A coach when he was a quarterback

Josh Schafer:

Mark Berg couldn’t find his football team. Literally. On the first day of the practice for the 1983 Platteville High School football team the head ball coach questioned whether his players had forgotten about practice. He walked up to the field anyway.

“Oh my gosh,” Berg said as he approached the hill near the practice field. “They slept here all night.”

The team hadn’t been late. In reality they couldn’t wait. Some of the seniors, quarterback Paul Chryst included, organized a tent sleepover on the practice field the night before the start of their season.

“It wasn’t the greatest practice because they probably weren’t sleeping all night either,” Berg told Badger247 through a chuckle recently. “But you know that was kind of the thing…Paul was very concerned about including everybody and being a good teammate. Just a real people person and he got that naturally.”

Long before Chryst was the head coach of the Wisconsin Badgers, he was simply Paul: The quarterback of the local high school football team. He wasn’t vastly different than anyone else that’ll suit up for a game under the lights this Friday. Sure, he threw a pretty ball, and threw it pretty far too. Sometimes, he even called plays. But he walked the halls of Platteville High School no different than anybody else and sat in the same cafeteria surrounded by brick walls and wood boarding.

After a long awaited delay, Wisconsin opens its Big Ten season this Friday night against Illinois at 7 p.m. CT. At that same time, schools around the state will also kick-off for a game under the lights. As barely anyone fills the stands at Camp Randall Stadium and Chryst calls plays for an inexperienced quarterback, parts of the game won’t be much different than his Friday night lights experiences nearly 40 years ago.
“(He was) not the quickest guy in the world,” said former Platteville defensive coordinator Dennis Kueter. “Probably mentally more with it and knew what was going on in a game more than any kid I coached there or helped coach there in 37 years. He was a lover of the game.”
Platteville played over at the stadium built by the University of Wisconsin Platteville. As Kueter puts it, the bigger stadium pushed the screaming parents and local critics a little further from the field than most high schools but people still piled into the stands. They even covered a hill in one of the endzones, including a game Chryst’s senior year that had about 6,000 people.

Chryst moved to Platteville before high school in 1979, when his father, George, became the head football coach at University of Wisconsin Platteville. With dad a head coach, Chryst had long been interested in the X’s and O’s as well.

Chryst quarterbacked the Hillmen for three seasons. Though lined up in a Wing-T offense, Berg liked to sling the ball. It worked out well because Berg’s quarterback liked to study the intricacies of the game almost as much, if not more, than his coach liked to throw the ball.

As a junior the pair had discussions about what plays or formations looked good before Chryst called plays in the huddle. So senior year, Berg loosened the leash a bit more. During his senior year, Chryst called a large portion of the plays. He’d signal over at the sideline. Berg would either nod him on or wave him off and send a different signal back.

“It was kind of neat just because he just had such a good grasp,” Berg remembered. “And he understood what we were trying to do and he understood the kids that we were playing.”

Chryst sat a large portion of his senior year with a thigh injury. During that time, after starting since his sophomore year, Chryst helped friend Jace Martens go undefeated while calling the plays alongside Berg from the sideline.

The big thing in the Hillmen’s passing offense back then was reading the safety, Berg said. Out of the Wing-T the Hillmen often ran a traditional Waggle rollout. A tight end came across on an intermediate route. If the safety ran up to cover that tight end, there’d be a running back streaking on a post or another deep route uncovered over the top of the defense.

Chryst hit a pass like this that Berg still remembers today. It was in the state championship at Camp Randall Stadium, the game after Chryst led his team over the defending state champions DeForest while completing 25-of-37 passes for 338 yards. The Hillmen clung to a touchdown lead as the end of the first half approached. They picked up chunk gains on a draw play and a quick throw to the tight end. Then the safety came up too far and Chryst hit the big one. The ball traveled about 50 yards in the air, per a Wisconsin State Journal 1983 game story, before falling into the hands of future Badgers receiver Scott Bestor.

The 57-yard touchdown provided the buffer Platteville needed as the Hillmen won the 1983 Division 4 WIAA State Championship over Mosinee. Chryst completed 14-of-25 passes for 213 yards in his final high school game.

“He could just pick it apart really quick and realize there’s a guy and he would hit him,” Berg said.

Chryst is splattered all over the area surrounding the cafeteria at Platteville high school. There’s a picture of the signal caller to honor his All-State selection. Walk further down the hall and there’s a young, hair-flowing Chryst smiling with the 1983 team. He’s in two trophy cases too. One shrine is shared with Nikki (Taggart) Colleen, who coaches the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream. Then there’s the state championship trophy with Chryst’s and his teammates’ names engraved forever in high school glory.

The following winter the UW Band had a concert in Platteville, at which Chryst was introduced (as if he needed to be introduced) as a new UW recruit. He played several positions at UW because two coaching staffs didn’t think he was better than the not-very-successful quarterbacks who did play. He and I were political science majors; he graduated a semester after I did, and someday I will have to find out if we were in the same classes.

Chryst joins a long line of football coaches bred by Platteville High School. Seven Platteville High School coaches have been inducted into the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame, an honor Chryst has not yet received.

Oh, he will.

The school’s nickname itself, the Hillmen, comes from a head coach. Wilfred Hill worked for Platteville for 44 years and coached over 100 seasons of athletics in various sports. Early on the players were referred to as “Hill’s Men” and the name eventually stuck.

Chryst followed, of course, advanced through the coaching ranks himself. Still he always came back to Wisconsin. He even kept calling plays for the Hillmen, though indirectly.

When Chryst was the coach with the American Football League’s San Antonio Riders from 1991-92, he visited with Berg. Chryst drew a play, a “rocket screen,” on a napkin. Berg installed the play the next Monday.

“We started scoring touchdowns with that son of a gun,” Berg said of the play. “That was kind of our relationship. He would say try this, it’s really good.”

Chryst’s name still comes up at Platteville frequently, said current athletic director Mike Foley. The school preaches the “Hillmen Way,” a pursuit of excellence rooted in being respectful, responsible and ready to succeed.

There are many students that fit the mold. It just so happens to epitomize one student who teachers and coaches remember as a leader of his classmates. It just so happens that a student ended up coaching football games about 75 miles east for a team students care about quite a bit. So it just so happens that back where it all started for Chryst, his glory never ends.

“When we talk to our kids in athletics and our activities Paul Chryst’s name comes up every time,” Foley said.

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