FORT MCCOY, Wis. — Three members of the Green Bay Packers football team paid a visit to the Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy Nov. 28 to offer words of encouragement and guidance to cadets there.
The Challenge Academy works to reshape the lives of 16- to 18-year-olds at risk of not graduating high school, using a structured, military-style environment and state-certified teachers and counselors to build cadets’ academic abilities, character, self-confidence, and personal discipline.
The cadets are nearing the end of the 22-week residential phase of the Challenge Academy program where they live full-time at Fort McCoy. After graduating in mid-December, the cadets will enter a post-residential phase where a community mentor helps guide them back into everyday life with the lessons and skills they learned at the academy.
“You learn great communication skills, life-coping skills, and I realized more things about my character than I ever thought I would being here,” said Jarrod Love, a cadet from Sheboygan, Wisconsin. “I realized how much more mature I am than other people back home and things like that. It’s been a good experience.”
Before attending the Challenge Academy, Love said he was expelled from school for selling prescription pills.
“I thank God every night for a second chance at life, because if I hadn’t come here, I probably would have ended up either in jail or dead,” he said. “But because I came here, I got off probation early. I have a full-time job and a part-time job set up. I have a chance of going to a four-year college. I have an ASVAB score of 73, so I might go into the military. I have so many opportunities now that I didn’t before.”
Three members of the Green Bay Packers - including cornerback Damarious Randall, linebacker Vince Biegel and offensive lineman Lucas Patrick - imparted their wisdom on the cadets aimed at motivating them.
“Our country’s reliant on a strong and humble youth to come out and change the world,” Patrick said. “If you can affect change in such a small environment, it’s a ripple effect and it could keep going. So I think it’s important any chance we can to speak to youth and make sure they know the right things. So that’s really the important thing for me.
“You learn a lot from 16 to 18 year-olds who choose to come here,” he added. “It’s a big commitment at that age to say, ‘I want to change my life,’ or ‘I want to take a step and become a better person.’ I don’t know if I could have done that. I had football, and I had other things to keep me on the right track, but I’ve learned that these kids are probably more mature than most kids their age just to realize the self-actualization to say, ‘hey, I need to change something,’ and then follow through and do it.”
After arriving, the Packers ate lunch with cadets at the Challenge Academy dining facility, toured their barracks and then participated in a question-and-answer session with the cadets.
The cadets asked a wide variety of questions ranging from football to life, most of which had strong ties to the many lessons the Challenge Academy teaches its cadets.
“I set goals for myself every day,” Randall told the cadets. “I mean, whether or not it’s to make the Pro Bowl, or whether or not it’s just to be a consistent player. When I first got in the league my first goal was to start, and then it was to get an interception - now it’s to be consistent every day and to just bring it every day.”
While the cadets are not likely to end up under the bright lights of Lambeau Field playing in front of thousands of screaming fans, the lessons of goal-setting, teamwork, discipline and hard work are applicable in all walks of life.
“It’s hard to get to the top, but it’s harder to stay there, and that’s one thing that I’ve really noticed once I got to the NFL,” said Biegel, a Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin native and former Wisconsin Badger. “The NFL also stands for ‘not for long,’ and the reason I say that is because injuries, and you’ve got guys in college and high school that want to take the same spot you are. So every single day you’ve got to come to work with the mindset of getting better every day, improving yourself not just physically, not just football-wise, but also spiritually, psychologically, emotionally.”
Many of the messages rang true with the cadets, a lot of whom took the initiative to get themselves back on a path to success.
“I think this place is a great place if you want to change your life,” Cadet Bradley Makuski said. “I think it impacts everybody in some sort of way. It helps them change. It turns them into a responsible person with discipline, honor, integrity. It gives them a good opportunity to succeed in life and just be a better human being.
“If I didn’t go to this place, I’d probably be in jail right now,” he said. “This place gave me a second chance to show the world what I’m made of and show them that I can prove some people wrong and that I’m responsible and I can be a good person.”
Cadet Alexis Danielson said her mother was proud to the point of tears during the Thanksgiving holiday when the cadets were allowed to return home on a pass.
“Before we couldn’t look at each other, because I was getting myself into so much trouble,” Danielson said. “She cried, and she was like, ‘I’m so proud of you. I’m so happy you’ve actually committed to this.’ I really think that was the most rewarding thing, was my family being so proud.”
Danielson said she has battled alcohol abuse, but the Challenge Academy changed the course of her future in a big way.
“I feel like it’s really impacted my future,” she said. “I’m going to be able to have the motivation to get done what I need to get done, and I’ll be able to do things without someone holding my hand. It just completely changed my personality into someone that I’d rather be.”
Like Danielson, Patrick, who plays offensive guard for the Packers, said his family and everyone who pulls for him in his hometown is what motivates him on a daily basis. He said football and the experience of the Challenge Academy have many similarities.
“Like Challenge Academy, you’ve got teammates and fellow cadets, and football is interesting,” he said. “I think it’s the toughest team sport to play, just because there are so many different factors. You’re relying on all these people. When it’s really tough you can look at the people next to you who are doing the exact same thing that you’re having to do to reach a goal. That’s always been a big thing for me. I thrive off teamwork. I thrive off of other guys who are trying to achieve the same goal. I’d say rely on that. There’s a lot of power in that.”
Patrick also observed that like a football team, the cadets come from all different backgrounds and represent different races, religions, beliefs and socioeconomic levels, but they all pull together for a common purpose.
“So I think you all will go out, and especially where we are as a society, and do well, because you are learning how to develop relationships with people who seem different, but then realize that they’re the same when you go through things,” he said. “And that’s one of the huge benefits of football. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, who you are, what you believe, we’re all here for one goal. That’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned being on the team and learning from other people.”
In the 20 years since the Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy’s inception, the academy has changed the lives of more than 3,500 Wisconsin students. The current class graduates Dec. 16.