Jen Wellnitz looks to quarterback Green Bay to another winning season

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Jen Wellnitz remembers the first touchdown, an end around that saw her race nearly the length of the field to score. She also remembers with no small amount of satisfaction the looks on the faces of the opposing team's players when they realized a girl had done it.

She remembers, too, the time she took off on another run around the end of the line, a designed run for the quarterback, only to be blindsided by a tackler on the hardest hit she ever absorbed.

What isn't entirely clear from talking to her is which memory she thinks of more fondly.

"I didn't mind the big hits," Wellnitz said. "Bring them on. I wanted to show I could get back up after."

In a dramatization of the story of Green Bay women's basketball -- the mid-major of both modest means and more consecutive winning seasons (40) than any women's basketball program other than Tennessee -- a character based on Wellnitz would elicit snarky grumbling from critics.

The fourth of nine children who grew up dreading early-morning chores on a Wisconsin dairy farm? Such a die-hard Packers fan that she ignored her mother's gentle nudges to branch out and wore the same Brett Favre costume Halloween after Halloween?

In fiction it would lack a little, well, subtlety.

Except here she is. The dairy farm and Packers worship aren't the half of it.

In a city defined by football and where football is defined by the succession of quarterbacks, from Bart Starr to Favre to Aaron Rodgers, it hasn't been an easy fall. An injury that sidelined Rodgers threatens to doom the Packers. But on the other side of town, a former middle school quarterback holds the key to a 20th consecutive conference championship on the basketball court. The catalyst of a defense that helped Green Bay upset ranked Arizona State this past week and hold the Phoenix's first five opponents to fewer than 50 points, Wellnitz remains very much a product of the gridiron.

You can, it seems, take the girl out of the Favre costume, but you can't take the gunslinger out of the girl.

"No disrespect, but sometimes Jennifer is sort of a loose cannon," Green Bay coach Kevin Borseth said of the redshirt junior's defense. "All of a sudden, there she is. How did she get there? She is the only one I know that can guard the ball in a double-team over here, and they throw to a shooter in the other corner, and she gets over and steals the pass or blocks the shot.

"She just has such great ability to make so many plays with her athleticism."

Although she grew up with seven sisters and one younger brother, Wellnitz spent much of her youth in the rural town of South Wayne, Wisconsin, running with a pack of friends in which she was the sole girl. They played football at recess, got sent to the guidance counselor's office together when things got too wild and lived out their childhoods together. When organized football started in seventh grade, she decided with little deliberation that she would join in.

She was a runner or receiver on offense and a cornerback on defense that first season. But the girl who had always played quarterback in pickup games growing up wasn't satisfied with that. When that position was up for grabs the next season, she didn't hesitate to try out.

"I felt like I was good enough," Wellnitz said. "But after tryouts, the coach had other guys taking snaps. I was so mad. But then we went to line up, and he was like, 'Wellnitz, you're at quarterback.'"

There wasn't a lack of competition. That same group of friends who played together through middle school formed the core of a team that won a state championship by the time they were seniors at Black Hawk High School.

Wellnitz had by then given up football for volleyball in the fall. She said no one ever told her she had to stop. When she took off her helmet for the final time in eighth grade, she was sure she would continue. But it was also obvious by then that someone who would go on to be a two-time 100-meter sprint state champion and a three-time all-state basketball honoree was a good enough athlete to earn a college scholarship. It didn't make much sense to risk injury on the football field once her friends, and potential opponents, went through growth spurts that passed her by.

That didn't make it any easier to watch at first as those friends played their way through junior varsity football on their way to varsity.

"There's no practices I've ever enjoyed more than going to football practice every day," Wellnitz said. "I don't know what it was. We still had the bad conditioning days and all that, but something about putting the pads on, I just loved it."

That would come as no surprise to anyone who watches the way she plays basketball. She averaged more than six fouls per 40 minutes in her first season on the court for Green Bay. She curbed those impulses slightly a season ago, but she still ranked second on the team in fouls, despite playing the fourth-most minutes. Rare is the game that doesn't at some point find Wellnitz stalking exasperatedly to the bench after a referee's whistle.

"She's kind of like a bull," teammate Jessica Lindstrom said. "Contact does not bother her, that's for sure."

As Wellnitz said, she likes to get back up. That included when Borseth, after the first few weeks of practice when Wellnitz was a true freshman, asked her what she thought about redshirting.

"That was the hardest blindside I ever took," Wellnitz said. "I did not see that coming."

But in addition to allowing for an easier decision about shoulder surgery, the result, perhaps ironically, of an old volleyball injury, the redshirt season that is very much part of Green Bay's blueprint for success helped Wellnitz develop. It helped her take what she learned on a football field -- not just the competitiveness but also the way to read an opposing quarterback's eyes or shift her hips to run with a receiver -- and balance it with a more informed basketball education.

She is far from a finished product, but she doesn't have to be with seniors such as Lindstrom and Allie LeClaire. She can be the defensive catalyst and continue working on the rest.

"I'm so grateful I did it because now I have another year to play," Wellnitz said. "And I'm so much more developed now than I was that year coming in. Going from an 18-year-old to a 22-year-old, it's night-and-day difference. You thought you were so good back then, but it turns out you were garbage."

For now, basketball is her present and football her past. But she admits that she has heard about the growing world of women's football and entities such as the Women's Football Alliance, a full-contact semi-professional league. She also watched two former Green Bay teammates, sisters Kaili and Megan Lukan, swap basketball for rugby, with Megan winning a bronze medal for Canada last summer in the Olympic debut of rugby sevens. All such options intrigue Wellnitz.

As those who spend their Sundays watching the Packers with her can attest, though she might well embody how a homegrown basketball program such as Green Bay came to be, Wellnitz is even better proof of why this will always be a city defined by football.

"I watch it, but I don't know exactly -- she knows the plays, she knows the routes, and she's saying all these things," Lindstrom said. "I'm like, 'Jen, I have no idea what you're talking about.'"

It is a place where the quarterbacks, current and perhaps former, set the pace.