 2 in the state in Division 6. Since Leo began playing varsity as a freshman, Grantsburg is 26-2 overall, with the lone losses coming in the playoffs to the eventual state champion in 2015 and 2016.
“He’s honestly a leader for me,” John said. “Being an older brother, it’s kind of weird to say. I really look up to him and know that he has my back on the field.”
Leo Chenal has been high on Wisconsin’s in-state recruiting board for 2019 since the summer. He unofficially visited Iowa on June 5, Wisconsin on June 12 and Minnesota on July 29 and also earned a scholarship offer from South Dakota State of the FCS. Chenal entered his junior season understanding the importance of his first three games, which would show college programs why he was worthy of a scholarship.
Chenal said coaches had told him all along he was their top in-state recruit, and that they wanted him to be the first to commit to the program. But two weeks ago, Wisconsin offered its first 2019 in-state scholarship to quarterback Da’Shaun Brown of Racine.
“They didn’t really talk to me the first three weeks,” Chenal said. “They said if they were going to offer me, it would be after the first three games. So I was kind of thinking after they offered the first guy, maybe they don’t want me as much anymore. But I guess it was just a big secret they were keeping for like two weeks before they actually offered me.”
In fact, John Chenal noted the entire family outside of Leo knew in advance that Wisconsin would offer him a scholarship last weekend. Haering called Hale to deliver the news first.
“When he was offered a scholarship, it was surreal,” John said. “Like this is something we’ve been dreaming about our whole lives, and it’s happening right in front of us. It’s really indescribable.”
With his college decision now out of the way, Leo Chenal can focus on honing his talent as a football player. Chenal has increased his strength since he started as a freshman defensive end and has drastically improved his football IQ. Hale said Chenal closes on the ball faster than anyone he has ever coached and has gained a better grasp on how to read offenses and follow keys from his spot at inside linebacker.
“That’s one thing he was weak at as a younger player,” Hale said. “But it’s kind of expected when you’re a freshman and sophomore out there. It’s a big learning curve. He’s done a really good job of getting better at that. Every year, he gets a little more physical, a little more explosive, which is obviously a really good thing for us.”
On Friday, Chenal will take the field for the first time since his commitment when Grantsburg plays Elmwood/Plum City, and all eyes will likely be on him. He said becoming a future Badgers player still feels like a dream. But soon enough, his childhood dream will begin to feel real.
“A year ago, I never thought this would even be close to happening,” Chenal said. “I feel like the loyalty, playing for your state team is just amazing.”