Bill Schroeder on life before, during and after football
A good ol’ Wisconsin boy, former Green Bay Packers wide receiver Bill Schroeder resonated with Packers fans for being born and bred in-state, then bucking the odds as a track man running a roundabout route from the Packers practice squad to the New England Patriots to the Rhein Fire of the World League of American Football (otherwise known as NFL Europe), all before returning to Green Bay.
The journey and his role, an increasingly major one over five seasons with the Packers, made him resonate with fans who loved his hardcore, blue-collar work ethic. And who doesn’t love a home state underdog making good?
That trademark effort came through loud and clear in a recent interview with Schroeder, who was taking part in the Merrill Golf Boosters Tournament at the Merrill Golf Club on July 13.
To start, Schroeder said the relationship with his quarterback, Brett Favre, was based around that hardworking mentality.
“It was good. That was one thing Brett would always say: ‘I love working with Schroeder because he’s always giving 100 percent (in) practice (or in a) game,’” Schroeder said. “It makes it easier when you do that on the practice field every day because you take it right over to the game. You’ve been doing it every day. That’s the way Brett was, too.
“I took the game very seriously. I wanted to win every game. I wanted to make every catch. I put a lot of pressure on myself. Obviously too much pressure, because I would get very hard on myself and I wouldn’t do well. That’s kind of the way Brett was, too, but he handled it a whole lot better. Losing my father when I was a senior in high school, I didn’t have the kind of guidance that I needed.”
It may have felt that way to Schroeder but he still carved out a very respectable career, amassing 4,583 career receiving yards on 304 receptions with 28 touchdowns over ten seasons.
“Is that what I had?” Schroeder said. He never expected that sort of production from himself in the NFL.
“No, I just wanted to play for a year or two, to get enough money so I could support myself in traveling the world, doing the decathlon. I knew I was going to try as hard as I possibly could, try to make it on the roster, see if I could make it. I kind of fell in love with (football) after a while.”
That the Packers even drafted him in the first place in 1994 was something of a shock.
“It was amazing,” Schroeder said. “Here I’m training to be a decathlete, and I sign with my agent, John Perla, who was out of Brookfield, Wis., and he kind of convinces me to give football a shot. They drafted me in the sixth round. I can relive that day at any time. It’s in the back of my mind and it’s something I’ll never forget.”
Schroeder wanted to play sports for a living. He just thought it’d be something other than football.
“When I was a kid, I always wanted to play professional sports, of course; Brewers, Packers, whatever I would love to do,” Schroeder said. “I would dream of winning a Super Bowl ring, an Olympic gold medal, and the older I got the more I realized that track was my best opportunity to be a professional athlete. When I got to college, I had no intention of even playing football.
“My fifth year at school I had no track eligibility left, so I just went out for football for a year. I turned in pretty good numbers for the team and then the (NFL) combine scouts came through.”
Schroeder says he posted a 44-inch vertical leap and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.26 seconds at the combine.
“Now I realize those are really great numbers, but as a track athlete I really didn’t care. I had every intention of doing the decathlon in the Olympics,” Schroeder said.
Schroeder’s road to success
Despite that strong showing at the NFL Combine, Schroeder’s football career wasn’t what you would call an instant success.
“Well, my first year was on the practice squad which I was happy to be apart of,” Schroeder said. “I was activated for the (1994) playoffs and got to play against the Lions and Cowboys in the two playoff games when Sterling (Sharpe) got hurt. Next year I got traded to New England and broke my foot. The following season I got put on the practice squad again and I actually asked the Packers if I could go over to Europe to get some playing experience to see if I’m wasting my time and wasting their time. They said sure and I had fun playing over there. Just like back in college; I had a blast.
“I was getting practice experience, but I wasn’t getting game experience. Going up against the best defense, year in and year out practicing, (they have) been in two Super Bowls straight (the 1996 and 1997 seasons), and those are the guys I’m going against. Always going against the first-string guys, and that’s one of the reasons why I emerged as a better receiver than when I came in because I knew who I was going against and if I didn’t perform well, I’d have been cut. Just worked my tail off and it’s going to make them better and it’s obviously going to make me better.”
Schroeder had 31 catches for 452 yards in 1998 with the Packers. The 1999 season proved to be his break-out as he recorded 74 receptions for 1,051 yards and five touchdowns. Schroeder backed it up with 65 catches for 999 yards and four scores the next year, then caught 53 passes for 918 yards (and an average of 17.3 yards per reception, second-highest in the NFL) with nine touchdowns in 2001.
“The nine touchdowns felt good, but I wish I hadn’t gotten hurt,” Schroeder said of the right ankle injury he sustained. “I missed three games that season. I would have had a much better year, but that’s sports. You are going to get hurt.”
After the Packers
Schroeder became an unrestricted free agent after that season and learned other hard facts about sports.
“My contract was done and coach (Mike) Sherman apparently wanted to move on with other players, so I took it in stride,” Schroeder said. “That’s what sports are about, especially football. It’s a business; not a game.”
Many Packers fans rue the day Sherman took on the team’s general manager duties. Schroeder is mum on the subject.
“I hear a lot of that from other people,” he said. “I can agree, I can disagree, but when it comes to coach Sherman, I’m not going to give any comments. Period.”
Schroeder moved on to Detroit, where he played two seasons before closing out his career in Tampa Bay.
