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Graham Mertz spent the offseason training to be a better QB. How he did it might surprise you
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Graham Mertz spent the offseason training to be a better QB. How he did it might surprise you

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There was a feeling Graham Mertz couldn’t shake last season, even if he didn’t quite understand what it was.

Something was off. He was struggling as the University of Wisconsin quarterback in his first year as a starter. The team lost three consecutive games in the middle of the season and he was missing throws he felt he shouldn’t. A ready-made list of reasons for his missteps sat in his back pocket — he still was recovering from COVID-19, the Badgers were without their two top receivers and he was dealing with a banged-up throwing shoulder that required cortisone injections for him to play.

When Mertz experienced adversity on the field throughout his life, he could find a way through it with work.

After transferring high schools, he immediately started organizing workouts with his new teammates and forming bonds that helped Blue Valley North win a state championship in Kansas. When he wanted to get his name and tape out there as a prospect, he put hours into his mechanics and impressed college coaches enough to earn scholarship offers. When he didn’t win the starting job as a freshman for the Badgers, he committed himself to the playbook to be ready when his time came.

The answer at each of those moments was to push — push himself to be the best, push himself to play better, push himself to know more.

Jack Coan’s foot injury in training camp last season opened the door for Mertz, and he burst through it with a dazzling performance against Illinois in which he tied UW’s single-game record with five touchdown passes. But as the season wore on and he again tried to push through the challenges facing him, it wasn’t working.

Mertz tried all he knew to snap out of it, studying more tape and rewatching every practice to grade himself, but that effort wasn’t translating to the field. He focused on the team winning, which it did in its last two games to finish the season 4-3. After taking a few weeks to decompress, Mertz started looking inward. Not just at his play and what he could do differently as a quarterback, but at what was missing in 2020 and why the old way of pushing himself wasn’t effective.

University of Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz speaks to the media Friday about head coach Paul Chyst's work with the quarterbacks.

That introspection lasted throughout the offseason. He pulled in his family, the Badgers’ head of meditation training Chad McGehee and some close friends. He eventually found what he was missing. Sitting outside Camp Randall Stadium wearing a vintage Led Zeppelin T-shirt, he said searching for and placing that final piece of the puzzle will allow him to show the college football world the best version of himself this fall.

“Last year, I didn’t really understand that you need to have balance during the year,” Mertz said. “You need to be a football player during the day and then you also need to have that hour and a half, two hours at night where you’re not a football player, where you have that chance to kind of hit that reset button and just enjoy life.

“And for me, this summer was a great balance of pushing myself as hard as I could every single day as far as football and then off the field, finding little things that I can just keep that consistent balance of being Graham off the field and not just the quarterback of the Wisconsin Badgers.”

A new mental approach

McGehee remembers well the first time he connected with Mertz.

McGehee was leading the Badgers through a team meditation training in January 2019, soon after Mertz arrived as an early enrollee. Mertz approached him after the session to learn more about the benefits of the mindfulness exercise McGehee was leading. Mertz had been an active participant in the full-team meetings McGehee takes the Badgers through, but he wanted to do more. Mertz approached him this offseason about what he could do individually to improve his mental approach to the game and his life, leading to hourslong conversations and guided sessions to train areas like focus, resilience and stability.

“He’s a deeply curious person,” McGehee said. “He wants to understand, wants to grow, doesn’t see where he’s at as somehow arrived in any way. … He understands that there’s so much capacity that’s still there. And his curiosity, I think, finds different ways (of expression).”

McGehee succinctly explains the role of meditation and mindfulness in athletics — athletes wouldn’t go into a competition without training their bodies, so why would they do so without training their minds?

For Mertz, the mindfulness training he’s explored this offseason addressed both on-field and off-field concerns.

Mertz dived headfirst into how he processed the mounds of information coming his way before, during and after a play. Mertz identified that he needed a mental reset in those 40-some seconds between snaps. McGehee calls these integrated practices — something a player does to bring body and mind together into the present moment.

