LA CROSSE, Wis. — It wasn't A.J. Natter's best day as a high school discus thrower. Not even close. But moments after the final high school athletic event of his life, the future Nebraska football player was eagerly looking ahead.
“On to bigger and better things,” said Natter, a Class of 2013 Husker signee, following his disappointing 10th-place finish Saturday in the Division 1 discus event at the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association state championship meet.
Natter's best toss on the rainy afternoon was 150 feet, 1 inch. That paled in comparison to his 171-foot effort earlier this season or even his sectional meet qualifying mark of 167-1.
But for Natter, there's no time to dwell on this meet, or anything else. He'll graduate from Milton High School a week from Sunday, then jump in the car and head to Lincoln that evening. Summer class at the University of Nebraska begins the following Monday at 8 a.m.
“It'll be a little hectic,” he said, “but I'm excited.”
“He's been working hard, and he's ready for this,” said Natter's mom, Beth. “I will miss him terribly, but I'm so proud of him.”
Beth Natter happens to be a University of Wisconsin graduate, and Milton is about a half-hour drive from Madison. Her son, a 6-5, 248-pound defensive end, was pursued by the Badgers (and other Big Ten teams like Iowa and Purdue) but he fell in love with Nebraska during his first-ever visit — for the home win against Washington two years ago — and he never fell out of it.
“The first time I went down there for that game, it was kind of an overcast day,” he recalled. “The stadium kind of came out of the mist as we drove toward it, and then all you see is all this red. There's nothing like it. The people are all about football there. They have such a passion for it. They don't just love it; they live for it.”
Beth said A.J.'s invitation to that Washington game was the first he had received from a major program, and he was smitten. The following spring, the Natters attended the spring game — except the spring game that year was canceled due to severe weather.
“We heard tornado sirens,” recalled Beth with a smile. “But during that trip, I had a feeling. I knew that Nebraska just fit. (Head coach Bo Pelini) acknowledged him, the players acknowledged him and the fans acknowledged him. Nothing beats that.”
|See the latest NU recruits, including player cards with bio information, photos and more.|
A.J. committed the next day and said he never wavered. He is Nebraska's first recruit from Wisconsin since running back Dan White in 1997.
“In a way,” he said, “the fact that the spring game didn't happen was a positive, because I got more personal time with the coaches, players and other recruits. I mean, don't get me wrong: I wanted to see some football like everybody else, but I got to sit with the coaches and really get to know them.”
His mother admits that at first she wanted him to go to Wisconsin.
“It's so close,” she said. “But in my heart, I knew Nebraska was the right fit for him. He made the decision on his own, and I'm so proud of that.”
“Academics were a big part of it, too,” said A.J.'s dad, Dave. “He just loved everything about Nebraska.”
It shows. Prior to Saturday's competition, A.J. warmed up in a gray hoodie sweatshirt with “Nebraska Football” stenciled on it in red. Between throws, he put a white Husker T-shirt over his school uniform.
That pride in his future school wasn't dimmed by a painful trip to Indianapolis in December. the Natters went to the Big Ten championship game on a tour group — with a bunch of Wisconsin fans. The Badgers beat Nebraska 70-31.
“It was tough,” Natter said. “But our defense has a lot of young talent coming up, and I'm not talking about my class. Young talent that's there now and ready to play. These are guys who have a lot of talent, desire and hunger. They want to establish a legacy.”
Natter said he's not sure if he'll redshirt, but he's been told he'll have an opportunity — and that's all he can ask for. Over the past several months, he has been working with a personal trainer, getting stronger and faster. He's already plenty fast for his size — last year, as a junior, he ran a leg on Milton's 400-meter relay team that qualified for this meet. Asked how fast he can run a 100-meter dash, he shrugged and said somewhere between 11.2 and 11.4 seconds.
“He's worked so hard,” said Beth. “He leaves the house at 4:30 a.m. to start his workout at 5 a.m., then goes to school and then track practice.”
On the field last season, Natter earned Wisconsin Football Coaches Association All-State honors after making 11 tackles for loss and collecting 4.5 sacks. Teams often avoided his side after a junior year in which he made 80 tackles, including 21 for loss and eight sacks.
He said he's looking forward to living in Lincoln, which he described as more compact than the sprawling home-state Wisconsin campus.
“Lincoln has more of a hometown feel to me,” he said, “and that's one of the things I love.”
As Beth prepares to say goodbye to her son, she said she knows it will be tough. But at the same time, she sounds like a mother who's very much at peace with her son's decision.
“He's going to the place that's definitely the best fit for him,” she said with a smile. “It's the culture of the program. That's what won his heart, the culture of the program.”