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Wisconsin running back Taiwan Deal looks for positive end to Badgers career after battling ankle injuries

April 10, 2018 GMT

Taiwan Deal used the phrase “the tug is the drug” when describing his love for fishing — perhaps one of the only passions he developed prior to starring on the football field.

The University of Wisconsin senior running back and member of UW’s club fishing team doesn’t cruise the state’s waters simply for the thrill of a catch, though. He sees the sport as a problem-solving and critical-thinking exercise, where the process of securing a catch can be even more rewarding than the catch itself.

“I love trying new baits and trying new things and figuring out new ways and new colors that attract the fish,” Deal said. “I try to think about where they’re at. Are they sitting on this point? Are they sitting at 15 feet? Are they sitting at nine feet? Are they close to shore or are they 50 yards out?”

No amount of planning or calculating could fix the ankle issues that plagued Deal on the football field the past two seasons, however.

After playing a significant reserve role as a redshirt freshman in 2015, Deal has since carried the ball just 32 times over six games heading into his final year of eligibly. He underwent surgery on both ankles following a limited 2016 season and sat out the entirety of last season after another injury to his right ankle required a second surgery.

Deal initially returned during prep for the Orange Bowl in December. Now at full strength this spring, he’s trying to work his way back up the pecking order in the Badgers’ backfield and once again play a meaningful role before his college career concludes.

“When I got here, they would always talk about how Taiwan was a great hard runner, tough runner, very aggressive,” UW sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor said. “I never got a chance to see it fully, but now he’s finally back.”

Deal couldn’t stop spraining his ankles in 2016 before being forced to rehab from two surgeries in a matter of months. Through it all, he turned towards his other passion to ease the disappointment.

Deal only competes with UW’s fishing team during the winter and summer because of his football obligations, but he goes out on the water with friends year-round and read a lot of fishing books during his time away from the field.

“He always talked about how fishing is kind of a release for him,” said Andrew Wolfe, a senior on UW’s fishing team, “to get away from that kind of stuff.”

Deal said he felt healthy heading into fall camp last season, and despite the second surgery, he’s comfortable on the football field again this spring. He said there’s no hesitancy in the way he runs the football, something coaches have also confirmed.

“When you’re playing this sport, you can’t second-guess yourself,” Deal said. “You’ve just got to go out there and play, and whatever happens, happens. So if I run out the next day and hurt my ankle again, I did it 100 percent, and that’s just life.

“You can’t go out there and not have confidence because the coaches are going to know, everybody’s going to know, everybody’s going to see. You have to mentally figure that out within you and go out every day and attack it.”

With Bradrick Shaw (left leg) out this spring and Taylor resting during contact drills, Deal’s receiving plenty of reps in his attempt to return to his 2015 form, when he ran for 503 yards and six touchdowns on 117 carries.

Taylor, Shaw, Chris James and Garrett Groshek all contributed for UW at running back last season while Deal sat out, but he’s relishing the opportunity to prove he can still play a role in the Badgers’ crowded backfield.

“It’s been a boat ride,” Deal said. “It’s been up and down, but I’m determined to come out and compete. I’m determined to be around these guys that I came in with and the relationships that I built here. ... I’m determined to finish my career.”