Inside Aaron Witt’s thousand-day Wisconsin football comeback: ‘He’s a true warrior’


MADISON, Wis. — When Wisconsin’s spring football practices began in late March 2021, Aaron Witt felt excitement about fulfilling his potential and earning a big role as a disruptive outside linebacker. He had recently completed his freshman campaign and been a bright spot during a Duke’s Mayo Bowl victory against Wake Forest. In limited action, he recorded two tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble.

But before Witt could take another step in his development, his playing career ground to a halt. It stayed that way for more than 2 1/2 years as he dealt with four surgeries and three stress fractures in his right foot and ankle. On numerous occasions, Witt acknowledged, he wondered whether he would ever play again. Wisconsin fans certainly wondered the same.

Witt is now a fifth-year senior and, on Wednesday, spoke to reporters as a member of the program for the first time in his career. That’s because Witt is finally healthy enough to be a full participant and is expected to challenge for a role at outside linebacker. It’s been a long journey for Witt that has allowed him to gain a greater measure of perspective.

“We talk about our ‘why’ a lot,” Witt said. “I think for me a lot of who I am is rooted in football. So that was big for me. I come from a family where you just show up to work every day, do what you can do and I didn’t think anything real special about it.

“Unfortunate stuff happened around me, but I was really lucky to be around very special people, people that didn’t give up on me, still trained me hard in the weight room when it looked like there weren’t answers. People in the training room, my physical therapist, athletic trainers, they were still looking for solutions. So that’s really it. Just show up to work every day.”

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Witt said his injury problems began when he broke his right foot during spring practice three years ago and underwent surgery. Upon his return just before preseason practices, he broke the foot again and sustained damage in his ankle. Rather than undergo another surgery, he chose to allow everything to heal on its own and missed the 2021 season. But the ankle didn’t fully recovered, which forced him to have what he called “a pretty big surgery” in the spring of 2022.

Witt’s return that summer resulted in another break in his foot. As Witt attempted to rehab that injury, he learned late in the 2022 season that the initial surgery on his ankle hadn’t healed as planned and that he required yet another operation. Witt, who could often be seen at practices the past couple of years with his right leg wrapped in a cast while moving on a scooter, said he wasn’t able to jog again until last summer. Only then did a path toward actually playing again become realistic.

“There was a good year and a half where I was struggling mentally, and it showed physically,” Witt said. “But when I was able to start doing more things last summer, my mental health kind of came back. I had a little bit more of a spark. The mental part was really tough because I’m not coming to college or doing any of this if it wasn’t for football. And then when football gets taken away from you, it’s like, ‘Well, what am I doing here?’”

Witt progressed to the point where he was medically cleared the week before Wisconsin played its regular-season finale at Minnesota. Witt played four snaps that day on the punt return team, according to Pro Football Focus. He went 1,061 days between appearing in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl and appearing against the Gophers. Witt, who is from Winona, Minn., said the moment was particularly special for his family, noting his mom was diagnosed with cancer about two years ago.

“She was going through that battle and for her to see me play, it meant a lot,” Witt said. “When you’re stuck in the thick of it, you don’t really see the light at the end of the tunnel. So it was huge for me to be able to play because football has kind of always been an escape.”

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Aaron Witt most of the past three seasons with injuries. (Mark Hoffman / USA Today Network)

Witt said he owed a debt of gratitude to Wisconsin’s coaching staff, including outside linebackers coach Matt Mitchell, for believing in him — especially when he didn’t necessarily believe in himself. When Witt showed potential as a freshman, it came under a different set of coaches. Mitchell was hired in January 2023 at a time when Witt hadn’t played for two years.

Mitchell said having a player with Witt’s story and perseverance in the locker room was tremendously important. But he also has the talent to be a critical on-field asset. Mitchell noted Witt’s intelligence and said he can understand backfield sets, formations and splits before the ball is snapped. Mitchell called him “extremely violent at the point of attack in the run game” and said he was still working with Witt on having a better feel as a pass rusher.

Mitchell said the staff had Witt on a pitch count early but that he was full-go beginning with the team’s fifth spring practice on Tuesday. Witt said he was still knocking the rust off his game but that his knowledge was one of his best attributes because he had spent the past three years studying the game at practices and on video.

“Just an unbelievable amount of grit,” Mitchell said. “Just handling that much adversity in regards to those injuries and things to come back from them. And it’s somebody that you can point to as a coach within your position group, and I know within the team, of how to handle adversity because he’s very passionate about the game of football.

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“It got taken away. And so it’s another little life lesson of an attitude of gratitude for the opportunity that you have and don’t take anything for granted because you can point to a guy right there that probably should’ve been on the field in ’22 and ’23 but missed those opportunities.”

Witt, who is listed at 6 feet 6 and 248 pounds, is vying for a spot in Wisconsin’s two-deep at outside linebacker along with returning starter Darryl Peterson and transfers Leon Lowery and John Pius. It’s possible that all four players could rotate during games given the various attributes each possesses.

Lowery and Pius bring a new level of athleticism to the group that can help Wisconsin make more plays off the edge. Peterson led the team in sacks last season and is the only one of the four cross-training at both the Will and Jack linebacker positions. And then there is Witt, whom defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said plays with such passion, intensity and physicality that his defensive teammates can feel it on the field.

“He’s a true warrior,” Peterson said. “And I’m just happy that he’s on my side.”

Witt’s ability to play at Wisconsin is fulfilling a childhood dream. His dad, Mark, was a Badgers fan and passed on that love of the program to Aaron, whose memories growing included spending fall Saturdays with his dad and friends watching Wisconsin football on television. Witt idolized defensive end J.J. Watt and then later looked up to his younger brother, outside linebacker T.J. Watt.

Mark kept a photo of Aaron dressed in a full Badgers uniform that became his Halloween costume for several years: white pants, a red jersey, a white helmet with a red face mask and a red W on the side. When Aaron was in the sixth grade, he wrote down a list of goals for his future. One of them was to play football for the Badgers. Witt initially committed in high school to two other Big Ten schools, first Minnesota and then Iowa, before Wisconsin finally offered him the scholarship he coveted.

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In four seasons at Wisconsin, Witt has played just 51 defensive snaps. And while it would be natural for many players to look ahead and consider the possibilities for next season, Witt is doing everything he can to stay in the moment and appreciate what he has.

“You don’t really take much for granted,” Witt said. “Whatever September holds, it holds. But I want to be here today, playing today. I think that I’ve been able to do a really good job of that this winter and this spring.”

(Top photo: Courtesy of Wisconsin Athletics)





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