Camp Randall 100: Jim Leonhard

Photo collage of images of Wisconsin football player and defensive coach Jim Leonhard
Photo collage of images of Wisconsin football player and defensive coach Jim Leonhard

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.


“That last home game kind of when you realize it’s coming to a close. It’s a big deal. You know you’re running out for the last time.”

— Jim Leonhard


BY ANDY BAGGOT | UWBadgers.com Insider

Photo of Defensive back Jim Leonhard #18 of the Wisconsin Badgers returns a punt against the University of Central Florida Golden Knights at Camp Randall Stadium on September 4, 2004 in Madison, Wisconsin. The Badgers beat the Golden Knights 34-6. (Photo by David Stluka)
Jim Leonhard

Perhaps no one in Wisconsin football history has had a more star-crossed career than Jim Leonhard.

He came to Madison from tiny Tony, Wisconsin, in 2001, an unheralded, under-sized walk-on who earned steady playing time as a true freshman.

From 2002 to ’04, Leonhard was a three-time All-American at free safety, joining Heisman Trophy winners Alan Ameche and Ron Dayne as the only players in UW history to record such a three-peat.

Leonhard tied a Big Ten Conference single-season record with 11 interceptions in 2003 and equaled the school standard with 21 career picks.

He still holds UW records for punt returns and yardage in a career, while ranking second in per-attempt average and touchdowns.

But there is a flip side.

Leonhard played on the last Wisconsin team to experience a losing season (5-7) as well as fashion a losing record at Camp Randall Stadium (3-4). Of course, 2001 happens to be the last season the Badgers failed to qualify for a bowl game.

Leonhard played on the last UW outfit to hand over Paul Bunyan’s Axe to Minnesota after a loss in the most-played rivalry in major college football. That was 2003.

In addition, Leonhard experienced the last loss to a non-conference opponent at Camp Randall. That was UNLV in 2003.

Leonhard also lived the high of winning nine straight games in 2004 and the low of dropping six of seven in 2003.

Leonhard says his Camp Randall highlight reflects all those moments.

“I always say it’s Senior Day,” he said.

Jim Leonhard will never forget the first time he ran out of the tunnel at Camp Randall.

It was a bummer.

The opening kickoff of the Eddie Robinson Classic, Aug. 25, 2001, was delayed by the threat of lightning strikes in the area. Fans were instructed to seek shelter, which meant they couldn’t be occupying the metal bleachers in the 76,634-seat facility.

“There was probably 250 people in the stadium when we ran out,” Leonhard recalled of a 26-17 victory over Virginia. “They hype up running out of that tunnel for the first time and it was a pretty big letdown.”

Fast forward to the last time Leonhard, all 5-foot-8 and 179 pounds, emerged from the tunnel in the north end zone.

It was Nov. 6, 2004, and the Badgers were 8-0, ranked fifth in the country, when they hosted enduring Big Ten rival Minnesota for Senior Day.

There were 83,069 fans on hand to bid farewell to Leonhard and 18 classmates, a group that included tailback Anthony Davis, defensive tackle Anttaj Hawthorne, defensive end Erasmus James and cornerback Scott Starks.

“It’s kind of the culmination of everything,” Leonhard said.

Per custom, UW seniors are announced individually, running out onto the field alone and meeting with their waiting families. Tears, handshakes, kisses and hugs are shared.

“That last home game kind of when you realize it’s coming to a close,” Leonhard said.

“It’s a big deal. You know you’re running out for the last time.”

 

Photo of Wisconsn's Jim Leonhard (18) returns a punt 63 yards for a touchdown during the 4th quarter. Purdue beat Wisconsin 26-23 at Camp Randall Stadium during the 2003 season. ©David Stluka
Wisconsin’s Jim Leonhard (18) returns a punt 63 yards for a touchdown during the 4th quarter. Purdue beat Wisconsin 26-23 at Camp Randall Stadium during the 2003 season. ©David Stluka

 

In that moment, your mind wanders back over the road you’ve traveled. It was a roller-coaster ride for Leonhard and his classmates.

After outlasting Virginia in Leonhard’s debut, the Badgers split the next four games before finishing on a 2-5 run. That closing rough patch included a ghastly 63-32 Big Ten loss to Indiana at home, the most points allowed to an opponent in UW history.

It marked the first time since 1995 that Wisconsin finished the regular season with a losing record.

The Badgers opened the 2002 season with five consecutive victories, but then suffered three-point losses to Penn State and Indiana before a four-point setback vs. Ohio State.

UW won a wild regular-season finale over Minnesota 49-31 to end a three-game losing streak, then rallied to knock off Colorado 31-28 in overtime to win the Alamo Bowl.

The highlight of 2003 was tripping up third-ranked Ohio State 17-10 — the legendary Matt Schabert-to-Lee Evans bomb that provided the winning points — unless you count the school-record 11 interceptions and 25 pass breakups by Leonhard.

The 2004 season began with ridiculous promise — 9-0 and ranked as high as fourth in the nation — but ended in the tatters of a three-game losing streak that included a 24-21 loss to Georgia in the Outback Bowl.

The last home game is what Leonhard remembers. The Badgers whipped Minnesota 38-14 in his final outing as a player at Camp Randall — he’s since returned as UW secondary coach and defensive coordinator — and began one of the most dominating stretches since the series made its debut in 1890.


“Oh, yeah. A pretty great atmosphere coming out of that tunnel for the last time.”

— Jim Leonhard


Not only did Wisconsin recapture Paul Bunyan’s Axe — the primary symbol of the rivalry — it began a 13-game winning streak that carries into the 2017 season.

“Carrying the Axe around the field on Senior Day means a lot,” Leonhard said.

It’s not an ordinary day emotionally, as Leonhard found out.

“You are kind of all over the place early on,” he said. “It’s a long four years and a short four years at the same time.

“Early on you’ve got some feelings that you don’t ordinarily go into a game with. But you settle in and start playing.”

Leonhard doesn’t recall shedding any pregame tears when he met up with his parents, Don and Debbie.

“The only time I felt those emotions is when I was retiring from the NFL,” Leonhard said of his decision to walk away after 10 seasons in 2014. “You’re done.

“The emotions are a little bit different (in college). It’s more of the brotherhood to me, that bond you have with your coaches and your teammates and this place, and then it’s over.”

Leonhard didn’t think his playing days were done once he left UW. Though undrafted, he wound up playing 142 NFL games with six clubs.

“I knew I’d put myself in a position to at least get an opportunity to play at the next level and it’s all I cared about at that point,” he said.

The backdrop at Camp Randall for Leonhard’s last game was vastly different than his first. The largest home crowd of the season helped make up for what was missing for his college debut.

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “A pretty great atmosphere coming out of that tunnel for the last time.”

Thin Photo collage of images of Wisconsin football player and defensive coach Jim Leonhard