In June, Tyler Mais moved 20 minutes down the road from Waunakee to Madison as a new member of the University of Wisconsin football team.
On Saturday, Mais gets to roll back the clock for one last kickoff at the prep level — the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association’s annual all-star game at UW-Oshkosh’s Titan Stadium.
Mais committed to UW as a preferred walk-on in February and will play safety this fall. At Waunakee, he was a two-time WFCA All-State pick at defensive back. He was co-defensive player of the year in the Badger North and a unanimous all-conference first-team selection at defensive back and wide receiver.
“I loved playing at Waunakee High School,” Mais said. “I remember my sophomore year before my first varsity game, my dad wrote me a note, and he said to just enjoy the little things about high school football.
“I probably wouldn’t have realized that myself, but once he said it, I really looked for that, and that is what made high school so special. Just with the crowd, the student section, and the relationships you build.”
Waunakee coach Pat Rice said Mais, at 6-foot-3 and bulking up to 200 pounds over the summer, has a unique combination of size and speed for a defensive back.
“He’s a big safety and a physical kid,” Rice said. “Even through his recruitment, I think they talked about him potentially being an outside linebacker.”
Rice expects a bright future for Mais, describing him as a hard-working athlete focused on competing at the highest level.
“The thing I think that was an indicator is he really worked his tail off (this offseason),” Rice said. “He and Blake (Smithback), who’s also at the all-star game with him, both really embraced working hard and getting better than where they were at the end of their high school career.”
Smithback, an offensive lineman and Mais’ teammate at Waunakee, will join Mais as a preferred walk-on at UW.
Mais’ drive to go above and beyond also extends off the football field.
To be allowed to play in the WFCA All-Star Classic, players must raise a minimum of $750 for the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.
Rather than settling for the minimum, Mais set his goal at $5,000. He said he strongly believed in the partnership between the WFCA and the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, which was solidified 10 years ago when the WFCA took over the game from the Wisconsin Shriners.
“I think that is one of the coolest things,” Mais said. “Because of the position we are in as athletes — we’re on that pedestal — so we’re able to raise more money for those kids.”
Mais ended up at $4,150. Because of such stepped-up efforts, the WFCA now raises between $450,000 and $500,000 annually, compared to $50,000 to $60,000 annually when the partnership started, according to Doug Sarver, the WFCA All-Star Classic’s chairman. Athletes also meet the children they’re helping: Children’s Hospital patients have been invited to attend practices.
The WFCA has expanded the event by hosting three games — large school, small school, and eight-man games — instead of a traditional single game.
“We wanted to provide more opportunities for small-school players. They tend to get overlooked when there’s just one game,” Sarver said. “(In 2006) there was one game with 90 players and 14 coaches. The game has grown to where it is today in 2017 with three games, 224 players, and 40 coaches.”
The expansion provides more elite football players from around the state the chance to play one last game at the high school level.
“What they get out of it is the best week of their life,” Sarver said. “You have players that are hated rivals in high school, and during the practice week they become best friends. It’s one more time to give them that chance to play before they get on to their adult careers.”
As for Mais, he’s excited just to have some fun before getting back to business with the Badgers.
“It’s been fun seeing some of my (future UW teammates) playing in it and meeting their friends from their conferences,” Mais said. “The camaraderie and brotherhood you get out of (high school football) is so special.”