RUSK COUNTY, Wis. (WLAX/WEUX) – Rusk County is the home of one the most beloved sports figures in Wisconsin, Jim Leonhard. The historical society in Ladysmith contains a special exhibit dedicated to Leonhard’s remarkable football career.

First News at Nine’s Bob Gallaher has more on Rusk County’s favorite son.

Growing up in Tony, Wisconsin, a tiny town in Rusk County, Jim Leonhard was no different than any other kid.

Leonhard dreamt of playing for his home state badgers and hopefully beyond. After starring at Flambeau High School as a two-time all-state selection, Jim walked on to the Madison campus in 2001 without a scholarship.

Four years later, he was a three-time All-American defensive back.

While Jim Leonhard might have been small in stature at 5-foot-8, his aspirations were big.

A high football intellect and knack of always being around the ball, Leonhard wanted more.

Despite not being drafted in 2005, Jim got his NFL opportunity signing with the Buffalo Bills as a free agent, continuing his underdog story.

Leonhard would later become a starter for the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets, playing ten NFL seasons.

An inspiration to thousands of kids in Northwest Wisconsin, Jim always made it a point to give back. Returning home for several years to conduct his football skills camp at his high school alma mater.

“It’s very important to me if I’m going to put on a camp to be very active with the kids, get out their and do the drills myself and really help out,” said Leonhard. “I’ve never liked camps where the coaches weren’t really participating, just kind of showed up and put in their time so I get excited, try to get out there and do the drills with them, they enjoy it, they love to compete with you so it’s very important every year for me to do the camp.”

During an interview at his camp in 2014, Leonhard was prophetic when talking about his future after his playing days were over, perhaps a return to the sidelines at Camp Randall?

“We’ll see what happens after football, but I wouldn’t mind going back there and coaching.  I love that program and everything that university has provided me and would like to give back as well.”

After retiring from the NFL after the 2014 season, Leonhard was inducted into the Wisconsin Athletics Hall of Fame in 2015. A year later he was hired as a defensive coach for the badgers and promoted to defensive coordinator in 2017.

The Badgers have been one of college football’s top defenses under Leonhard’s leadership.  

With his successful NFL pedigree, many thought it was no surprise the green bay packers came calling this past off-season, offering Jim a chance to be d-coordinator for the green and gold. Ultimately, turning it down back in February.

“[It’s] a huge opportunity,” Leonhard said. “Very humbled to be in the conversation for that position.  It’s an organization, obviously being from the state, know a lot about and have a tremendous amount of respect for how that organization operates and they’re right on the fringe of a Super Bowl and they have been for awhile now.”

Leonhard says while a return to the NFL is difficult to pass on, he says what he decides to do with his career is his choice alone.

“I think there are a lot of people [that] have ideas about what my career is going to be and what they want it to be but the beauty of it being my career is that nobody really needs to know or care,” said Leonhard. “I’ve said it a lot of times, I love Madison, to me there is some unfinished business with the University of Wisconsin.  I love this group of kids and want to continue to develop them.”

Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst believes Jim’s affection for the badgers runs deep and that there’s still much to be accomplished.

“Never was in question what this question meant to him,” said Chryst. “I’ve known that even before he got into coaching and when he was here when he was coaching the defensive backs.  A big reason why I believe and I shouldn’t speak for him but I do think a big reason why he’s doing this is because this place means a ton to him and i think he believes he can help.”

When asked about the “unfinished business” in Madison, Jim says it’s simple, help the badgers win a national title.

“I think all the coaches, the players and staff, we have the highest goals here,” Leonhart added. “I came here wanting to win a national championship, right? I came here wanted to win the big ten as a player, and nothing has changes as a coach. We haven’t done that since I have been back so the goals haven’t changed, I feel like we have a group that accomplish that. Things have to go well, we have to play good football, much better football than we played last year and that’s the challenge every day. We haven’t reached the ceiling, we still have a long ways to go and i want that challenge to make that happen.”

From a field in Rusk County to Camp Randall stadium, to football’s ultimate stage, continuing to make his hometown proud.

For County by County, Bob Gallaher, First News at Nine.