The draw of playing football has taken Olive Sagapolu on long journeys.
From his home in American Samoa to Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, California. From California to Madison, where he was a fixture as a nose tackle at the University of Wisconsin from 2014 to ‘18. From Madison to Green Bay, where Sagapolu tried to crack the Packers’ lineup and get a chance in the NFL.
Now that draw will take him to a new locale and new league — Sagapolu was drafted Tuesday by the Houston Roughnecks of the XFL, a league set to make its re-entry into the pro sports landscape this spring.
Sagapolu has been a student-assistant coach with the Badgers this season while working to compete his undergraduate degree, but he’s excited to get his playing career going again.
“I’m really grateful that the XFL gave me the chance to help me get closer to my dreams. I’m just having fun and living in the moment,’’ Sagapolu said.
“For this couple of months not playing football, it’s been very different. Coming back from Green Bay, it was exciting to see because I saw a lot of things I can work on. I’ve done that a little bit here and there, but now that I got picked up again, it’s kind of about re-engineering everything in my head to get it done.”
A fresh start
Sagapolu’s senior season with the Badgers was cut short due to an arm injury that required surgery. He signed with the Packers as an undrafted free agent and went through minicamp in the spring but was cut during fall training camp.
Sagapolu’s agent called him at the beginning of the month and told him there would be a chance in the relaunched XFL if he filed some paperwork, and that got the ball rolling to put the pads back on. Sagapolu was told the XFL was very interested in him, and he had a high likelihood of being drafted.
The XFL, which had a one-year run in 2001 before folding, conducted its draft on Tuesday and Wednesday using a position-specific format. All defensive front seven players were selected in the draft’s third phase Tuesday night, and Houston took Sagapolu with its fifth pick in the phase.
Sagapolu had just finished with classes for the night and was in the UW coaches’ offices when he got the call.
“I’m excited. I’m just thankful and grateful for the Houston organization for giving me a chance,” he said.
Former UW linebacker Garret Dooley, who was picked by the St. Louis Battlehawks during Wednesday’s open phase, could join Sagapolu in the XFL.
The eight-team league is under a different management structure than its previous iteration. League owner Vince McMahon — the billionaire owner of World Wrestling Entertainment — says he will not have as much involvement in the football side of the business as he did in 2001. He hired Oliver Luck, a former NFL quarterback and longtime executive in college and pro sports, to be the league’s CEO and commissioner.
Spring pro football leagues have had a shaky history.
From the United States Football League in the mid-1980s to last year’s debacle of the Alliance of American Football that left players without paychecks and on the hook for hotel bills, leagues have tried and failed to satiate America’s desire for football once the NCAA and NFL seasons end.
Sagapolu knows that past, but believes the XFL has a solid foundation and wants to give players an opportunity to parlay XFL success into NFL tryouts.
“I feel like they have a good set-up going right now,” he said. “I’ll have to read up on it, but for the most part, it looks like they have everything kind of engineering toward perfecting this league. I think it’s going to be a good tool for guys who can get that opportunity to get more tape and have that spring showcase.”
Sagapolu is waiting to hear from the Roughnecks about his reporting date, but Luck said in an interview posted to the XFL’s website that training camps will start in early December. That’s when players will complete physicals and sign contracts.
He said he’s been working with UW strength and conditioning coaches to stay in shape, but will ratchet up his training now that he’s been drafted and knows what’s coming next.
The XFL’s season schedule will be released next week. Sagapolu’s Houston team is coached by June Jones, one of the originators of the run-and-shoot offense. Other familiar names on the Houston roster are former Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook and former Clemson receiver Sammie Coates. A Pro Football Talk report early this week said an average XFL player’s yearly salary will be $55,000.
While he prepares for his next opportunity to play, Sagapolu has enjoyed his coaching role with UW. He says when his playing career ends, he wants to get into coaching, and this has been an eye-opening experience into what that world is like.
“I think what I’ve appreciated from Olive is one, his willingness to be around and help guys. And two, I think it’s good for him, he’s getting a little insight into what is coaching, some things that maybe he doesn’t know beyond the field,” UW coach Paul Chryst said.
“It’s been great having him around. I know he’s good for players, he’s spent a lot of time with our younger players. That’s fun for me to see. He’s got a lot of stuff that he can share with them, and those guys are wanting to get that information.”
Sagapolu said transitioning from teammate to coach was fairly easy, and UW players have picked his brain for tips often.
“Since I first got here, he’s helped me with every aspect of being here. Especially in the film room, working on stuff with footwork and handwork, pass-rush stuff. He’s always been someone I can turn to and ask, ‘What do you think about this?’” junior defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk said. “Now that he’s not playing, he can focus a little bit more on what we can do to get better.”
Sagapolu knows he’s still in the early stages of his football journey. Whether he’s able to catch on and have a lengthy professional playing career, or find a coaching job he’d like to pursue once he’s retired, he knows football will be part of his path moving forward.
