Leo Musso: 2012 Waunakee alum named Badger MVP

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David Stluka

Wisconsin Badgers defensive back Leo Musso (19) plays defense during an NCAA college football game against the Akron Zips Saturday, September 10 2016, in Madison, Wis. The Badgers won 54-10. (Photo by David Stluka)

The Purple Sage sat down with Musso and revisited his long football career, which started under coach Pat Rice and has skyrocketed him to Division 1 success.

“I’m truly living the dream.”
This is how UW-Madison senior and Waunakee alum Leo Musso describes his time as a college football player. Musso is a Waunakee football legend from the class of 2012. He played running back for three years of varsity and rushed for over 5,500 yards, leading the Warriors to three consecutive state championships.

Wisconsin Badgers defensive back Leo Musso (19) plays defense during an NCAA college football game against the Akron Zips Saturday, September 10 2016, in Madison, Wis. The Badgers won 54-10. (Photo by David Stluka)

Musso says that playing in Camp Randall now, after having that experience in high school, is truly unreal. “It has a really special place in my heart, just like Warrior Stadium, those are the two places that I’d pick to play at over any other,” said Musso. “I can positively separate the two, my high school experience is my high school experience and my college experience is my college experience, and they mean a ton to me and it’s nice I got to experience the both of them at Camp Randall.”
Musso was heavily recruited by the University of Pittsburgh, but opted to walk on at the UW. Growing up in Wisconsin, it’s every kids’ dream to be a Badger, and Camp Randall is a really special place to Musso. The final decision was not that difficult. “Some of my best friends are from Madison,” said Musso.
When he first walked on, Musso had to prove himself in the weight room and during the Badgers’ grueling two-week camp. However, Waunakee head coach Pat Rice will be the first warn against doubting him. After he proved himself to his coaches and his teammates, Musso had to prove himself on the field as a special teamer. “Everyone starts on special teams,” said Musso. It is where the coaches see if a player is in love with the game, or just a position.
Musso’s in love with the game. He never played a snap of defense during high school, but at the college level, he got moved to the defensive position of safety. It was a change which may have shocked some, but Rice said, “[It was] a natural transition.” Musso also believes his previous experience as a running back has helped him be more versatile in his current position. “I just love football and I love playing it, which is why I am glad I got switched to safety, because I got to see this whole other side of football,” said Musso. “It’s good that I have that running back experience. It’s nice that I get to display that when turnovers happen.”
As a freshman and sophomore, Musso got the opportunity to play against Jared Abbrederis, Melvin Gordon, Travis Frederick, and other Badger greats who now play in the NFL. Musso credits his confidence on the field to these experiences. “Playing with all the guys like Jared Abbrederis and James White on scout team, that’s what got me my confidence because I realized I could play with these guys, I’m not necessarily ready right now, but once I do get ready, I’m gonna be where they are,” said Musso.
This year, Musso got the opportunity to start all 14 of the Badgers games and had a team-leading five interceptions. “It’s really been a crazy ride, I don’t get to think about it often, but it’s been a crazy ride,” said Musso. During his four years, he has had three head coaching changes and five position coaching changes. With each change, he had to power through adversity and prove himself yet again. “It’s very rare for a guy to just come in and have a coach already respect what he’s done. They don’t know anything else about you, they didn’t recruit you, they don’t know where you’re from and they don’t care. If you’re good at football, they’re gonna look at that,” said Musso.
However, he says that coaching changes have taught him valuable lessons. “The light that I found in it is that it makes your team realize that you’re all each other’s guys. Coaches come and go because it’s a business at the end of the day. Coaches have to look out for their families. Secondly, I learned a bunch of techniques and what works best for me. Each coach has their own way of coaching. Thirdly, you build these networks and relationships with the coaches,” he said.
This season, Musso was voted team MVP by his fellow coaches and players. He said “It was a truly humbling experience.” He did not think he would be awarded the title, either. “It was a complete shock but really special that it was given by the team and coaches, there are other guys who made more plays, and for them to appreciate me that much to vote for me, it means a lot to me,” said Musso.
As for being a leader on the team, Musso says everyone contributes a different leadership style. “[Musso’s] not the first guy to get up on a pedestal,” said Rice. Some players like Vince Biegel lead with their words and speeches. “Vince is as crazy as you see on TV,” said Musso. But other players such as Musso lead by example. “Each guy is unique not only to their position group but to the team. I’m a guy who leads more by example and I speak up when I need to speak up. Each guy leads differently. There’s guys like TJ Watt who have no problem coming up and yelling in a dude’s face when they need to be yelled at, so we complement each other well,” said Musso.
Musso isn’t the biggest guy, at 5’ 10’’ and weighing in at 194 lbs, but what he lacks in stature he makes up for in heart and work ethic. Coach Rice has only positive things to say about the former Waunakee athlete, “He elevates everyone around him.” Musso is now beginning training for the NFL, but if that does not work out, he has an undergraduate degree in Community and Nonprofit Leadership and is working towards his masters program.
Musso achieved many things during his high school and college careers, but his best memories come from off the field. Whether lifting weights, going to camp, or just hanging out with his friends Musso remembers that playing is a very small part of it all. According to Musso, the most incredible part about being a college athlete was the access to his audience. “It’s the platform you’re on and how many lives you can impact,” said Musso.
Musso has impacted many lives for the better as a positive role model. He takes most of his motivation and inspiration specifically from the platform he’s given. “Honestly I always just try to look at what the best players are doing in terms of work ethic. My motivation more than anything to be a good football player is the platform that football provides. So many kids look up to you, and if you don’t realize that you’re at a high position, shame on you. I made sure I was doing the right thing off the field,” said Musso.
He also stressed how during high school, he wasn’t drinking or smoking, and he believes it has paid off for himself and his friends. “I had a great group of friends in high school and we had the exact same mentality. My group of friends all graduated from college, one of them played Division 1 golf at Marquette, another played Division 1 lacrosse at Minnesota, and these are my friends. And we look at the other people in my class, who we could have hung out with, and some of them never really graduated from college, so it goes to show that you can be a good person and achieve great things,” said Musso. “You don’t have to always be the life of the party.”
Part of Musso’s work ethic also comes from his responsibility towards his teammates and coaches. “You represent more than yourself, especially at a Division 1 university. If other kids are getting drinking tickets, that’s not on the front page of the newspaper, but if I get a drinking ticket, guess where that’d be. Front page of the sports section,” he said. He mentioned that a slip-up on his part could have consequences for his peers and his coaches. “A whole lot of people depend on you. Coaches, their jobs depend on 110 young men. Them feeding their families depends on me. I take that to heart and I make sure that I’m always doing the right thing for my coaches, teammates, and the university and Waunakee, too,” said Musso. “I take a lot of pride in being from here.”
Musso believes that schoolwork, work ethic, and character are all key in becoming a collegiate athlete. “I’d say first and foremost, take care of your schoolwork, there’s a lot of other guys who have just as much skill and talent as you, but if you don’t have the grades and they do, then they’ll easily take the other guy,” said Musso.
“Finally, you just gotta work your butt off every single day. You can never get complacent. I’ve seen where guys would be starting then come back the next year and not be starting anymore because they think they don’t have to work as hard as the other guys, that does not work out. Especially at the Division 1 level, it’s really set up like a business and you’re gonna get fired, so you gotta come in every day with the mentality and be a good teammate and work your butt off,” said Musso.
He has advice for non-athletes as well. “Don’t take advantage of other people….I like good football players, but I like it even better when they’re a good person.”