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Homegrown hero

Verstegen pep talk

Mike Verstegen coaches up his line during a recent game.

Photo courtesy of the Times-Villager

Kimberly native Mike Verstegen traded gridiron glory for a storybook life closer to his Wisconsin roots
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By Laura Kalinowski

In the final week of the 2006 season, the Kimberly Papermakers were undefeated and qualified for the playoffs. Many in the stands whispered of a state championship — something the school had never seen. Anyone could tell from watching the hopeful high schoolers warm up that the team had what it takes. The players communicated with each other, completed drills with unparalleled effort and executed every play as if it were overtime in the Super Bowl.

Kimberly has gone from a record of 0-9 to 9-0 within three years thanks to a new generation of coaches hired two years ago.

As Kimberly prepared to battle the Appleton West Terrors, one head towered above the sea of red and white uniforms.

Assistant Offensive Line Coach Mike Verstegen is part of this new generation of coaches, bringing passion and courage to a school whose spirit was defeated.

As the game began, Verstegen watched his line intensely, nearly stepping onto the field at times in anticipation. He paced back and forth, up and down the line in hopeful fervor of his team’s success.

Verstegen is the model Kimberly citizen.  A financial consultant at LPL Financial Services and treasurer of the Kimberly School Board, he married his high school sweetheart and is a proud dad to three boys.

Watching the burly coach interact with his team, however, it is evident his life is not as cookie cutter as it seems.

For Verstegen— a former Papermaker, Wisconsin Badger, New Orleans Saint and St. Louis Ram — it’s always been about the game.

Verstegen's football career began as it does for many boys, in the backyards of friends' houses and on the Kimberly Bulldog League, a middle school breeding ground for future Papermakers. A typical Wisconsin boy, Verstegen looked up to the icons of the day such as Franco Harris, Bill Campbell and of course, Mean Joe Greene. He easily made the transition to high school ball. By his junior and senior year, scouts and fans alike recognized that Verstegen had a future in the game.

“Barry Alvarez was in his first year at Wisconsin, and I got recruited [by schools] all over the country, but Wisconsin came to the high school to check me out," says Verstegen.

Verstegen saw the Badgers transition from the bottom to the top, like the Papermakers of today. His freshman year, the Badgers were 1-10 and their goal was simply to sell-out one game.

“In 1990 we barely had 30,000 people in the stands,” he says. “And then we progressed on and on as a team and all of a sudden there’s a lot of people in the stands and it was like ‘Holy cow — this is a huge deal!’”

The ride didn’t stop there. Verstegen played with the Badgers at the 1994 Rose Bowl before being drafted by the New Orleans Saints in 1995.

“I knew if I didn’t do it I would regret it for the rest of my life. Financially you’d be ridiculous not to pursue it as well,” Verstegen says, a twinkle in his voice, as he reflects on the start of his NFL career.

Verstegen planned on starting his career with the Buffalo Bills, unaware that New Orleans was considering him. Although a unique city, Verstegen says he and many of his teammates had difficulty adjusting to New Orleans' distinctive way of life.

After three years in New Orleans and two with the St. Louis Rams, it was time to go home.

Verstegen and his wife Keri made the move back to Kimberly, to make a life for themselves in the town where they both grew up and where their families still live.

“We had always contemplated raising our family here,” he says. “It is a safe place, and after traveling around so much, it was great to come back to a place we were so familiar with.”

Kimberly is completely enamored with the former NFL player and bowl-winning Badger, but for reasons other than his star-status.

Kimberly High School Principal Mike Rietveld has seen Verstegen change from a quiet, studious high school student into an intelligent and community-conscious man who uses his experience on and off the field to benefit those around him.

“He is an articulate man who isn’t afraid to share what he has,” Rietveld says. “He is a well-read and well prepared school board member. He wants to make sure we make good use of taxpayer dollars, be accountable for what we spend and help improve the system.”

Verstegen’s work on the school board is eclipsed in the minds of citizens and students by his work on the field, as Kimberly continues to dominate the Fox Valley Association.

Kimberly High School Athletic Director Brian Matz says that while Verstegen’s players admire his experience, his willingness to volunteer and to give himself to the game impresses them more.

“I’m sure for the incoming freshman there is a certain ‘wow’ factor,” he says. “But that wears off real fast with kids. If you’re not real, they’ll see right through you.”

The Kimberly stands are now so packed at the football games, Matz says they do not know where to put all the people.

And, Verstegen says that it is all thanks to the winning attitude of the players, coaches and community.

A boy from small-town Wisconsin, who began his career throwing a football in backyards where his sons now play, has conquered one dream and now lives another. Verstegen has come full circle, giving back to the community and the team that once gave so much to him. “I’ve never stepped back to think, ‘Wow, I’m living it.’”


Retrace Verstegen's footsteps: See how Mike's former teams and influential coaches are faring this season here.

Wisconsin Badger Sports

Verstegen and players

Verstegen has instilled a new passion in the Kimberly Papermakers football squad.

Photo courtesy of the Times-Villager

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