The tackling life

The tackling life

John Wagner stalks the sidelines.

Danny Spatchek, Editor in Chief

For the first time this season, as John Wagner faces the line of scrimmage, his team is losing.

It’s only the first quarter, and his team is only losing 7-6, but John’s team, the Sheboygan County Rebels, is never losing – not this year.

In their regular season games against the eight other teams that make up the semi-pro Wisconsin State Football League (WSFL), the Rebels not only won every game, but outscored their opponents 434-50. They beat one team 77-0. They beat this team, the Manitowoc Country Mariners, 45-7.

But tonight they are losing, 7-6. And tonight, the game means more. It’s a playoff game. Only the winner will get the chance to dethrone the reigning league champions – the M & M Timberjacks – in the championship next weekend.

John Wagner faces the line of scrimmage, knowing all this. He is playing middle linebacker, the position he has played so long that it has become almost instinct. In the same deadly quiet that occurs prior to every snap in a football game, John’s bent knees do not make him seem so unlike a predator about to pounce.

The quarterback snaps the ball – and quiet is shattered by havoc: receivers tear up the field and cornerbacks chase after them. Linemen do violence to each other. Shoulder pads smack.

In the midst of all this, a halfback sneaks into the flat. The quarterback sees. He turns his hips and releases the ball into the air.

John breaks toward it.

The halfback catches the ball, secures it, takes a step up-field.

John is right in front of him.

The halfback plants his feet to juke – but it’s too late.

John springs and spears him at the sternum. His shoulder pads punch the ball loose.

John’s teammates slide in and cover the fumbled ball.

John jumps and hollers and freaks out all the way to the sideline, looking possessed like only someone who has just turned the tide of a game can.




Thirteen football players and three football coaches stand circled in the end zone, and John Wagner is talking.

It is 40 degrees and a light rain is falling at Taylor Memorial Field in Howards Grove. Just two miles away and just three years ago at Lakeland College, John recorded the 400th tackle of his college career, and was unanimously voted the best defensive player in the team’s football conference. Just 50 yards away and just three days ago here, John forced a fumble by spear-tackling a Manitowoc Mariners running back in the game the Rebels were losing 7-6. The Rebels won 36-30.

This is the team’s last practice of the season, their last practice before they will get a chance at the defending champion Timberjacks this Saturday.

“If we force them to have to pass to win the game, we’re going to win the game,” he says.

After Saturday when the season ends, John will officially have been with the team two years. Last year, the team lost on a last second touchdown in the playoff semi-finals to a team called the Untouchables.

“The biggest thing is to just maintain our 5-3, our ‘backers are going to know we have to have their curls…”

Brian Willoughby, the team’s defensive coordinator who is listening to John now, approached John after the loss. He asked John for his insight about how the defense could match up better with the league’s best offenses. John spoke to Willoughby about Lakeland’s defensive system. He spoke with such intricate knowledge of it and all its positions that Willoughby decided not only to make it the Rebels’, but asked John to coach it with him.

“Lifting those weights, doing all this game planning – it isn’t gonna mean nothin’ if we don’t play with heart on Saturday…”

Hence why this season John, the player-coach, has both called many of the team’s defensive plays and slammed down running backs coming through gaps in his defensive line. Hence why he has had to think both like someone above the fray and in it. And hence why he is now talking.

The subject of his talking has mostly been a player called Zak Shutte. The Timberjacks are a run-heavy team, and Shutte is their best running back.

Now, Rebels head coach Jason Jacobs takes the floor from John to speak about Shutte.

“When Shutte has the ball he has a lead blocker going forward and this is how he runs,” Jacobs steps square behind a player and guides him forward like a human shield. “He’s waiting for someone to hit his blocker and then he cuts off it. The only way we’re going to stop him is by…”

Forty-four players are on the Rebels roster. Usually more of them are here. But tonight – whether because those missing are working or with their families or somewhere where it’s not 40 degrees and raining – there are 13. Nearly all of them live and work in the Sheboygan area, including Rick Hartman, who founded the team, still owns it along with a chiropractic practice in Oostburg, and, at 39 years young, plays on the offensive and defensive lines. Ten of them are former Lakeland players, including David Benton (“DB”), a 6-5, 225-pound defensive end who was an All-American and now runs a youth mentoring center. Some are good enough to play professionally with some team somewhere, including John.

The defense and offense will split up to do drills, but first, a team breakdown. John steps to the center of the circle with his hand raised high. His team follows.

“Rebels on three,” he barks. “One, two, three – REBELS!”




John, the man heading to the other side of the field to lead drills, did not always care about everything as much as he does now.

Seven years ago, after his senior season of football at Kewaunee High School ended, John thought he was done with the game. College football teams were sending him letters but that stopped as soon as they saw his GPA and ACT scores. He thought about trying to do better, but couldn’t see the point. He was too small to play linebacker and too slow to play safety in college. Even if he somehow was good enough at football, he still might not be able to pass a class, he thought.

So instead he accepted he would end up at a tech school, made himself feel better about it by drinking, and missed classes the next day. He still managed to rip off a 28-4 wrestling season, but he became ineligible for the postseason because he failed a class.

Despite all this, a few college football coaches were still interested in him. One was Jim Zebrowski, from Lakeland.

John says Zebrowski kept telling him that, if he tried, he could improve his grades, be a four-year college starter, be an All-American linebacker – that he could still accomplish a lot.

John tried. Instead of staying up partying, John went to bed early so he could wake up early to train. After that he went to class. After that, he would train more.

