By now, Troy Fumagalli’s teammates and coaches have no doubts about the pass-catching ability of their redshirt freshman tight end.
The biggest name on the University of Wisconsin football team, running back Melvin Gordon, went out of his way to tell the media Oct. 20 that Fumagalli could change the Badgers’ offense if given more playing time.
Fellow tight end Sam Arneson admits his younger protege might have the best hands on the team.
Tight ends coach Jeff Genyk raved about Fumagalli on Tuesday minutes after Fumagalli made what Genyk called a “beautiful, one-handed” grab on the practice field.
“His ability from a hand-eye coordination is really at the top of the spectrum,” Genyk said. “When a ball’s in flight to him, it could be two-thirds, three-quarters of the way there and he’s able to pick it up.”
What amazed UW’s bunch more than anything — at least at first — were the number of fingers Fumagalli uses to catch the ball better than most.
Fumagalli was born with Amniotic Banding Syndrome, a congenital disorder that affects circulation and forced doctors to amputate his left index finger days after he was born.
Spending his entire life with nine fingers, Fumagalli excelled as a tight end and a left-handed pitcher in high school.
“Ever since I’ve known how to do anything, I’ve never had a finger there,” Fumagalli said. “I adapt to it. I don’t think it affects me. I pride myself on my hands and looking the ball in.”
Fumagalli still has scars from surgery on four other fingers, and he counts himself lucky to even have nine to work with.
He actually believes it helped him on the pitcher’s mound, where his missing finger allowed him to put more movement on his curveball.
It also didn’t hurt he grew up in Naperville, Illinois, competing with two older brothers. Drew Fumagalli, 27, and Ross Fumagalli, 25, both played linebacker for Football Championship Subdivision member Dayton.
“There were always kids at our house. There were always a group of athletes and so forth,” said Troy’s father, Doug Fumagalli, who played college football at Holy Cross. “He grew up in that kind of environment.
“They would always throw the ball growing up. (Troy’s) almost like Spiderman in terms of how he can catch the ball.”
Troy, always tall for his age, said he fell in love with the tight end position early on.
Doug coached his sons all the way through the youth level, and no one ever questioned whether Troy should be playing a different position.
“If he couldn’t catch the ball, he’d be playing something else,” Doug said. “He could catch, he could run, he could block. Sometimes he’d want to throw the ball.”
By the time Fumagalli was in eighth grade, Waubonsie Valley High coach Paul Murphy was well aware the nine-fingered tight end coming his way wouldn’t have any trouble securing passes.
“It was not a handicap for him,” Murphy said. “I think it’s in the mind of the person whether or not they’re able to overcome an issue at an early age. There was never any issue. He was never treated any differently. We didn’t expect anything different than a person with five fingers (on each hand) would do.
“He runs like a wide receiver, catches the ball like a wide receiver. He’s got fairly big hands as it is, and he’s got very good hand strength, so that makes it easier for him to catch the ball.”
While his playing time at UW this season has remained limited after he redshirted last year, Fumagalli has made the most of his opportunity.
He’s caught a pass in every game since the Badgers’ win over Western Illinois on Sept. 6, joining Arneson as the only players on the team to do so.
Fumagalli’s 104 receiving yards rank third on the team.
He’s put on about 25 pounds since his high schools days and continues to improve as a blocker — something that could open up more playing time in the future.
“Physically he’s got all the attributes,” Genyk said. “Athletically, speed wise, etc. I would say he was below average to poor a year ago and now he’s becoming an average Big Ten tight end blocker.
“He knows that if he can improve significantly in that area that he can be an all-conference type of tight end.”