Eric Oertel, a Wisconsin native, grew up wanting to play for the Badgers. In his third year at Washington State, the 213-pound linebacker says he couldn't be happier about playing for the Cougars.

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PULLMAN — Let’s see: Wisconsin or Washington State?

One school goes to Rose Bowls, the other watches them on TV.

Badgers or Cougars? Eric Oertel could have stayed close to home, and probably spent his first two years of college at the same position. Here, he’s half a continent away from his roots and he’s been tossed from one spot to another like a pillow in the family room.

And you know what? His outlook couldn’t be sunnier.

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“I’m the happiest I’ve been playing football in a very, very long time,” Oertel told me recently.

He looks it. Oertel (pronounced or-TELL) is an undersized (213 pounds) outside linebacker at WSU — a probable starter for the season opener at Brigham Young on Aug. 30 — but he’s vocal and engaged. If leadership speaks to character, it figures that Oertel would be one of the noisy ones on the Cougars defense.

He came to WSU from Racine, Wis., via some reconnaissance on the part of former Cougars assistant coach Travis Niekamp, who had ties to Wisconsin. Oertel was lightly recruited, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t some angst in his decision.

Father’s Day one year, and Oertel and his dad were headed to a nearby town to visit Oertel’s grandfather, who wasn’t well. That weekend, Wisconsin had a football camp, and the Badgers — Oertel had always dreamed of playing for them — were putting the squeeze on him to attend the camp instead, with an implied promise that he’d be getting a scholarship offer.

They called and they called again. Oertel was a mess, trying to decide what to do. But the family commitment and the cost of the camp kept saying no. An assistant for the Badgers let him and his high-school coach know — “in a few choice words,” Oertel says — that he was blowing it big-time.

“Their attitude was absolutely horrible,” said Scott Smith, Oertel’s coach at Racine Lutheran High. “I said, ‘Quit calling me and don’t treat a kid like that.’ “

After WSU offered Oertel a ride, he says he began hearing from Wisconsin again.

“I honestly just wanted to get away from it,” Oertel said. “Especially after I took my visit out here, I realized I loved it. I don’t regret the decision I made at all, whatsoever. If I’d known this school would have been even close (to offering a scholarship), this would have been my dream school.”

Oh, and there’s a woman named Dawn back in Racine who can tell you a little about Oertel. He had a part-time job as a cashier at a supermarket there, and she was one of the regular shoppers.

“One day, real close to Christmas, she had this different look on her face,” Oertel said. “She says, ‘I have a favor to ask you.’ “

She had a son, Drake, in middle school, and wanted to give Oertel $50 if he’d sign a football for him for Christmas, and then come and visit the boy on Christmas Day.

Oertel said he didn’t think his parents would mind if he ducked out for an hour on Christmas. But he told her to keep the cash and buy her son something with it. So before he headed to his grandmother’s for the day, he stopped off to see Dawn and Drake, who got a pullup bar with that money.

“It was really cool,” said Oertel. “I like doing stuff like that. I still talk to him.”

Oertel’s first two years at WSU have hardly been storybook stuff. Paul Wulff’s staff recruited him as an athlete, and Oertel told WSU his preference was running back. Throughout summer seven-on-seven workouts in 2010, he was a back, but when camp began, they switched him to linebacker.

Then right before spring ball in 2011, he went to running back. The new staff came in and saw him as a linebacker, so back he went. That was a fortuitous move, because the new coach, Mike Leach, would later boot two linebackers from the program.

As for his introduction to Leach, Oertel said, “I had a nice meeting with him. It was supposed to be about 10, 15 minutes. It ended up being an hour, because of all the interruptions he gets because of who he is.

“I love coach Leach. That’s my boy.”

So on a hot Palouse afternoon, Oertel greets his teammates before a scrimmage with sort of a primal whoop. It seemed to say he’s landed in a good place.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or

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