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.
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.”
“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.”
Best of the beat: Take a look back at 5 of Jim Polzin's favorite stories from his sports reporting career
I was helping out on the UW football beat late in the summer of 2010 when our Packers writer left for another job. Most of training camp was done, the season opener was a couple weeks away, and I had a 4-year-old and 7-month-old at home.
But who turns down the chance to cover the Packers? I had no idea at the time that the season would stretch into February, but a wild ride ended with Aaron Rodgers and Co. beating the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25 in Super Bowl XLV. That night, including writing this game story, is a blur.
BO RYAN'S TOUGH LOVEUpdated
It was hard to choose a story from a magical stretch that included back-to-back trips to the Final Four for the UW men’s basketball program. I did plenty of stories on Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and others during that stretch, but this one on that group’s leader stood out because it gave some insight into Bo Ryan’s coaching style.
This story ruffled some feathers inside the program, though that wasn’t my intention. I just wanted to give readers a look at how Ryan went about getting the best out of his players.
I wrote a lot about Nigel Hayes over his four seasons with the Badgers because he was such a fascinating guy on and off the court. For one story his junior season, I spent a morning with him, talking over breakfast and sitting through one of his business classes.
This one was about his relationship with his stepfather, Albert Davis Sr. I don’t even remember what made me think of doing this story or how I pitched it to him, but I do remember sitting in folding chairs in a hallway at the Kohl Center and being amazed at how much he was willing to share. It turned out to be a fun story to tell.
HAPP'S HARD WORKUpdated
Ethan Happ’s name is all over the UW men’s basketball record book. He scored a lot of points, grabbed a lot of rebounds, dished out a lot of assists, made a lot of steals and blocked a lot of shots. He also missed a lot of free throws.
I got a ton of messages, either via email or social media, asking why Happ didn’t spend more time working on his shot. I knew his work ethic wasn’t the issue because I spent a lot of time waiting to interview him after practices as he worked on shooting with coaches or teammates or student-managers. Still, I had no idea just how much time he spent working on his shot away from practice until I began the process of reporting this story.
GARD ERA BEGINSUpdated
One moment I’ll never forget is when Bo Ryan walked into the Kohl Center media room late on the night of Dec. 15, 2015, and the person moderating his postgame news conference said Ryan would open with a statement.
Ryan never opened with a statement, always choosing to go straight to questions. In that split-second before Ryan started talking, I knew: He was retiring. And so began a crazy night and crazy week that included wrapping up Ryan’s time at UW and moving on to the Greg Gard era.
Fans certainly knew who Gard was at that point because he’d been Ryan’s longtime assistant. But I wanted to talk to as many people as I could for a thorough story on the guy taking over the program after his legendary mentor’s departure.