PASADENA, Calif. — Paul Sanborn never got to see his son Jack play football for the University of Wisconsin. But he’s been on Jack’s mind often this month.
Jack, a sophomore inside linebacker for the Badgers, is preparing for a Rose Bowl matchup with the Oregon Ducks, the team Paul lettered for three times as an offensive lineman from 1980 to '82. Paul passed away in 2005 when Jack was 4 years old, but his time as a Duck was influential for Jack as he grew up.
When the Badgers learned they’d be playing Oregon in college football’s longest-running bowl game, Jack said the emotions hit him quickly.
“If you could draw it out, this is the game that I came here to play in. To go up against that team, who I kind of grew up watching, it’s all coming full circle. It’s pretty amazing,” Sanborn said.
Sanborn had mementos and reminders of his father’s football career at Oregon growing up — an Oregon helmet, a letter jacket, and photographs from Paul’s days as a Duck.
Oregon was the team that got Sanborn interested in watching college football, and the first team he rooted for. He and his family attended the 2010 Rose Bowl when the Ducks played against Ohio State. Some of Paul’s friends and former teammates who have stayed close with the family are planning to attend Wednesday's game and support Jack.
Teammates know Oregon holds a special place in Sanborn’s heart, and have ribbed him about making sure he stays on their side during the Rose Bowl.
“We mess with him. We’re like, ‘Don’t be out here point-shaving,’” senior Chris Orr said with a laugh. “We mess with him, but he doesn’t like (Oregon) at the end of the day.”
In order for UW (10-3) to beat Oregon (11-2), Sanborn is going to need to be the high-impact player he’s shown he can be this season. Slowing down Oregon’s rushing attack and keeping tabs on quarterback Justin Herbert will be two of Sanborn’s key responsibilities.
Sanborn, a Deer Park, Ill., native, is tied with Orr for the team lead with 72 tackles and he has nine tackles for loss. He has started all 13 games, and rarely leaves the field. While Orr has become a bigger part of the pass rush from his inside linebacker spot, Sanborn has been responsible for more pass coverage.
“For a guy to come in and be able to handle what we ask them to do and be extremely consistent is extremely hard,” UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “I have a lot of respect for the way he's handled himself throughout the course of the year. And it's been a grind for him being a young player with a big-time change in load obviously from last year to this year. So anytime a guy can handle that and just be the same guy every day, you have to respect that.”
Orr said Sanborn has developed into a high-caliber player quickly because he prepares correctly.
“Last year, he was asking the right questions, you could tell he was thinking the right way. Now, he studies the game like he’s supposed to, he practices hard, so when he gets to the game, it’s easy for him. He just puts two and two together and keeps going. I’m proud of how Jack has played. I think he’s going to have an even bigger year next year,” Orr said.
Paul Sanborn’s Oregon teams never earned a Rose Bowl bid, but the Sanborns are hoping Jack isn’t the last family member to get to play in the game. Jack’s brother Bryan is a three-star linebacker who gave his oral commitment to the Badgers earlier this month.
Jack said he was always confident Bryan would come to UW, but he heard about it from teammates and coaches while Bryan was making up his mind.
“Since he first got the offer — last year, I think it was — the coaches would come up to me and the players would annoy me nonstop. ‘Wow, does your brother really like you? He doesn’t want to come play with you?’” Sanborn said.
“The day he did it, I didn’t even know. The whole family knew. I was right there with coach Chryst when he called. We were all standing there and he was like, ‘Since everyone’s here, I just wanted to say I want to commit.’ I was happy for him.”
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