Here you can enjoy an interesting excerpt from Chris Kennedy's extraordinary story. Of course, this account will already hold much appeal for fans of the Wisconsin Badgers. However, as you will see in the extract below, Kennedy has such an intriguing tale to tell that it's sure to captivate all that read it! Now you can enjoy this sneak peek whilst browsing the internet, playing online games at sites like FoxyBingo, or checking your emails. If you enjoy reading all about Kennedy's locker room tales online, then make sure you check out the full story in No Bed of Roses.
The media gave our 1993 Rose Bowl team a nickname, “the lunch pail gang." To me, being the lunch pail gang meant that we believed work was the important thing and spoke for itself. When you know what’s important, bragging or calling attention to yourself stands out as the nonsense it is. Coach Childress once said, “Leave your egos at the door and let’s go to work.” The leaders of the Wisconsin Badgers football team had that attitude and the rest of the team followed. After all, if the best players on the team don’t make a big deal out of making a play, how silly do other players look if they do?
A team is a many-splendored thing. There are leaders on the field, and there are leaders off the field. Sometimes they are the same, and other times they are not. You don’t have to be the best player to be a leader. A team is a social family in many ways, and so everyone is important. From its limited exposure to the team on game days, the outside world wouldn’t understand the dynamic within the team. It may seem to the fans that the only important players are the ones playing, and playing well, on Saturdays. This is not true. Some guys are important to the team because they keep morale up through humor, intelligence, and generosity. Our team had many of those guys.
Even though he wasn’t a starter at his defensive back position, Korey Manley was an inspiration to both walk-ons and scholarship players. Korey earned a scholarship through his exemplary work in practice and then on special teams during his sophomore year. He became one of the best special teams players in the entire Big Ten conference. Korey was from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and at an undersized 5' 8" tall and 170 pounds, was never given a look coming out of high school by any Big Ten team. Korey was an excellent student and a really likable guy who had a great sense of humor.
One day after a long practice, as many of us slowly removed our gear in front of our lockers, Patrick Tompkins, a defensive starter and scholarship player, addressed Korey. “Man, I don’t know how you can do it.” Korey asked Patrick to clarify. Patrick said, “How you guys [walk-ons] can do this…for free! Man, I couldn’t do that.” Korey answered, “I do it so that one day you don’t have to ask me how I do it, because I will be on scholarship.” Patrick just shook his head and said, “Well, I respect you guys. I really do.” Korey inspired a lot of us with his work ethic and his pleasant, affable demeanor off the field. It was nice for me to hear scholarship guys say they respected what walk-ons were doing; to get respect is an integral part of being considered a valuable team member.
Tom Browne, a black player from Milwaukee, was another former walk-on turned scholarship player. Tom was awarded his scholarship in front of the whole team at Holy Name my freshman year. I remember how he cried and how every player from his class walked up and hugged and congratulated him. While he didn’t play much, his fellow receivers looked up to him and respected him. Tom was a tough competitor on the field but one of the most mild-mannered guys off the field. You might have assumed he was a librarian instead of a football player. His even temperament, likeability, and popularity garnered him the nickname, “the President.”
One of my personal inspirations was a walk-on defensive back one year ahead of me, Bernie Caputo. I met Bernie during summer conditioning before my freshman year. He was small, about 5' 8" and 170 pounds. Not an ounce of fat on him. He was quiet, kind, and intense. He always wore a white T-shirt and shorts splattered with paint. He worked out incredibly hard. He was the definition of scrappy. I respected him immensely.
When I first spoke with him after a workout, I told him that I was a walk-on. He just shook his head and said, “It takes a special kind of person to be a walk-on.” The statement was simple, truthful, and powerful, much like the guy who said it. Bernie kept to himself mostly. He was well liked and respected, but quiet. Because he and I shared a bond of being walk-ons and Madison-area kids, I was a bit closer to him than many others on the team.
Bernie was a madman in the weight room, and whenever I got the chance to lift with him, he was a great workout partner. It was the highest compliment when he said he thought I gave a great effort on the field or in the weight room. He had a good sense of humor and enjoyed discussing politics and current events. I always wanted him to lighten up in front of the other guys on the team, so they could see that side of him.
Humor is a key ingredient in stress relief and in survival in a competitive atmosphere like big-time college football. Humor creates bonds and breaks down barriers. All work and no play makes a team of dull boys. I particularly appreciated the guys who rose above their own problems and mustered up the energy to entertain and lift the spirits of their teammates.
After a particularly hard practice, Haywood Simmons, a backup defensive lineman, would stand in front of a bunch of downtrodden players at their lockers, hold his hands up and ask loudly, “Who thinks they have faster hands than me?” Upon hearing no answer, he yelled again, “WHO thinks they got faster hands than me?” Someone would answer something like, “I’d kick your ass.” Haywood would smirk and say, “Well, step on up then.” Then he’d move his big frame in a Muhammad Ali dance, naked, and you couldn’t help but laugh through your exhaustion.
In the take-yourself-too-seriously world of college football, our team could always count on Nick Rafko to keep things in perspective with his fun-loving presence. Nick could light up a room with his goofy grin. Whether it was his impeccable impersonations of coaches or actor Bill Murray, his impromptu dances, or his slick observations of particular locker smells, Nick made it fun to be on the team. I remember him doing a hip-hop dance after an interception in practice that had even our no-nonsense coaches laughing—only Rafko could do this.
