Ross Barker

Winning this award means so much to me. This is such an honor and I am truly shocked that this award has been bestowed upon me from the outgoing seniors. When I came to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I was attending this school as a preferred walk-on (Wide Receiver) for the Badger Football team. In the end of June 2012 I get a call from Wisconsin asking me if I would like to join the football team as a preferred walk-on. Knowing the history of Wisconsin treating their walk-ons very well, and having the potential to earn a scholarship during my time, I immediately said yes. I was ecstatic! I asked them when they wanted me there, and was on campus in August. I had worked so hard to make it to a Division-I football program and could not wait to go out onto that field and prove myself. I had finally been given a shot at being a Division-I athlete and was determined to compete with some of the best athletes in the country.

A few weeks go by, and I am just starting to get into a rhythm of learning the playbook and making significant plays during practice. A week before our first game against UNI, it was time to have physical check-ups. I had absolutely no worries at the time. I had passed every physical with flying colors growing up and never had any known problems. UW is one of the only schools in the country that assesses your heart via electrocardiograms. After looking at my heart through the electrocardiogram, they decided they wanted to do further testing on me the Monday following our game against UNI. Now I started to get worried… I got to suit up for the UNI game and be on the field on the sideline since I was not yet cleared to play. It was an incredible experience that I will never forget. The following Monday my extensive electrocardiogram was scheduled. I went in and did testing for 1.5 hours. It was not until the next day that the team doctors sat me down and told me the bad news. I was not cleared to play because it was too dangerous. I was diagnosed with an aneurysm in my ascending aorta. The threshold to clear you to play football is to have an Aorta ranging from 35-40mm in diameter. My aorta was measured at 41mm… If it grows to 50mm, I will have to get open heart surgery. The reason why it is dangerous is because having a larger aorta means a higher risk of rupture. With football, especially as a wide receiver, there are so many times when you are vulnerable to taking a massive hit to the chest, which would result in rupture. So I had to quit the team, and it was the WORST day of my life. I had worked so hard, and was so ready to prove myself… The doctors told me that I had to be careful going forward and monitor my activity. They said no more contact sports for me. Being an athlete my entire life, I didn’t know what to do. No more heavy-lifting for me because it puts too much strain on the heart. No more basketball. However, I had to live a healthy lifestyle and stay active while keeping my heart rate low in order to stay healthy and not get overweight. They offered three sports to me that I could play: Golf, tennis, and synchronized swimming… I was heart-broken… From July to September 2012, I was riding an emotional rollercoaster. With my Division-I ride over, I felt completely lost in the world…

At the same time of getting this bad news, my first week of college classes had begun. I am sure you can imagine the stress I was under. It was a couple weeks of total misery for me. I was starting to go insane. I could not stand this altered lifestyle that was bestowed on me so suddenly. It was not until my eldest brother, Lee, who played for Creighton’s Ultimate Frisbee club, had suggested I try out for the Ultimate Frisbee team at UW. He told me it is an awesome sport and that I would not regret it. I asked my doctor if that would be okay, and of course, he thought I was talking about disc golf and cleared me for play. (Ugh, I cannot wait for the day everyone can discern between ultimate and disc golf.) So I showed up at the first round of the Wisconsin Hodags open tryouts with my cleats and absolutely no knowledge of the sport. I had no idea that this sport would eventually change my life forever. I was that kid at tryouts who did not know what a force was or that people could even throw forehands. Whatever, in my mind, I was about to play Division 1 Football, so how hard could ultimate be? I just decided to run deep every time one of the returning Hodags got the disc. I scored lots of goals and ran past everyone. The sport was easy when I was scoring goals! The real issue was if I did not score a goal. I needed to make a good impression on the Hodag leadership so that I could make the team. So instead of trying to throw it up field and risk a turnover, I would wait for one of the returning Hodags to come sprinting right next to me so I could throw them a 5-yard backhand dishy and then go deep again. With no knowledge of the Hodags being a national powerhouse, I made the team, and a tiny spark had come back into my life. I had a new team that I was part of. No, that is not right. I had a new family that I was a part of.

For the next year, I still had to take it easy and monitor my heart. I had to see how hard I could push myself and how much larger it would grow. My entire freshman year was me being taught a brand new sport by some of the best players in the country. We were ranked #1 for almost the entire year! Disappointingly, we got upset in pre-quarterfinals at Nationals 2013. I had the honor of playing with people like Brian Hart, Colin Camp, Jordan O’Neill, Dayu Liu, Andrew Meshnick, Thomas Coolidge and Ben Rehmann. Even during the year, I had no idea how fortunate I had been to have the opportunity to learn from these players. Following my first year, I meet my brand new cardiac doctor. We conduct a stress test, electrocardiogram, CT scan and other tests. Good news, my aorta had not grown at all! Coming into my sophomore year I could finally throw a forehand up-field. Knowing that my aorta did not grow from the previous year, I decided to push myself harder and was back to my old ways. The year goes by, and again I return to my doctor to do my next annual test. Great news again! My aorta had not grown and we are starting to determine that it is stable. After hearing this for a second time, my competitive flame had been completely reignited and filled my spirit. I tried out for Madison Club that summer and made the team. I was ready to go now. Watch out world.

Fast forward a couple more years, and I am now the captain of the Hodags with Avery Johnson looking to lead our team to a National Championship. On top of earning the respect and trust of my peers to lead them, I am congratulated with the Kevin Crowley Spirit Award. I am so grateful for this honor. The Hodags saved me from insanity. At my lowest point, they picked me up and gave me hope again. They gave me a support system that extends past just the people I have played with. I have gained some strong relationships with alumni the past few years. The Hodags are my second family, and I would do anything for any Hodag. I play my hardest on every play as a payment for saving me my freshman year. I work hard because I still have more to prove. I work hard because I am hungry. I work hard because I know every Hodag has worked hard for me. We are a cohesive family. That is why I have it tattooed on my back. I got the tattoo after Nationals 2014 (my sophomore year). This team means so much to me and I am forever grateful to be a part of this family. Thank you again so much.

With much Hodag Love, 

Ross Barker