MADISON – Tatum Grass was in class, about two weeks after Wisconsin wrapped up spring football practice, when he received a text message.
The message came from Peter Weiden, UW’s director of football program operations, because the coaches were on the road:
You need to come up to the office.
Grass called Weiden after class and the message was the same:
You need to come up to the office.
Grass was with fellow inside linebacker Jake Chaney and wondered aloud if he was going to be placed on scholarship, a goal he had been working toward since he graduated from Holmen High School and joined the UW program as a walk-on in 2019.
“We ended up going up there together,” Grass said.
Grass’ instincts were correct. Weiden told him he was being placed on scholarship.
“It was super exciting,” said Grass, who worked on the No. 1 defense all spring. “It would have been great if Coach (Chryst) was there but I got to see him a week later and thank him.
“It was cool having Jake there to support me.”
Grass’ first call was to his mother. His second was to his father.
“She was super excited,” Grass said. “My dad was in tears. It was a really cool moment.”
Grass, who played outside linebacker in high school, isn’t the first walk-on to earn a scholarship at UW. The program has a history of rewarding players who earn that reward.
Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard is familiar with such stories because he penned his chapter after arriving at UW in 2001.
According to Leonhard, the staff never saw Grass stop grinding in the weight room or on the practice field because he wasn’t yet on scholarship.
“I’m sure there are rough days, days you don’t quite see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Leonhard said. “All he has done is consistently showed up and worked. Been a great teammate. Done whatever we asked him to do. The unselfishness and the work ethic stuck out every single day.
“There are tough days. I was that walk-on and sometimes you don’t feel like you’re getting the recognition. Maybe they’re not seeing me in the way I think I should be.
“But the selflessness to just come in and continue to work and get better has been there all the time.”
Grass redshirted in 2019 and played on special teams in all seven games in 2020. Working behind Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn last season, Grass finished with nine tackles.
With Chenal and Sanborn gone, Grass closed the spring paired with Jordan Turner on the No. 1 defense. That came under inside linebackers coach Bill Sheridan, who resigned in May, however. New inside linebackers coach Mark D’Onofrio has to use preseason camp, which opened Wednesday, to evaluate his players.
“Excited for what he did this spring, stepping forward and being one of the leaders in that group,” Leonhard said. “He was able to sit in the back of the room and, even though he was an older guy, he had some strong veterans in front of him in Jack and Leo.
“Now to see him step out of his comfort zone and become more of a leader, while he is trying to compete and win a job, I’m excited.”
As is Grass, who had a concise plan from the day he joined UW.
“Master your current role and work for a promotion,” he explained. “That was my mindset ever since I got here. Whatever role I am given, I am going to master that and hope to get promoted. I’m just going to keep mastering my role and try to move forward.
“Obviously, the scholarship was the ultimate goal. But it was just chipping away every day to try to get better.”