“I spend a lot of time on during a play — where I’m reading, where I’m looking, how to make it quick and decisive,” Mertz said. “Now it’s like, OK, how can you do that on a consistent basis effectively every single time? How can you not dwell on what just happened?

“Every throwing session (this offseason), it was little things as far as, like, breath, vision, all that stuff, and just kind of incorporating it into one to have those little resets during the game.”

Finding these “anchors,” as Mertz calls them, took some trial and error. But he found taking a deep breath and briefly closing his eyes, along with rubbing his fingertips together, helps him refocus between plays.

Mertz peppered McGehee with calls and texts when he was away from campus this summer and made frequent stops at McGehee’s office when he was in Madison. The drive Mertz showed to find the balance he sought didn’t necessarily surprise McGehee after he’d watched how Mertz attacked preparation during the football season.

“Graham’s an all-in sort of guy,” McGehee said. “Every time we talk, he’s been thinking about things in the interim. … I have my expertise that I’m bringing, but it’s also a real collaboration with Graham to figure out what’s going to be the best way to bring this to life to support him.”

The training McGehee does with Mertz and other Badgers is an effort to prepare their minds for the situations they know come their way in their sport and their lives. When a player is able to use that training in the stressful moments of a competition, the outside world sees it as poise, McGehee said.

But another byproduct of that work is facing difficult truths about oneself. McGehee believes self-awareness is a skill that can be sharpened, and Mertz said he realized he was demanding too much of himself as a player and ignoring the rest of himself.

“I wanted all the things that came with being a third-year starter on my plate. Like I wanted to control protection, I wanted to control run game. You can make excuses for everything, but I wasn’t ready for all that. Just having humility and realizing I wasn’t, just being honest with myself … I think that helped me a ton this offseason.”

Mertz said the mindfulness training made him think more about each decision he made. Workouts, his daily schedule, and yes, the downtime he once was denying himself, all had a purpose to it.

“I think, honestly, it takes courage to be able to identify and articulate the things that aren’t going well for us,” McGehee said. “For Graham, doing the work’s never part of the problem. That’s part of the reason it’s so fun to work with him. He’s willing to do the things physically, but also mentally and emotionally, that maybe not every athlete on the planet is doing.”

Strong support system

Ron and Amy Mertz got two very different phone calls from their son in the span of about 10 hours last fall.

Mertz’s phone was flooded with thousands of texts, social media notifications and messages about his night after his stunning debut against Illinois. He knew he’d fail trying to return all of them, so he went through his post-game recovery routine and waited until he was alone to call his parents.

Ron remembers the look on his son’s face. One of pride, happiness and fulfillment.

“He was on cloud nine,” Ron said. “Then the next morning, I got the complete other call at like 9 a.m. And he had this look of terror on his face.”

Mertz’s positive COVID test hours after his breakout performance had him and his family in shock.

The Mertzes are a family of athletes. Ron played offensive line for Minnesota in the 1980s, and Graham’s sisters Lauren (Kansas State) and Mya (Drake) played Division I basketball. Ron credits his kids’ length and athleticism to Amy’s genes.

Their support has been pivotal to Graham’s upbringing and ability to stay grounded through the process of becoming a Big Ten quarterback. He said daily calls and FaceTimes helped him keep perspective during the rough days after contracting the virus.

“I feel like I never miss a day without them. I always know that they’re with me in everything I do,” Mertz said.

That support system proved vital this offseason as Mertz was seeking how to balance his life, even if he didn’t outwardly tell them about that goal.

Amy, as she heard about her son’s lack of balance last year, wasn’t surprised he hadn’t shared that something wasn’t quite right.

“He is pretty protective of me,” Amy said. “With me, he’s always positive and upbeat. And so I always try to be that kind of rock for him. … When he hit his head (during the Minnesota game last season) and he got to the locker room, the first thing he did was text me. He’s like, ‘Mom, I’m fine.’”

