Mertz Media Day

“It’s great to make some money off of it,” UW quarterback Graham Mertz said of the NCAA's name, image and likeness rule, “but I can’t let it be a distraction at all and I’m not planning on it being a distraction at all.”

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As Graham Mertz’s bank account has grown during the offseason, so has the list of nicknames attached to him by his University of Wisconsin football teammates.

There’s Money Man Graham, Money Mertz, G-Money and, perhaps the best of the bunch, Graham Merch.

The second-year starter, who was among the first in the nation to capitalize on NIL, said it's all about making sure the main focus remains on football even as opportunities to market themselves arrive off the field.

It’s been quite the summer for Mertz, who has taken full advantage of the NCAA rule that went into effect July 1 that allows student-athletes to cash in on their name, image and likeness.

Mertz debuted a logo and online store to sell personally branded clothing, agreed to promote Raising Cane’s, a chicken finger restaurant that opened in Madison this summer, and joined forces with Panini America to sell signed memorabilia.

Not too shabby for a third-year sophomore with seven career starts under his belt who’s coming off a 2020 season that included some good, some bad and a little in between.

I arrived at the team’s media day at Camp Randall Stadium on Thursday morning curious about two things: How’s Mertz handling all this fame and (relative) fortune? And, just as important, how are his teammates handling it?

The answer to both: quite well, it seems.

Let’s start with the latter. It’s no surprise that Mertz, the prize of UW’s 2019 recruiting class, is attractive to businesses trying to market their products. He’s the quarterback of a major program and full of charisma. If there was going to be a face of NIL for the Badgers, there’s no doubt it was going to be Mertz.

While several Badgers have taken advantage of NIL opportunities, it doesn’t appear anyone has come close to Mertz’s haul to this point. If that’s caused any jealousy, I saw no signs of it after talking to 15 of his teammates.

“I think he’s doing a heck of a job building his brand and making use of the attention that he’s getting — and rightly so,” senior fullback John Chenal said. “The dude’s a heck of a player, and I’m really happy for him.”

Mertz, for his part, said he never had any concerns that the locker room would be divided based on NIL earning tiers. He attributes that to the type of players UW coach Paul Chryst brings into the program.

Looking out for his teammates also was a great idea on Mertz’s part. He helped hook up the big guys who protect him by lining up a partnership between the UW offensive linemen and Mission BBQ.

“The best relationships are the ones that go both ways,” senior offensive tackle Logan Bruss said. “We’ll take care of Graham, and it’s nice to see him take care of us and help us out a little bit.”

Mertz also gave senior safety Collin Wilder’s NIL prospects a boost with a simple gesture. Wilder had designed a T-shirt that features a cartoon version of him drinking a bottle of juice and wore it to a party this summer. Mertz loved it, asked Wilder if he’d make one for him and showed it off on his Instagram account that now has 52,000 followers.

PWRFWD, a company that helps athletes get their custom-made products to consumers, approached Wilder a few days later and now is selling his T-shirts.

“Graham’s going to do really well for himself and we’re all really happy for him,” Wilder said. “If you can produce on the field and create a fan base or people that support you, then you should definitely get some earnings from your hard work of doing your job well. I’m really happy and excited for guys that get to take advantage of this opportunity.”

But …

“I think it’s very easy to abuse opportunities like this and focus more on that than on the field,” Wilder said. “It’s easy to get caught up on that.”

Wilder wasn’t the only veteran player who said he’s concerned about potential distractions from NIL.

“It’s definitely a balance,” senior defensive end Matt Henningsen said. “You don’t want to put too much time into it so that it takes away from anything on the team.”

Chryst has stressed to his players to make sure football, academics and family remain their top priorities. What seems to be his NIL catchphrase — “Let the main things stay the main things” — was heard over and over Thursday, a good sign the message has gotten through to his players.

“If you want name, image and likeness to work for you,” Chryst said, “be part of a good team and be a good contributor on a good team.”

Some players have dipped their toes in the NIL waters. Others, such as sixth-year senior cornerback Caesar Williams, prefer to watch from the beach and focus on football.

Mertz, meanwhile, has jumped off the diving board and made a huge splash. But it appears he’s been smart about it. Mertz wisely got his business deals out of the way long before the start of training camp and is relying heavily on his parents, Ron and Amy, for help.

“It’s great to make some money off of it,” Mertz said, “but I can’t let it be a distraction at all and I’m not planning on it being a distraction at all.”

That sounds easier said than done, and I asked Mertz as much in a follow-up question. His answer was, well, on the money.

“It’s easy,” he said. “It’s truly, completely, easy. No problems with it at all.”

Contact Jim Polzin at jpolzin@madison.com.

This article originally ran on madison.com.

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