Until John Madsen caught the long touchdown pass from Brett Elliott in the waning seconds of Saturday night's loss to Texas A&M, the majority of Utah fans had probably never heard of the wide receiver.
And with good reason.
Madsen is not listed in the Ute media guide, which features 95 players. He wasn't even a member of the Utes until he walked on the football team just over a month ago at the start of fall drills. He wasn't contacted by Ute coaches; he contacted them. He never even played high school football, for crying out loud.
Yet there he was in front of 80,000 fans the other night, playing 60 offensive plays, catching two passes for 82 yards, including the one that nearly put the Utes into overtime.
"It was a dream come true being out there on the field against Texas A&M," said Madsen. "I never thought I'd be out there making that last touchdown, that's for sure."
Starting from the bottom of the depth chart, Madsen worked his way up from third string to second string and got in for just four plays in the opener against Utah State, all running plays. He got his big chance at College Station when starter Steven Savoy injured his ribs in the first half and Madsen ended up playing the second half when Utah made its big comeback.
Utah coach Urban Meyer, who has been concerned with his receiving corps ever since he arrived at Utah, is thrilled with the progress Madsen has made.
"John Madsen is a significant part of the team," said Meyer. "John's going to play a big part on this team from here on out."
It's almost unheard of to find a college football player who never played in high school. But Madsen has bucked the odds. He never played a down of football at Hunter High School. A hernia operation right before his sophomore season sidelined him, so instead he decided to concentrate on basketball and baseball, where he was an all-region performer in both sports.
After graduating, he hoped to earn a basketball scholarship somewhere, but when that didn't work out, he accepted an academic scholarship to Snow College.
Madsen knew he was a good athlete, so he shopped his services, so to speak, when he arrived at Ephraim in the fall of 2001. Because a 6-5 center doesn't really work on a college basketball team, he decided to play football, something he hadn't done since little league.
After redshirting the first season because of a broken leg, Madsen came back in 2002 and played for Snow's 8-2 team.
No, he wasn't a star — in fact, he was only the fourth-leading receiver on the team with only nine catches and one touchdown. But he was noticeable enough that Kansas State and Stanford made inquiries to the Snow coaches about him.
Madsen preferred to stay closer to home, so when he "read in the papers" that Utah was a little thin at the receiver position, he decided to contact Ute coaches. They said, sure, come on up, and Snow coaches reluctantly released him (he had one year of eligibility remaining).
Titan Trimble, the offensive coordinator at Snow College who coached Madsen last year, isn't shocked to see Madsen already succeeding.
"I'm not surprised at all," he said. "He's a big, talented kid who's still learning how to play the game. He was real raw but had a great spring for us."
Trimble said he doesn't doubt that Madsen would have been an all-American candidate this fall if he'd stayed at Snow.
"If Utah didn't get him, (Madsen) could have been a PAC-10 or Big 12-type receiver," said Trimble.
What Meyer especially likes about Madsen is his size.
"People ask me if I'd rather have a receiver be big or fast," said Meyer. "If I had my choice, I'll take the big."
Madsen is definitely big, at 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, but he isn't exactly slow of foot, either. His best time in the 40 is 4.48, plenty fast for a collegiate receiver. But Madsen believes his best attribute is his "physicalness."
"A lot of DBs are 5-10 and 180, so I think I can throw them around a little bit," he said.
Madsen is expected to start at the X receiver position this Thursday night against Cal if Savoy isn't healthy, and he should be an integral part of the Utes' offense the rest of the season.
Who knows? Perhaps Madsen will keep surprising everyone and follow in the footsteps of another former Snow College receiver who walked on at a local university — Utah State's Kevin Curtis — and play in the NFL someday.
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