Joel being Joel

Saturday,  running back Joel Sweeney, a senior, will lead his Blugolds out from the tunnel and on to the Carson Park field for the final time. But the impact he has made on the program will never see its clock strike midnight.

On Sep. 11, 2010, just two games into the Blugolds season and against a national powerhouse St. John’s University (Minn.), a star was born. A young freshman running back who was a heralded recruit out of Tomah High School emerged as the Blugolds starter in the backfield.

It was a new face and new number for Blugold fans to look for, but after that night, everybody knew Sweeney wore No. 24.

He ran the ball for 90 yards on 25 carries, including the game-winner in overtime from two yards out to give Eau Claire a 23-20 victory.

Right there and then, head coach Todd Glaser realized he had landed a prized player.

“We ran the same play 10 times in a row (to beat St. John’s),” Glaser said. “We knew we had a special kid right then.”

That game even caught the soft-spoken, rarely emotional and what Glaser calls always humble Sweeney by surprise.

“I couldn’t believe what was happening to me,” Sweeney said of that night four years ago.

Ever since that day, Sweeney has become one of the faces of the Blugold football team. His play on the field forced Glaser to give him a boatload of carries for the entirety of his freshman year, a trend that has continued throughout his career as a Blugold, as Sweeney currently sits fourth all-time in school history with 782 rushing attempts.

But Glaser said he also knew he could trust his bruiser of a back to be a leader right away because of his attitude on and off the field.

“He’s always been a mature kid, and that’s helped him with everything he’s done,” Glaser said. “As a freshman, he was playing with a lot of upperclassmen and they still respected him and looked up to him because of what his work ethic was like.”

His teammate for four years and current roommate Nick Hirsch, a senior wide receiver, said Sweeney’s work ethic is contagious to the rest of the team.

“You never have to worry about him giving his 100 percent effort,” Hirsch said. “It’s nice to have somebody who not only works extremely hard but makes sure he expects everybody to be working as hard as he is.”

As far as what athletic tools he has in him, Glaser said he has all of the athletic tools and football IQ to make him an elite back.

“He’s got great vision, and he’s got the speed and the strength to go along with it,” Glaser said “One thing he doesn’t get enough credit for is that he’s got great hands. He can catch the ball, he can block, he’s the total package.”

Sweeney’s accolades and statistics speak for themselves. Along with being fourth in rushing attempts, he enters play Saturday third in school history for rushing yards with 3,726 and fifth in rushing touchdowns with 42.

“He’s going to leave here being one of the top backs we’ve ever seen come through,” Glaser said.

He has twice been named first-team All-WIAC, and this offseason, he was named an All-American by

But right on cue with his coach’s description, Sweeney credits a lot of his success to those around him.

“It’s been a good four years,” Sweeney said. “I’ve had success, coaches and teammates and everybody’s believed in me, and I’m thankful for that.”

A big part to Sweeney’s success is his durability. Only once, and happened to be this year on Oct. 26 against UW-River Falls, has he missed a game due to an injury, a pretty remarkable feat for someone who carries the ball up to 40 times a game.

Naturally, Sweeney credited others for helping him stay healthy, as he said the trainers have been a huge asset to him throughout his career. But he said taking a week-by-week approach and not getting too far ahead of himself have made him able to stay on the field for long periods of time.

“I can take the beating, but I do need that recovery time,” Sweeney said. “You’ve just got to take it one game at a time.”

Sweeney is down to his final two games in a Blugold uniform. And four years and two months after the unknown back from Tomah had his coming out party against St. John’s, nothing has changed. He still is willing to carry the load when his team needs him the most, and he is still putting up big yardage, as he leads the WIAC in both rushing and all-purpose yards. While he won’t be able to impact the program with bone-crushing runs up the middle or speedy sweeps to the outside for touchdowns, his legacy will forever be a part of the program.

“It always makes it more impactful when you have a guy be so nice and caring off the field and friendly and makes sure everyone’s a team off the field, and then you can see what he can do on the field,” Hirsch said. “I think the underclassmen have seen that, and now they know what a class act looks like.”

Sweeney said the relationships are what he is going to miss the most.

“The camaraderie, being with the guys, that’s what I’m going to miss the most,” Sweeney said. “That friendship and that bond will always be there.”

If No. 24 said nothing would make him prouder if we were one day selected into the Blugold Athletic Hall of Fame.

“I’ll shed some tears, it will be one of the happiest days of my life,” Sweeney said.

So if you go to Carson Park Saturday afternoon to see the Blugolds take on UW-Oshkosh for Sweeney and the rest of the seniors’ final home game, the Terror from Tomah could very well wind up in the endzone once or twice. Just don’t be surprised to see him credit others for it.