December 19, 2008, was a special day for Wisconsin teammates Conor O’Neill and Dezmen Southward.
Five years ago, O’Neill and Southward won a Florida state championship at St. Thomas Aquinas High School of Fort Lauderdale in the last game of their high school careers. The Raiders defeated Lakeland, 56-7, at the Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium in Orlando. On January 1, they return to the same stadium for their last game as college players.
“I guess I haven’t even thought about it,” Southward said. “I don’t think into things like that but I hope it ends the same way as it did the last time if that means anything.”
The safety out of Sunrise, Fla., who played just one year of competitive football before heading to Madison, started all 12 games this year for the Badgers. He is fifth on the team in total tackles with 37.
Southward and O’Neill have become close friends over their five years at Wisconsin, and Southward believes that he is playing college football because of O’Neill.
“He told some of the coaches to come check me out and honestly he’s a huge reason why I’m here,” Southward said. “We’ve been pretty tight throughout high school and here so he’s one of my better friends.”
O’Neill, who started eight games this year at linebacker, is right above Southward in tackles with 39.
“I saw that he was just a great athlete so I told one of my coaches to look at him,” O’Neill said. “To see him grow — and to become better friends because of it — has been great.”
The duo are just two of ten players from the state of Florida on the Wisconsin roster, but O’Neill thinks playing in a bowl close to home will help the Badgers recruiting process.
“It’s great for the state of Florida,” O’Neill said. “To see the Wisconsin logo and to see us playing in the state and to see that there are players willing to travel across the country to go to a great school to play great football, that should help out recruiting players from the state in the long run.”
It also helps to bring friends and family playing in your home state.
“I have a lot of people coming to this game,” O’Neill said. “It’s going to be a last hoo-rah. It’s going to be awesome.”