“I’m just truly blessed with the opportunity to go to these fortunate places, seeing things, different parts of the world. It’s exciting, but it’s also kind of nerve-wracking seeing the business side of things, which you don’t always expect,” he said. “But for the most part it’s been fun. I’m really going with the flow and having fun where I’m at, living in that moment.”
Video: Paul Chryst says Badgers are ready to open season at South Florida
JAMES THOMPSON JR.
James Thompson Jr., a 6-foot-5, 255-pound defensive end from Cincinnati, Ohio, orally committed to UW after attending the home opener against Central Michigan.
The Roger Bacon High School product is a three-star recruit according to Rivals and 247sports. He also had scholarship offers from Iowa State, Akron, Ball State and Navy, among others, and was receiving interest from Big Ten programs such as Michigan State, Northwestern and Purdue.
Isaac Smith, a 6-foot-3, 185-pound wide receiver from Collierville, Tennessee, committed during the Badgers off week between games against Central Michigan and the Big Ten Conference opener against Michigan.
Smith, who had offers from Missouri, Army and Cornell, rates as a three-star recruit on 247sports and a two-star recruit on Rivals.
“It’s awesome to have Wisconsin recruit one our kids,” said Andre Lott, Smith’s coach at St. George’s Independent School. “Being in Tennessee, some schools from up there don’t get down this way, but they did. He took his visit there and took advantage of the opportunity they gave.”
Preston Zachman, a 6-foot-2, 205-pound linebacker from Catawissa, Penn., orally committed to the Badgers after their blowout win over Michigan.
A three-star recruit on 247sports and a two-star prospect according to Rivals, Zachman is listed as an athlete by the recruiting services. He plays quarterback for his Southern Columbia Area High School team.
Jack Nelson, a Stoughton native, became the first member of UW’s 2020 class back in October of 2017, during his sophomore season.
The 6-foot-7, 260-pound offensive lineman was receiving interest from Iowa at the time of his commitment and now ranks as a four-star prospect by 247sports and a three-star by Rivals.
Nelson’s father, Todd Nelson, played offensive line for the Badgers in the late 80s.
Trey Wedig committed shortly after UW’s victory over New Mexico in Week 2 of the 2018 season, starting the class off with a second highly rated offensive line prospect.
The 6-foot-7, 300-pound Kettle Moraine High product currently owns a consensus four-star rating and also held reported offers from Michigan, Notre Dame, USC, Nebraska and other Power Five programs.
Dylan Barrett, a 6-foot-5, 285-pound offensive lineman from St. Charles East High in Illinois, rates as a three-star prospect by 247sports and Rivals.
Before committing off of a visit in October of 2018, Barrett also held reported offers from Iowa, Northwestern, Illinois, Purdue, West Virginia, Missouri and others.
Ben Barten became the fourth offensive lineman and fourth total commitment to join UW’s 2020 class when he pledged in October of 2018.
The 6-foot-7, 250-pound Stratford High athlete, who’s listed as a three-star prospect by Rivals and 247sports, could also potentially play defensive line for the Badgers. He also held reported offers from Iowa and South Dakota State.
Chimere Dike, a wide receiver from Waukesha North High, added to an early run of in-state talent in UW’s 2020 class when he committed in January.
The 6-foot, 175-pound Dike, who also held an offer from Iowa State, rates as a three-star prospect by Rivals and 247sports.
Less than 24 hours after Dike’s commitment, Catholic Memorial’s Cole Dakovich did the same. Both were offered by UW during a visit to Madison less than a week before joining the class.
Dakovich, a 6-foot-5, 220-pound outside linebacker, didn’t begin playing high school football until his junior year, and the Badgers were the first program to extend a scholarship offer. He rates as a three-star prospect by 247sports and Rivals.
Bortolini became the Badgers’ first commitment in more than four months when he pledged to UW on May 28.
The Kewaunee High native ranks as a three-star prospect by 247sports and ESPN and a two-star recruit by Rivals.
The 6-foot-4, 270-pound offensive lineman reportedly also held offers from Miami, Iowa and Syracuse.
McDonald, from Hudson High, rates as a two-star prospect by 247sports and made a quick commitment in June after UW became his first FBS offer.
The 6-foot-7, 240-pound defensive end put together a strong performance at a summer recruiting camp in Madison to earn his spot in this 2020 class.
Herbig ranks in the top 300 nationally by every major recruiting site and stands as the No. 16 outside linebacker according to 247sports’ composite.
Heading to Madison from St. Louis High in Honolulu, Hawaii, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Herbig chose the Badgers over reported offers from Oklahoma, USC, Washington, Stanford, UCLA, Cal, Tennessee, Nebraska, Kansas State and others.
Herbig’s older brother, Nate, signed as an undrafted free agent with the Philadelphia Eagles this year after a productive career as a guard at Stanford.
Turner, UW’s first 2020 commitment from Michigan, rates as a three-star prospect by 247sports and made his commitment two weeks after his official visit to Madison.
