Apr. 23—Wisconsin football coach Paul Chryst approached Mason Stokke late in fall camp back in 2018 with an idea. What would he think about switching positions?
The former Menomonie Mustang star was a first team all-state selection at both running back and linebacker while at the prep level but committed to the Badgers as solely a linebacker. The path to getting on the field would be difficult, though. Stokke, working his way back from an injury, was in a loaded room full of future National Football League talents.
“He asked what I thought about moving to fullback,” Stokke said. “He’s like, ‘You don’t have to answer right now, just give it a couple days and think about it.’ I thought about it and he talked to me again in a couple days, and I said, ‘Whatever is best for the team, I’m ready to go. Let’s do it.'”
It’s a decision that turned out to be best for the team and Stokke, one that helped shape the course of his impressive Badger career. Three years later and he’s a NFL draft hopeful, looking to continue a strong legacy of UW fullbacks moving on to Sundays.
“Whatever happens, you’ve just got to be confident in your ability,” Stokke said. “All I can hope for is opportunities. That’s really all you need, an opportunity to show what you can do.”
Joe LaBuda, who retired in February after 32 years leading Menomonie football, first got to know Stokke when the longtime coach was commanding a little league baseball program. LaBuda is also good friends with Stokke’s father, Randy, who worked as a Menomonie assistant. Before Mason Stokke stepped onto the field as a varsity football player, he was helping the program out as a manager.
By the time he did make it to the varsity ranks, LaBuda knew the type of competitor he was getting.
“One thing I’ve explained to all the pro scouts that have called me is his work ethic is second to none,” LaBuda said.
There were few plays Stokke had off by the time his senior year rolled around. He’d stop an opposing offensive player dead in his tracks, then run back on the field and show the other team how it’s done. He racked up 151 tackles on defense and 1,740 yards and 29 touchdowns on offense to help the Mustangs to the Division 2 state quarterfinals. As LaBuda described him at the end of that season, Stokke was an iron man.
He was the only player in the state to earn WFCA first team all-state honors on both sides of the ball in 2015. He was named the state’s defensive player of the year by the coaches association, in addition to being a unanimous selection to the Associated Press all-state first team at inside linebacker.
His success wasn’t limited to the football field, either. Stokke won back-to-back state wrestling titles, earning back-to-back Leader-Telegram wrestler of the year honors in the process. He went undefeated in his junior and senior years.
“He led by actions more than words,” LaBuda said. “He’s fairly quiet, but he had such a tremendous work ethic that people followed his lead, no matter how hard he worked. That’s why I have no doubt he’ll hook on with somebody. He may not get drafted, he may be a free agent. Sometimes at that position they don’t draft because not everybody uses one in the NFL. … But if he doesn’t (get drafted), his phone’s going to be ringing off the hook.”
The final game of his prep career was an unfortunate sign of things to come, though. He was taken out with a strained Achilles early in a quarterfinal matchup with rival Chippewa Falls, one of a handful injuries he dealt with over a three-year span.
Stokke suffered a concussion, a sprained MCL and a torn ACL during an unfortunate first year in Madison. And just when he seemed ready to return to the field for 2017 fall camp, more bad news came. He planted awkwardly during a back-peddling drill, tearing his Achilles and forcing him to the sideline for a second straight year.
After he got the news, he called his father.
“When he was done talking, he just said ‘Round 2,'” Randy Stokke told the L-T in 2018. “I think I would have been crying and devastated. But he said that, and he was a fighter and never gave up.”
It’s an experience Stokke said was beneficial in the long run.
“Any time you can go through adversity, you’re getting stronger and you’re growing from it,” he said. “I think the experiences I’ve had in my life have helped prepare me. I think experiences growing up as a wrestler and a football player and my dad helped me get through those injuries. And those experiences made me a stronger person, mentally and physically. All those things kind of prepare you for whatever comes your way.”
Those who know him best weren’t surprised Stokke returned with a vengeance. After his switch to fullback, he took advantage of the chance to learn behind then-UW starter and current Las Vegas Raider Alec Ingold. After some time to get the blocking fundamentals down, Stokke was ready for his time to shine.
Stokke helped clear the way for Wisconsin runners, most notably Jonathan Taylor during his junior season, and found a role as a runner and a receiver the past two years. He put up 96 yards on the ground and 105 yards receiving in his final two campaigns for a combined six touchdowns. Perhaps the most famous of his scores came in last year’s Rose Bowl against Oregon.
“He’s just a gritty football player,” tackle Cole Van Lanen told the Wisconsin State Journal in November. “Lucky to have him on my side of the ball and have him on our team and on offense. He’s a dynamic player. He gives us the option of passes and the run, he’s a great blocker. It’s been awesome to have him.”
While he could have returned to the Badgers for an extra year of eligibility, Stokke decided it was the right time to make the jump. He’s not getting any younger, after all. He got to talk to scouts in person after accepting an invite to the College Gridiron Showcase in Texas, and 30 teams went to the Badgers’ pro day.
Many of his traits NFL analysts are most intrigued by are those he’s been developing since his high school days. They praise his hands, his unique athleticism for a fullback. Those skills will be helpful in a pass-heavy league where what is expected of a fullback has changed.
“There is work to be done in fitting up and sustaining his blocks, but he’s decisive and makes proper reads in leading the way for his running back,” wrote NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein. “Stokke has some short-yardage wiggle as a runner and is a capable pass catcher on play-action leak-outs into the flat. There aren’t many fullback jobs around the league these days, but Stokke may have a shot to compete for one.”
The path for a fullback to reach the NFL is difficult. Just 15 of the 32 teams currently have a fullback under contract according to salary tracking website Over The Cap. There’s a clear path from UW to the NFL at the position though, with Ingold and Derek Watt both making the transition. Chryst thinks Stokke has what it takes to be the next in line.
“Yeah, I do think he’ll continue to grow, he’ll continue to get better at it,” Chryst told reporters in November. “We’ve got Alec playing and Derek’s playing, I think they’re all … you see some similarities and they’re a little bit different. The best part about Mase right now is he’s just trying to truly be in the moment. I think that’s the best way to approach it.”
Stokke has been training at ETS Performance in Woodbury, Minn., commuting from his brother’s place in River Falls. He’s gotten a chance to work with a few NFL fullbacks in the past few months, including current Viking C.J. Ham and former Packer John Kuhn. He’s also reconnected with an old teammate, catching passes from his former QB Nate Stanley, who was drafted last year by the Vikings and spent the season on the Minnesota practice squad.
Stokke hopes he’s the next former Mustang to hear his name called. He plans on watching the draft next week from Menomonie with his parents.
“It’s cool to represent the city you came from,” Stokke said.