“(Detroit was) going through a building phase,” Schroeder said. “I had a lot of fun playing over there. Beautiful facilities over there. It was different for me because now I’m playing in a town where it’s not all football. It’s all hockey. A brand new scenario for me.”
Conventional professional turnover and changing teams introduced Schroeder to numerous coaches over his career, but a favorite is hard to choose.
“That’s a tough call,” Schroeder said. “I learned something from every coach. You know, having Jon Gruden as my first wide receivers coach, and I told him this story too, I absolutely hated him as a rookie. He was really hard on me. And my last year I played in Tampa and he was the head coach. He was the one who wanted me to come down there and play … He said, ‘Bill you were a very raw, talented receiver and I thought I’d give you everything I had as a coach to try and make you a better player.’ And he did. He made me get some thick skin really quick, let’s just put it that way. I’ll tell you, I loved playing for him in Tampa. I learned a lot from him as a rookie.
“I loved having (former Packers assistant) Nolan Cromwell as a wide receivers coach because he taught me about defense, because he was a defensive player. I got to learn a lot from him. I was like a big sponge, I soaked up so much. Marty Mornhinweg, in Detroit, he was also a coach in Green Bay. Marty’s great. He’s coaching one of the guys that we train over at the House of Speed in Green Bay … I love that guy. It’s too bad I only got to play one year for him and then he got fired in Detroit,” Schroeder said.
“I can’t say anything negative. Every coach has their own way. I look at what happened between me and (Mike) Holmgren, I can say there are some things about coaches I didn’t like and I can guarantee they could say the same thing about me. I’m very blessed to have had all the coaches I had.”
When his career was done, Schroeder hoped to return to his heart. He asked Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson in May of 2008 if he could sign a one-day contract to retire as a Packer. His wish was granted a few days later.
“It worked out great,” Schroeder said. “Being from Sheboygan, being a Packer fan my whole life, I just felt I gave everything I had to the Green Bay Packers, and for my family I wanted to go out as a Packer and not as a Buccaneer. I was very happy they said yes.
“I’m not a Hall of Fame-caliber player; I’m just a guy that came through and played as hard as he could. Just to be able to retire in a Green Bay Packer uniform was great.”
He remains friends with receiver Don Beebe, kicker Ryan Longwell, punter Josh Bidwell and backup quarterback Doug Pederson.
“Those are the four guys I still keep in contact with on a regular basis. Some of my biggest influences other than those guys, Reggie White, Qadry Ismail, and Sterling when he was around my rookie year,” Schroeder said, noting the brutal end to Sharpe’s career due to a neck injury. “You don’t always get what you deserve.”
Staying busy in Wisconsin
Schroeder is still a Wisconsin boy, working at Don Beebe’s House of Speed in Green Bay when he’s not on the road for golf long drive competitions or events, speaking engagements, or — returning to his roots — competing in Masters track events.
“I do all the sprints and the long and triple jump,” Schroeder said. “With all the training I’m doing with the House of Speed in Green Bay, I figured I better practice what I preach and let my athletes see it. They got to see me compete, and I haven’t been beat in my age group in the last three years in any of the events I’m in. I enjoy it. That’s why I do it. I don’t do it for the medals. I do it for the camaraderie and the competition.”
Hitting the ball a long way is a thrill for any golfer, from duffer to scratch player, and Schroeder has turned his God-given talent into another athletic outlet.
“I got in my first competition down in Milwaukee and won that and made it to the next level of competition, but I couldn’t go on to the next level because that was the year of 9/11 and a bunch of stuff got cancelled,” Schroeder said. “Then I actually waited until I finally retired from football and I did it head-on. I got into the TourSwing company out of Grafton, with my buddy (and TourSwing owner) Tim Chopp.
“I made it to the world championships twice and that’s just like going to state in high school – with regional, sectional, state — it’s regionals, districts and worlds. You know it’s pretty tough because the first round you’re competing against 30-40 people and you’ve got to place in the top two … The first year I made it out of Kentucky, then the second year I made it out of Minnesota and they only took two people out of that district.”
Schroeder added: “I place well, but I do it just like I’m doing the Masters track. I do it because I enjoy the competition. Just when I get out to worlds (in Mesquite, Nev.), it’s a whole different ballgame, competing against guys that do it 365 days out of the year and I do it as a hobby. I don’t have quite the caliber that they have. I do it for fun.
“I really enjoy the competitions, I love coming to events like this, raising money for corporations or foundations and meeting all these different people.”
‘You just couldn’t get me out of Wisconsin’
Schroeder has been married for 14 years to his wife, Shelly. They have two children, daughter Mara, 13, and son Luke, 10.
“Everybody in the family is an athlete,” Schroeder said. “My wife was a heptathlete in track and in college took second in nationals.”
Wisconsin took to Schroeder during his time with the Packers. The feeling is mutual to this day.
“When I was playing for Tampa, my wife asked me if I wanted to move down there (permanently) but I said no, I wanted to come back here for hunting,” Schroeder said. “I love to bow hunt. We have a circle of friends that go skiing and snowmobiling. My wife’s a triathlete so when winter comes around she likes to ski. You just couldn’t get me out of Wisconsin.”
Schroeder added jokingly: “We had a really harsh winter that (first) year (back) and I asked her if she wanted to move back to Florida and she said no, so I lost my opportunity.”
Hard-working underdog Bill Schroeder proved many things in his career. Maybe the most important is that you truly can come home again.
Kelly O’Day is the Sports Editor for the Merrill Foto News.