Nick had an interesting background. His sister was Kai Lani Rafko, a former Miss America. It was richly ironic that Nick, who didn’t seem to own a razor or hairbrush, would have a beauty queen for a sister. Nick owned a practice jersey that reportedly hadn’t been washed all season as some sort of demented experiment. Kai Lani would be interviewed at nearly every game by some network reporter. Nick would re-enact these predictable exchanges with uncanny impersonations of both his sister and the brown-nosing reporters.
After we lost to a good Washington team, I remember how refreshing it was for many players to hear Nick re-enact the futility of playing against the Huskies’ 6' 8", 360-pound tackle, Lincoln Kennedy. Nick said that, after exhausting himself trying to get around this mountain of a man, he just started doing swim and rip moves on Kennedy. Even though they had no chance of working, he reasoned, at least he wouldn’t get yelled at for bad form on the game tapes.
When Joe Panos was sitting next to Nick at a team meeting, with his sleeves rolled up over his large biceps, Nick took note. He exaggerated his glances at Joe’s arms and his own, and those of a couple of smaller players around them. He began to sing in a high-pitched voice about Joe’s arms, “One of these ‘screams’ is not like the other, one of these ‘screams’ is not like the rest….” Nick would move his finger like it was a bouncing ball between his arms and Panos’ arms. Joe just shook his head and couldn’t help but laugh, as did many others. Joe then rolled his sleeves down to shut up Nick but Nick wouldn’t let him roll down the sleeves. “No,” Nick protested. “Let the ‘screams’ breathe…it’s OK, let ’em breathe.” Then Nick would fan them for him.
Nick and his crew would have legendary nights out on the town, and when a guy would return to the locker room the next day resembling the Grim Reaper, Nick would smile big and put his arm around the guy. “It’s OK,” he’d say. “ It’ll get better. You just need to come out with us more often.”
It’s also important to note that Nick’s humor was never mean and never at the expense of anyone. He was always polite and treated everyone, walk-ons, stars, young players, and student trainers with an equal amount of respect. Outside of the team, he was equally respectful to training-table workers and maintenance folk. Sometimes other players wouldn’t be, and it was nice to see a well-liked guy such as Nick showing them how to act. That was another reason Nick was such a great team leader, more off the field than on it.
Watching the news one summer night at my mom’s house, I saw a local news report that Nick Rafko was killed in a car accident in his home state of Michigan. I was shocked and devastated. It didn’t seem possible that a guy that happy, that full of life, could be associated with something as dark as death. Nick was 23 years old and had just graduated a couple of months prior. The truck his buddy was driving went off the road and struck a tree, killing them both. They’d been out on the town and were driving home, undoubtedly after a night filled with laughs.
I tried to make sense of Nick’s accident by calling some friends to discuss it. None of them were home, and I left messages to call me. I got a hold of my dad and as I told him the news, I broke down uncontrollably.
Nick had graduated and moved back to Michigan, and I was moving to Chicago, so it was unlikely I would have seen him much anymore. But Nick was one of those guys I looked forward to bumping into at games and alumni events. I couldn’t think of a better guy to share a beer with and have some laughs about our playing days. I wanted to know what he was doing, what kind of job a guy like him would have. I felt bad for all the people who wouldn’t get to know Nick. He would’ve been an amazing dad, husband, and neighbor.
A bus was chartered for any players living in Madison that summer to go to Nick’s funeral. I signed up but backed out on the trip at the last minute. A 16- hour round-trip bus ride and a day spent at a funeral were too macabre for me to handle at the time. I didn’t want to see the gregarious Nick Rafko in a casket. Despite this, I regret not attending. I wish I would have gone to show my support to his family and my former teammates in attendance. I did write his family a letter explaining how much I thought of Nick.
I still try to follow Nick’s example of using humor as a key ingredient in getting through challenging times. I strive to get as much enjoyment out of life as he did. I haven’t yet, and I’m not sure I’m capable, but I’m trying.
Tragically, Nick isn’t the only member of this team no longer with us. In 2004, wide receiver Aaron Brown was killed in a car accident along with his girlfriend. Their little girl, who was also in the car, miraculously survived the crash. I was home at my mother’s house for Christmas when I read the story. Aaron was kind, a good athlete, and I never saw him lose his cool despite tough circumstances. Aaron was a nice-looking guy, undersized, skinny legs, but hard working and tough. He was poised, upbeat, and friendly.
He was working as a mentor with youth groups at his church. It’s sad, especially for those kids, because they lost a great mentor. I just hope someone else can step in to take Aaron’s place, and impart to them the same spirit he would have. No easy task.
Nick, Korey, Haywood, Tom, Aaron, and many other guys inspired and bolstered the team by being not only good football players but good people. Fun guys to be around, guys you wanted to be on a team with. Good teammates. They made the hard times easier to endure by inspiring the rest of us and making us laugh. Their effect on the team often escapes the eyes of the fans on game days, but their teammates treasured the benefit of having them on the team. One should never underestimate that the overall dynamics of a team depend on the people underneath those jerseys and helmets. Character counts, regardless of where you are on a depth chart.