Jared Abbrederis might have found his destiny around age 10, but it took the Wisconsin standout receiver a while to truly discover it.
In those Pop Warner years, the quick, soft-handed Abbrederis could "catch anything," he said, then take off down the field like he was on fire and running for water.
Soon, however, he switched positions, playing quarterback in high school. There weren't many college offers and just as it seemed like football would be a hobby for Abbrederis, he began to focus on track and field, using his speed and athleticism to hurdle his way to two state championships.
A decade removed from Pop Warner, after eschewing scholarships from Division II schools and walking on to Wisconsin's campus to play the game he loved, the redshirt junior's natural talents have resurfaced. Heading into the Badgers game against the Gophers on Saturday, Abbrederis has become the No. 1 receiving threat on a team that's gone 2-1 in the Big Ten.
As Abbrederis explodes downfield now, seeing the talent he's always had is simple. After all, the receiver leads the conference in receiving yards per game (93.2), and became the first Wisconsin player to record three consecutive 100-yard receiving games since Lee Evans did it in 2001. In a slightly changed offense from a year ago under new coordinator Matt Canada, Abbrederis has proven capable of making dynamic plays and racking up enough yards to lead the league (559), despite missing a game and a half because of a concussion.
But Badgers' coach Bret Bielema swears he noticed a sparkle from the start.
"You know what? I had a special feeling about him that first semester," Bielema said. "He really hadn't been in a receiver position, but you could see a gutsy performer, a guy that played every day."
At that point, Abbrederis weighed "150 pounds, soaking wet," Bielema said. The Wautoma, Wis., native started his Wisconsin career as the spread quarterback on the scout team.
"The first year, I didn't get a lot of snaps," the 6-2, 185-pound Abbrederis said. "But then the spring came by and I had a couple opportunities to make plays, and I was able to make them, and I kind of got my foot in the offense a little."
He impressed to the point that the Badgers decided he was valuable enough to try to move elsewhere. Bielema told him he could pick between wide receiver and defensive back. For Abbrederis the choice was clear.
He ran extra routes with the quarterbacks in the winter. Ten years removed from snagging passes and running like he was on fire, his natural skills were rusty.
"That was frustrating for me, to have good hands and lose them kind of, but I just had to work real hard to get them back," Abbrederis said. "After that spring, I knew I could play, so I started setting more goals, maybe getting in the rotation. And after I got in the rotation, it was keep improving on the things that will make you better, make you into one of the best in the Big Ten.
"Once you reach a goal, you set a new one. And once you set goals, you've got to accomplish them."
With that kind of resolve, it's no surprise in his third year he's doing just that, even if he said he never thought the success would "come nearly this good."
"I've got a lot of respect for the young man," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said. "He deserves every amount of credit that he gets. ... You can't have enough guys like him playing the game of football."
In January, Wisconsin awarded Abbrederis the scholarship he'd wanted since he was an adoring kid, watching the Badgers. But while the status relieved his financial obligations, it didn't change his mindset.
"It's never being satisfied," he said. "I've always kind of kept that walk-on mentality -- nothing's given and everything's earned."