Camp Randall 100: Jeff Nault

The Camp Randall 100 honors a prestigious group of 100 people who shaped the first century of Camp Randall Stadium. Wisconsin Athletics will reveal a new honoree every day from May 24 until the Badgers’ 2017 opening game on Sept. 1 against Utah State.

BY MIKE LUCAS | Senior Writer

Jeff Nault
Jeff Nault

Jeff Nault wasn’t sure what he was getting himself into during his recruiting trip to Camp Randall Stadium. “When I visited and saw the Portage Plumber run out of the stands, I thought, ‘What the hell is going on?’ recalled Nault, who was a Parade All-American tight end out of Escanaba, Michigan. Once the shock wore off, though, he admitted, “That was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.”

The Plumber (aka Terry Westegard) was a distraction in the late ’70s when losing was the norm. By the time Nault left school, the focus was on the football, not the sideshow of someone dancing with the pom-pon squad. “The Michigan game was truly my first memory when the place really went ballistic,” he said of UW’s upset of the No. 1 Wolverines in the 1981 opener. “It was as loud as it could be.”

Nault embraced his role on the line of scrimmage, especially when the attack featured the tailbacks. “Basically, I was a guard in a tight end number,” said Nault, who wore No. 88 and caught 45 passes for 557 yards and seven touchdowns during his four years. “We were proud of our blocking.”

In 1982, Tim Stracka and Al Toon led the Badgers with 35 and 32 catches, respectively. Right behind them was Nault, who had a career-high 27 receptions, none more memorable than one that covered 40 yards against Illinois. To this day, the 55-year-old Nault said, “I still get asked about it.”

Two cherished college football keepsakes hang on Jeff Nault’s basement wall.

One is a framed picture of Nault with his former Wisconsin head coach, Dave McClain.

McClain died of a heart attack in April of 1986 (he was only 48) and Nault said wistfully, “I wish that I would have had the opportunity to tell Coach McClain how much I loved and respected him.”

The other wall hanging is a hand-written letter that inspires Nault on a daily basis because it speaks to the core values of character and sportsmanship in competition, win or lose.

“We need to embrace everything that happens,” he said, “and learn from it.”

Nault has been a middle school counselor in Hortonville, Wisconsin, for the last 20 years and he will often reinforce the message while speaking to young people.

“I talk about things that happen in life,” he said, “that you remember.”

Nault will never forget what happened on Oct. 23, 1982 at Camp Randall Stadium. Few will.

“We brought up that play at a meeting during that week and everyone laughed. … Why waste our time doing something screwy like that?”

– Bill Dudley, former UW offensive coordinator,
remembering the bounce pass play “62 skip pass left”

On Monday of game week, the Badgers installed a new play that was designed by offensive line coach Dick Scesniak, who had a penchant for collecting “exotic” or gimmick plays and even compiled a list of his 12 favorites, Scesniak’s Dirty Dozen. This one was “62 Skip Pass Left.”

Wright took the snap from center Ron Versnik and “passed” the ball — at least he wanted to make the lateral skip, or bounce, pass look like it was a forward pass — to wide receiver Al Toon, who dropped a few yards behind the line of scrimmage. Toon, in turn, threw the ball downfield to Nault.

“We brought up that play at a meeting during that week and everyone laughed,” said Wisconsin offensive coordinator Bill Dudley. “Why waste our time doing something screwy like that? So we only worked on it four times with the full team. You hated to spend too many reps on it.”

Long before “62 Skip Pass Left” was introduced to the players, the quarterbacks would routinely skip the ball on the artificial turf to the wide receivers before the start of practice. So, they had a feel for it. “You’d skip it to burn off that little plastic coating that was on it (the ball),” Nault said.