The 6-foot-2, 220-pound inside linebacker from Farmington, Mich., built an impressive offer list before making his decision, as he reportedly picked the Badgers over Michigan, Louisville, Purdue, Northwestern, Michigan State, West Virginia, Washington State, Kentucky, Minnesota and other Power Five schools.
Reed, from Chandler (Ariz.) High, chose the Badgers over reported offers from Nebraska, UCLA, Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Purdue, Washington State, Oregon State and others.
The 6-foot-2, 220-pound linebacker was a consensus three-star recruit and also took official visits to Nebraska, UCLA and Arizona over the past month but opted for UW before he begins his senior year.
The Badgers won a fierce recruiting battle for Large, a tight end out of Noble and Greenough School in Massachusetts.
The 6-foot-5, 245-pound Large picked UW over at least 30 Power Five programs, including LSU and Ohio State. He said he was interested in how often the Badgers utilize their tight ends.
He's rated as a three-star prospect by Rivals, 247 sports and ESPN.
A three-star defensive end/linebacker recruit out of Winona, Minn., Witt was previously committed to Minnesota and Iowa before signing with the Badgers.
"Aaron Witt is a guy that can do so many things. He’s just scratching the surface. Love what he’s going to be able to do and provide some flexibility for us as a staff," UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said.
Playing linebacker might be a bit of an adjustment after a high school career of playing on the line.
A four-star linebacker out of Minnehaha Academy, Johnson was a late addition to the class. At 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, Johnson blends size, speed and power well and has a chance to stand out quickly.
He held 30-plus scholarship offers, but chose UW over Nebraska and Minnesota.
Jalen Berger, a consensus four-star running back recruit, committed to the Badgers on Jan. 4, 2020, at the Army All-American Bowl.
Berger, a 6-foot, 205-pound back, chose UW out of a final five that included Rutgers, UCLA, Penn State and LSU. He brings an all-around skillset to the Badgers, as he showed his receiving ability often throughout his prep career.
Berger is the fifth four-star player in the class.
Lofy became the first defensive back to join UW's 2020 class, committing a month after taking an official visit to Madison in June.
The 5-foot-11, 165-pound prospect earned a three-star rating by both Rivals and 247sports. He reportedly held offers from Oklahoma State, Minnesota, Kansas State, Arizona State and others.
A three-star recruit out of Huntersville, North Carolina, Chandler was a surprise signing during the early signing period.
"I think his film is what really stood out. He’s explosive, made plays easy, the separation. It was exciting seeing him," UW offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said of Chandler.
The 6-foot-2 receiver ran a 4.54-second 40-yard dash at a high school showcase.
Wright, a 6-foot-7 quarterback from Sergeant Bluff, Iowa, became the only quarterback of the 2020 class in early February.
Originally committed to NCAA Division II Sioux Falls, Wright took an unofficial visit to UW the first weekend of February and accepted a preferred walk-on spot. Wright wasn’t ranked on the major recruiting platforms, but threw for 78 touchdowns in his high school career.
A walk-on long snapper from Eau Claire Memorial, McKinley drew a four-star ranking as a snapper from Kohl's.
He joins high school teammate Cormac Sampson on the UW roster, and three-star running back recruit Loyal Crawford is orally
Timmis turned down scholarship offers from more than 20 Group of Five and FCS programs to walk on at UW.
The three-star offensive lineman from Marquette University High School is listed at 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds. He is one of six offensive linemen in the class.
Nowakowski joined the 2020 class in late January, accepting a walk-on offer.
The 6-foot-4, 230-pound linebacker out of Marquette University High School joins a loaded linebacker class for the Badgers. He was not ranked by the major recruiting sites, but won the John Andersen Award as Wisconsin's top senior linebacker from Wissports.
JACK VAN DYKE
Neenah specialist Jack Van Dyke orally committed to the Badgers in July 2019, but signed his NLI in February. He’ll be a preferred walk-on for the Badgers
He’s the fourth-ranked kicker and 20th-ranked punter in the country, per Kohl’s. Van Dyke, who stands 6-foot-5, made all eight of his field goal attempts as a senior and averaged 36.3 yards per punt while being named the second-team all-state kicker by The Associated Press.
Kodanko took a walk-on offer in September and was announced by the team in February.
Hailing from Green Bay, the 6-foot-3, 280-pound offensive lineman was a first-team all-state pick by the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association. His brother, Riki, played for UW from 2010-12.
Gengler orally committed to the Badgers in July 2019 before officially becoming a walk-on in February.
The 6-foot-3, 206-pound inside linebacker is listed as a two-star recruit by Rivals. The Delavan product was the defensive player of the year in the Southern Lakes conference and honorable mention all-state as a senior.
A standout at Milwaukee Riverside, Williams joins the Badgers as a walk-on defensive back.
Listed at 5-foot-9 and 171 pounds, Williams won the Jim Leonhard Award from Wissports as the state's top senior defensive back, and was a two-time first-team all-state selection by the WFCA.