Fritz Waldvogel's decision to attend St. Thomas meant success for him and the program.
Glenn Caruso stood in the checkout line at a big-box electronics store with a new computer for his wife when his cell phone rang. He immediately recognized the number and told the clerk to hold the computer while he found a place to talk.
Caruso was three days into his job as University of St. Thomas football coach and in search of talent. His first recruit was on the other end of the line. Caruso plopped down on a couch in front of a big screen and spent an hour chatting with St. Thomas Academy's Fritz Waldvogel.
Neither probably could have envisioned where that initial conversation would lead them.
Waldvogel will start his school-record 50th game Saturday as 13-0 St. Thomas faces powerhouse UW-Whitewater in the Division III national semifinals.
The Tommies never have advanced this far in the postseason, and their success -- and expedited turnaround as a program -- is due in no small part to Waldvogel's impact as a wide receiver, returner and leader.
He is one of four finalists for the Gagliardi Trophy, which honors Division III's Most Outstanding Player, and the second player ever to be named a two-time MIAC Player of the Year. He ranks among the conference leaders in career all-purpose yards, receptions, receiving yards and return yards. His 10 career kick/punt returns for touchdowns are second-most in Division III history.
Not bad for a guy who was 5-8 and 150 pounds "soaking wet" when Caruso knocked on his door four years ago for a home recruiting visit that lasted nearly five hours. The two talked football schemes, building the program and even how he got the nickname Fritz.
"It was the longest home visit I have ever been on," Caruso said.
And worth every minute of it. Waldvogel had offers from a few Division II schools and looked hard at Holy Cross. But he embraced Caruso's vision for the program and the total package St. Thomas offered.
"I felt that was going to be the best fit for me," he said.
St. Thomas finished 2-8 the season before Caruso and Waldvogel arrived on campus. The Tommies are 43-6 since then. Caruso credits his senior leader for helping establish the foundation and change the culture.
Caruso doesn't put much stock in measurables in recruiting. He could care less if a guy is undersized. He loved the way Waldvogel played and carried himself on the field and around his teammates. Caruso entrusted him to set the bar for everyone else in his program.
"He has done everything you could possibly want to do from a standpoint of achievement, but yet you put him out there on that practice field at 4 o'clock on a Wednesday afternoon when it's 13 degrees and he works like a backup," Caruso said. "He works like a guy who is clawing and scratching to hold onto his spot. If there is anything that is secret about what he does, that's it. He is an absolute 'have' but he works daily like a 'have-not.' That's why we love him."
Waldvogel marvels at how much the program has changed during his career. The Tommies went 7-3 his freshman season and were ecstatic. A similar record now would be viewed as a disappointment.
The talent level has improved significantly. Young players aren't pressed into action. The commitment level is better. Those are signs of a healthy program.
"The perception especially on campus for football is a lot different than when we were freshmen," Waldvogel said. "We have a lot of really talented freshman that maybe don't get as much playing time. We tell them that when we were freshman, it was a whole different thing. You have to remind them to be patient."
Waldvogel is in a different place. He has one, possibly two games left in his career. That sense of urgency is heightened by the fact St. Thomas faces the top-ranked team Saturday that has won 43 consecutive games.
Their formula doesn't change though. They want to get the ball in Waldvogel's hands as much as possible. He has 72 catches, nearly 2,000 all-purpose yards and 17 total touchdowns this season. He can affect a game's outcome in a number of different ways.
"I still feel like we don't put it in his hands enough," Caruso said. "I'm sitting here watching film right now trying to figure out three more ways I can get it in hands on Saturday."
Waldvogel won't complain. The more, the better. He'll do whatever necessary to prolong his career.
Of course, he graduates in the spring with a degree in finance and already has a full-time job waiting on him. He's excited to make an imprint on that team, too.
Chip Scoggins • firstname.lastname@example.org
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