MADISON - As Chris Maragos gingerly tried to walk off the searing pain in his right toe, which he had just jammed into the Florida Citrus Bowl turf the evening of Dec. 29, one could sense the swelling emotions.
The University of Wisconsin football team was wrapping up its 20-14 victory over Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl in Maragos' final collegiate game. His ascent from a walk-on receiver at Western Michigan to an honorable mention All-Big Ten Conference free safety for Wisconsin had reached its pinnacle and the teammates who recognized him as their inspirational leader were concerned.
Instead of just a trainer attending to Maragos, members of the entire defense approached him with concern. To the very end, they were sticking with their guy.
"It was a very emotional moment," teammate Aaron Henry said. "He's loved by everybody on the team and just like me, everyone was concerned about his health because of the person he is."
As Maragos made his way to the sideline, Henry kissed him on the cheek, dug in at the free safety position Maragos had just passed to him and did him proud.
"We knew Miami was going to make a push and as I walked off the field, I told Aaron Henry, ‘Hey, man, I've done my job. Now you've just got to finish it up,'" said Maragos, a 2005 Horlick High School graduate. "I think that was symbolic of me kind of passing the torch to him."
Back around 2004, a straying Maragos was tearing down Christmas decorations with his restless buddies. These days, he's all about building things - in both the literal and figurative sense - as a devout born-again Christian.
He was one of 11 NCAA Division I college football players selected to participate in the American Football Coaches Association Good Works team because of his off-the-field commitments. As part of a group that included Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, Maragos was flown to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, where he helped set up classrooms in an elementary school that was heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
"When you get to do something to help out a Hurricane Katrina type of incident and really expand your community service, it's phenomenal," Maragos said. "To give those kids an opportunity to get back to school, there is a great feeling."
And then there's the future Maragos is building for himself. On April 9, he will marry Serah West, whom he met at Western Michigan. The Port Huron, Mich., native followed Maragos to Madison after he transferred to Wisconsin in 2007.
That same month, Maragos hopes to be selected in the NFL draft despite only making the conversion to safety late during the 2007 season, when he was eligible only to practice with the Badgers following his transfer.
Maragos said he was informed by Badgers coaches after the season that he has been projected as a possible late-round draft choice to a top-priority free agent and he has hired Madison-based agents Tim Valentyn and Scott Smith. There is even a possibility, Maragos said, of being invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, to be held Feb. 24-March 2 at Indianapolis.
"Our coaches have talked to different scouts and my agents have been in contact with different NFL teams," Maragos said. "Everything is very positive. I've been told that they think that I'm a very good player and I have a very unique skill set and that I have a very good possibility of making a team.
"The reality is that you really have to have a lot of things go right and you've got to perform when you need to. It's tough to make a team, but we're just going to go there and do everything we can."
Maragos' life journey has certainly taken him places. Had he not transferred from Park to play in Horlick's pass-oriented style of offense for his senior season, perhaps he would not have had the credentials to be accepted as a walk-on receiver at Western Michigan.
Had he not enrolled at Western Michigan, he never would have met his future wife.
And had he not transferred to Wisconsin, where coach Bret Bielema recognized a standout safety in a receiver who was buried on the team's depth chart, he wouldn't have been in a position to have a possible career in the NFL.
"When you're with the Lord, he has such great plans for your life," Maragos said. "It's so wild to think what could happen in another two years."
Peter Jackel is a reporter for The Journal Times. You may contact Peter at (262) 634-3322, Ext. 323 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org