“I started hyperventilating from the crowd noise. It was like a wave of sound came right through me. I lost my breath completely, I couldn’t breathe.”
– Jeff Nault

When Nault was in high school in Escanaba, Menominee used to run the “bounce pass” year after year — on grass. At UW, Nault’s backup at tight end was Bret Pearson, who was the Menominee triggerman (Toon’s role) on the play. Still, Nault wasn’t convinced the Badgers would call it in a game.

“We thought they (the coaches) were kidding around,” he said.

Before the opening kickoff against Illinois, McClain huddled with the Big Ten officials and gave them the heads-up on the possibility that the Badgers had something up their sleeve and might unveil a trick play. “We had to brief the refs,” Dudley said, “because an inadvertent whistle could kill you.”

Timing was everything. So was field position. With less than two minutes left, and the Illini leading 26-20, Illinois head coach Mike White ordered his punter, Chris Sigourney, to run out of the south end zone. White wanted the safety and free kick rather than risking a punt from inside the 10.

That made it 26-22.

“Ideally, we wanted to use the skip pass from the 30 yard line and in,” Dudley said. “And, honest to God, I had not thought of the play on that series when Dave (McClain) comes by me on the sidelines and says, ‘Run that pass.’ He couldn’t remember what the play was called. I go, ‘Okay.”

After the free kick, on second-and-10 from the Illinois 40, Wright tossed a one-hop lateral to Toon, who fielded the skip and carried out his fake (like it was an incomplete pass), freezing the Illini secondary and drawing a groan from the sell-out crowd at Camp Randall.

“They went, ‘Awwwwww (bleep),’” Dudley said.

As soon as the ball was snapped, Nault was decoying the unsuspecting safety by pretending to block, pulling up (after the ball skipped off the turf), taking a couple of walking steps and blasting off again. The DB was flat-footed and Nault left him in his wake.

“It worked to a gem,” he said. “Just like they drew it up.”

Toon delivered a strike and the stadium exploded when Nault crossed the goal line.

“I started hyperventilating from the crowd noise,” he said. “It was like a wave of sound came right through me. I lost my breath completely, I couldn’t breathe. I grabbed Gary Ellerson by the shoulder pads and jogged off the field with him because I thought I was going to collapse at any time.”


Jeff Nault


That was the ecstasy. What followed was the agony.

“I thought, ‘Did we score too quickly?” Nault posed. “Sure enough, we did.”

The extra point attempt doinked off the left upright. The Badgers also had a PAT blocked earlier in the game. Illinois trailed 28-26 and the door was wide open for Eason, who just needed to move the Illini into field goal position. “He was the man in these types of situations,” Nault said.

Eason had plenty of time — 52 seconds — and plenty of arm. He also had luck. On the game-winning drive, he made one mistake, but his errant pass slipped through the fingers of a UW linebacker. Given the reprieve, Eason hooked up with tight end Tim Brewster for a 23-yard gain on the next snap.

All in all, it took five plays for him to move the Illini 51 yards to the UW 29. From there, he turned the game over to portly Mike Bass (5-foot-10, 210), a barefooted kicking specialist. With three seconds left, he hit a 46-yard field goal, his fifth of the game, saddling the Badgers with a 29-28 loss.

As he was walking off the field, a dejected Nault picked up the game ball, the one that Bass had drilled through the uprights. Spotting Eason going up the ramp, he turned it over to him. “I said, ‘Dude, you deserve this. That was beautiful work,’” he recounted.

It was a magnanimous gesture on the part of Nault, who was dying inside after such a gut-wrenching loss. An Illinois assistant coach saw it all unfold between Nault and Eason and later wrote a letter to Nault complimenting him on his character and sportsmanship under such adversity.

That letter, preserved in a wooden frame, is hanging from Nault’s basement wall.

“We did everything we could (to win),” Nault reasoned, “and it didn’t happen.”

But he learned, “It’s how you overcome things that happen in your life that you remember.”

Not that anyone will ever let him forget the bounce pass.

“Fathers tell their kids,” he said, “and it’s still getting hits on YouTube.”