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West High Alum Reflects on the Value of Sports

Jeff Mack, Jr. (center) poses with his parents Kirbie Mack (left) and Jeff Mack, Sr. (right) during his years as a UW-Madison football player.

Written by Lisa Gaumnitz

Jeff Mack Jr. strides into Starbucks on a wintry February day, looking much like the 240-pound outside linebacker who made 298 tackles for the University of Wisconsin football team 20 years earlier, but sounding very much like the banker he is today. 

Park Bank’s first vice president for business development is talking on his cell phone and holds up his index finger to indicate he’ll be a few minutes longer. When he wraps up and sits down for an interview, he is still crunching numbers in his head and mulling over possible returns for the client who just hung up. 

“Do you follow interest rates?” he asks and launches into an explanation of cap rates for real estate and how current high-interest rates are affecting his client’s decision-making about buying an investment property. 

Sports and math have helped Mack succeed since he graduated from West High School in 1999. These intertwined loves are why he’s helping promote Madison Public School Foundation’s Play Every Day initiative to make sure students have what they need to succeed individually and to work toward the common good. 

Jeff Mack, Jr. (46) plays against the Iowa Hawkeyes during his time with the UW Madison Badgers.

“Sports is the greatest barometer for real life,” he says. “It teaches you what real life is all about. You learn a lot of good lessons and you learn a lot of tough lessons that can really mold you into being the best version of yourself. 

“You learn how to work with people you like or work with people you don’t like. Play for coaches you like or don’t like. Learn time management. Learn you’re not as good as you think you are, or sometimes you’re not as bad as you think you are.” 

Sports also help push you forward, Mack adds, “learning that even small steps get you closer to your goal than you would have imagined if you took no step…Without sports, I don’t know if I’d be as successful in my own right.” 

Gaining lifelong friends and role models through sports   

Madison-born Mack can hardly remember a time when he wasn’t getting outside and playing sports. He started organized football and basketball in elementary school in youth leagues coached by his father, Jeff Mack Sr. 

Jeff Mack, Jr. (second from left) poses with his father, Jeff Mack, Sr. (far left), and other West High teammates, coaches, and parents.

A star wide receiver for the Badgers in the 1970s, Jeff Mack Sr. was remembered by many for catching a last-minute 77-yard touchdown to beat then-fourth-ranked Nebraska in 1974. He was beloved for his decades of coaching the Southside Raiders youth football team and Spartans basketball team.  “Class, care, and integrity,” read the Madison365 headline on May 18, 2022, after he died of pancreatic cancer.   

“He was my hero,” Jeff Mack Jr. says of his father. 

Participating in sports also exposed Mack to other male role models and helped him build strong friendships. “My coaches and all of those friends and people I played with and played for are all still deep, deep friends of mine,” he says. 

Those relationships were a function of the time they spent together, and “we were all fighting for a common goal, whether it’s getting through practice, whether it’s winning a game, whether it’s trying to be the best versions of ourselves,” Mack says. “Seeing people achieve those goals makes you want to be closer to those people.” 

His parents – particularly his mother, Kirbie Mack, a longtime Black leader in Madison who helped several mayors run the city and Gov. Jim Doyle the state – made sure he showed up in the classroom as well as on the field. In fact, getting schoolwork done was a condition of staying on the athletic teams.   

That parental foresight helped him realize his goals of playing for the Badgers and earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration in real estate and urban land economics from UW-Madison in 2003.      

Madison, Wisconsin – 9/6/2003. University of Wisconsin linebacker Jeff Mack (46) during the Akron game at Camp Randall. Wisconsin beat Akron 48-31. ©David Stluka.

As an inside linebacker for the Badgers – often serving as the “quarterback” of the defense – he had to recognize the moves the offense was making in split seconds, communicate to his defensive teammates so they were all on the same page, and rush the quarterback or keep the running backs from reaching the corner, depending on the offensive play unfolding.  

Mack was a four-year starter and letter-winner for the Badgers. As a junior in 2002, he was named defensive MVP in the Alamo Bowl in an upset victory over Colorado. He was a captain his senior season, tied for team lead with 98 tackles, and earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in 2003. He was a two-time Academic All-American over the course of his career and earned Wisconsin’s Ivan B. Williamson Award for scholarship and sportsmanship. 

Mack hung up his helmet after college and embarked on a banking career. Helping other people buy homes and seeing if their investments pencil out isn’t such a far cry from his gridiron days. 

“To the fan, football may seem like a very gladiator-esque game when it’s kind of a mathematical exercise. It’s a numbers game. If I have two wide receivers, in order to cover them intelligently, you need three players. You need that one extra person helping because the offensive team knows where they’re going.” 

As his parents did for Mack and his siblings, he and his wife, Tiffany, also a West High alum and a UW pulmonary physician assistant, are part of the offensive team for their four daughters, all in Madison public schools. They help anticipate the kids’ future needs at a time when the kids are most focused on doing what they want and having fun with their friends. 

Most students may not start with the athletic genes he did, but Mack encourages all students to try sports and find one they like, something he hopes will be easier to do with support from the Play Every Day initiative.   

Some of the hardest-working players and most spirited supporters for the teams he was on weren’t always the best athletes and might not get in the game often.   

“But they’re willing to be OK with that and push for the greater good of the team,” Mack says. “There is a huge value there. We need everybody to play, because I think the more people play, the more potential we can see.” 

Just getting outside to play is extremely important for all kids, he says. “There’s such a high value to that from the standpoint of just their physical ability, their mental ability, to get outside. Fresh air, sunlight, and just that social interaction I think is so important for our children today.” 

“We need to make sure that we always keep a heavy importance on the social aspect of humanity and make sure we care for one another. … I’m excited for the hopeful goals that we can reach through the Play Every Day initiative.” 

A hero to his son, Jeff Mack Sr. clearly touched many lives. We are grateful for the $10,000 gift to the Play Every Day campaign from an anonymous donor “in honor of Jeff Mack Sr. and his relentless efforts to support youth activity in Madison for 40 years”.

A hero to his son, Jeff Mack Sr. clearly touched many lives. We are grateful for the $10,000 anonymous gift made to the Play Every Day campaign “in honor of Jeff Mack Sr. and his relentless efforts to support youth activity in Madison for 40 years”.

Learn more about the Play Every Day, Movement Matters for the Mind campaign funding new Physical Education and recess equipment for Madison’s schools and students.

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