Badger players Collin Wilder, Graham Mertz, Kayden Lyles, Keeanu Benton, Logan Bruss, Nick Herbig and Caesar Williams fill you in on what Graham Mertz merchandise they own.

His family always has been able to provide him with roadmaps. Ron equates it to being the bumpers at the bowling alley, letting Graham find his own way toward his goals but being there to give suggestions if he ever strays too far.

Ron and UW coach Paul Chryst have talked about trying to get Graham away from football at times.

It’s a difficult line to walk. Being a football addict is celebrated and almost expected given the position he plays. But Mertz found out firsthand last season that dedicating time to himself is as important as the time he gives to the game.

“I think the sand was shifting all year underneath him, so there was no chance to get into a rhythm with anything, you know?” Ron said. “So one challenge came, and it was a completely different thing the next day, but it was constant. So there was no pattern to it. It was more of a chaos around him to just keep him off kilter.

“He’s a kid you need to tell him to back off and go chill out for the weekend. That’s his deal.”

‘Positive Graham’

Mertz being honest with himself wasn’t solely about where he could improve.

It also has allowed him to realize one personality trait that — even in the face of being called annoying by his friends for it — he won’t compromise.

Mertz is relentlessly positive. And it’s a choice at each turn. He credits his parents for instilling that upbeat mindset. They preached the pitfalls of negativity and how it only begets more of itself.

“With all my roommates too, I’m positive, positive Graham, all the time,” he said. “If you’re not in a positive place, or the team’s not in a positive place, you can do a little shoving into the positive zone and make it come about. I think that it comes down to the way you talk, the way you act, the way you carry yourself. It pays dividends down the road.”

Consistency is a mantra of the Badgers football team — listen to Chryst speak about a player and the word is bound to come up. Mertz’s consistent, positive attitude was a defining characteristic he displayed even before arriving at UW.

“He doesn’t get his dauber down, he’s a little bit of Teflon,” said Andy Sims, Mertz’s high school coach. “And if he does get his dauber down — as we all do, I mean, call a spade a spade — he doesn’t show it.”

When his play dipped in 2020, Mertz’s attitude didn’t. That earned him respect among his teammates.

Senior cornerback Faion Hicks, one of the team’s leaders who represented the program at Big Ten media days in Indianapolis, said Mertz’s perseverance endears him to others.

“Honestly, I’m proud of him,” Hicks said. “He could have folded, he could have taken it a lot worse than he did. But he understood the type of year it was. He understood the challenges he was faced with, and he kept up with the positive attitude. He never got too low. You can kind of see that after the last two wins we had and going into the spring, he was a whole lot more confident, kind of maturing.”

In the first part of the Wisconsin State Journal's 2021 Badgers position-by-position breakdown, UW tight end Jake Ferguson shares his take on the quarterback room this season.

Sitting outside Camp Randall, the place Mertz hopes to make erupt with cheers after a silent season in the stands, his eyes light up talking about this team. His team.

He’s seen it grow together, overcoming the obstacles of 2020. He’s realized his role in being a connector between offense and defense, between classes.

He’s done one of the hardest things in sports and life — he looked in the mirror, admitted he was wrong about what he could do, then made a plan to get to where he wants to be. His offseason of self-examination has led him to a better place.

The challenge he now faces is to make good on the work he’s done and help his team achieve the high goals it’s set for itself, while maintaining the balance he knows he needs.

“I think that mentally I’m in the best spot I’ve ever been in in my life just as far as balance between academics and athletics, family, faith, literally everything,” Mertz said, his eyes narrowing, displaying an intense belief in his words.

“I’m fully confident in that and this camp is going to be sharpening it. I’m there, point blank. I’m ready to go. I’ve never been this happy, this focused, this dialed in.

“So I’m excited for this year.”

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