Each day he would write down goals he wanted to accomplish, that day and long-term. His long term goals read:

  • Get good grades so I can get into college.
  • Study hard for the ACT so I can get into college.
  • Lift weights hard so I can be a starter on the football team right away in college.

Suddenly, John had so many goals in his head that it barely had room for pessimism.

Some days, John would go to Holy Rosary Hill, a steep grass hill overlooking Kewaunee. He would run up it once… twice… again…again… again… He would make himself run up Holy Rosary Hill until he could run no longer and suck wind no harder. On the top of Holy Rosary Hill, John would look out at the world and think, maybe he could accomplish all the goals on his list, and maybe he wasn’t put here just because.




John loves football for many reasons. He loves its physical battles – flying into a man and out-willing him with a lowered shoulder and driving feet. He loves its violence – hitting a player so hard he returns to the offensive huddle saying, “Look out for Number 40.” Most of all, he loves how he can use football to make his teammates feel like he has ever since he started running up Holy Rosary Hill – inspired.

John has set up a drill for himself and the other linebackers and the linemen. Tonight, that is four people.

Two of them must run forward together at the two other players like they are offensive linemen run-blocking. The other two players must shed the block so, if there were a running back here, they could see him and take him down.

The drill will start on John’s call.

“Ready… go!”

The mock linemen start forward. John makes like he will try to beat his blocker left. His blocker shuffles that way. This is what John wanted. With one arm he pulls the blocker further left with his momentum. The blocker grabs for John but John swings his other arm up and deflects it. That, all in one motion. Block shed.

Ripping through blocks and reaching the ball carrier is what John excels at most. He is such a proficient run stopper that he can change the complexion of games. Last season, the Rebels played the Timberjacks twice. John missed the first game because he had to stand up for a wedding and the Rebels lost by two touchdowns. In the next game John had 26 tackles and the Rebels won 30-20.

He loves how in games like that he feels like he is the team’s catalyst, like, somehow, something he is doing is actually making his teammates run faster and hit harder and feel like they’re champions.

Seven helmets lie in a straight line on the grass.

John has called all the defensive players together. This is how the Timberjacks’ offensive line will look Saturday – five linemen, and two tight ends on the right side. Since so few people are here, this is how John is showing it.

“They’re going to keep running that power,” he says. He means the Timberjacks are going to run where they have the most blockers – to their right. “They’re going to keep trying to get us chasing over here and the next thing you know they’re going to try to get us on that counter backside.”

John and the other coaches know the Timberjacks tend to run right and counter left because they have been watching film of their regular season games against them. The Rebels filmed every game this season because John convinced Hartman to hire a film guy. This season, John watched film after every game so he could identify mistakes and point them out to the team at weekly film sessions. He also recruited as many good players as he could find and organized two preseason minicamps.

DB, the All-American defensive end, is listening to John right now.

DB says that before John joined the team, they used to be just a bunch of guys that got together and played ball. Now they have position-specific drills and defensive philosophies and film.

John’s stepbrother, Dusty Vlies, is a linebacker on the team and is also here taking in what John says about the Timberjack running attack. Vlies says there is something that happens when John talks that just makes people listen.

On the other side of the field with the offense is Jacobs, who, before he had five kids, was also a linebacker who played and coached at the same time with the Rebels.

He says John has the ultimate quality of a great player: he makes his teammates better.

John has just finished consulting the cornerbacks. He has not planned anything else and now the defense will return to the other end of the field and practice with the offense. But first, John asks, When can everyone meet for a film session? Can everyone do Thursday? No? Friday?

Friday it is.




It’s the second half, and the Rebels are losing 7-0.

It’s the championship game against the Timberjacks. In the first half Rebels quarterback Corey Roberson delivered a perfect ball to a receiver who had nothing but green in front of him – but the receiver dropped it. John has blown up several runs at the line of scrimmage. On one play, though, Zak Shutte broke containment; John lunged to tackle him but Shutte stiff-armed him to the ground. Shutte scored the game’s only touchdown a few plays later.

Some of John’s closest family members – his mom, his Uncle Johnny, his wife Sarah – watch from the top row of the bleachers as John gets off blocks and gets to whoever has the ball, desperate to keep the game within reach for the offense.

John has told them this could be his last game.

He is 25. He graduated from Lakeland in 2009 with a writing degree but he has been working since then on a second degree in sports management, which he will officially complete next week.

Tomorrow he has been invited for a second interview for a managing position at “Anytime Fitness.” He says he really wants the job. He thinks by helping people reach their fitness goals, he could feel fulfilled. He thinks by helping people reach their fitness goals, he could make people feel like they are capable of being more than they thought was possible.

He also wants to make sure he is being supportive to these people watching him from the top row of the bleachers, like Uncle Johnny, who has been at all but three of John’s games over the last seven years, and says, he doesn’t really believe this is John’s last game.

The game has ended. The defense forced the Timberjacks to punt twice in the last five minutes and twice the Rebels’ offense drove inside the Timberjacks’ 20-yard line only to be turned over on downs.

Silent Rebels are gathering in a circle for a breakdown.

John’s mom, wife, and uncle watch with everyone else who has followed the team this season.

John comes to the center of the circle and explains how football is about finding out who you really are.


Editor’s note: The Rebels defeated the Manitowoc County Mariners Nov. 5 and lost to the M & M Timberjacks Nov. 12. John Wagner was hired at “Anytime Fitness” the next week and posted the following status on his Facebook page: “Anytime Fitness Membership Director – Sales and Training. Thank you Lord!” The status has been “liked” on Facebook by 141 people who have been inspired by John.