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If Chez Mellusi wasn’t playing or watching sports as a kid, it’s a good bet he was watching a movie.

Mellusi, the University of Wisconsin junior running back, is one of those movie buffs who gets sucked in quickly and enjoys rewatching the same films multiple times. He’ll pick up new details or relive favorite moments with each viewing. One of his childhood favorites was “Space Jam,” so much so he has a tattoo on his left leg inspired by it.

The artwork is of Bugs Bunny holding out a water bottle with the words, “Chez’s secret stuff,” written on the label. In the movie, Bugs tricks the Tune Squad into thinking Michael Jordan had a concoction in that bottle that would make them play better, but it was just water.

“I got that my senior year of high school,” Mellusi said about his tattoo. “I was like, I think that’d be cool if I gave it a little play and made it Chez’s secret stuff.”

The motif of believing in yourself, present in so many of Mellusi’s favorite movies, is central to his path to UW. Mellusi even may have had a few swigs of his secret stuff last week before the best performance of his college career against Illinois.

UW (2-3) hopes he’s saved some for this week’s home test against Army (4-1) and for the homestretch of the season that features six consecutive games against Big Ten Conference opponents. Mellusi leads the team in rushing attempts (96), yards (477) and touchdowns (3) after posting a line of 21-145-1 in Champaign. He told reporters that’s the standard he’s holding himself to the rest of the season.

Mellusi has become a de facto leader of the Badgers running backs after a tumultuous six weeks that has seen the group lose three scholarship players, including last season’s leading rusher Jalen Berger.

Mellusi was focused on finding his role on the team and learning a new offense after transferring from Clemson this summer. Now that he’s proven how he can contribute on the field, the Badgers are looking for him to continue adding to the group outside the lines to climb out of the 2-3 hole the team dug for itself.

“He’s been himself,” UW coach Paul Chryst said about his starting tailback.

“I don’t feel like he’s trying to be someone that he’s not. And then I think where being himself has been a positive is when a guy goes through and makes a decision that he made. ... My gut tells me that there’s another driven purpose behind it. And so someone with purposeful actions is good to follow, and good to see. He brings that.”

A needed spark

Mellusi isn’t used to losing.

He spent four years at a powerhouse high school program in Naples, Florida, then two years competing for national championships at Clemson. Starting 1-3 — matching the number of collegiate losses he’d experienced before joining the Badgers — wore on him. Worse yet, it showed.

His body language on the sideline during the loss to Michigan was poor, and he realized he was dragging down his teammates with him.

“This past week, he really wanted to focus on his body language, and I thought that he did a tremendous job and you could totally feel it in the game,” junior running back Brady Schipper said. “When he’s doing that and leading by example, it really brings along everybody else. … That gives a spark and then that spark catches and everyone on the offense kind of feeds off of that and kind of gets us rolling.”

Jim Leonhard, UW’s defensive coordinator, also noted the change in Mellusi’s body language of late.

“To me, the biggest flip that I’ve seen the last few weeks is just that confidence,” Leonhard said. “You see him walk in and you’re like, ‘I like that kid. I like the look in his eye and just how he’s attacking everything.’”

Consider the misstep a growing pain in becoming a leader.

Mellusi arrived at UW in June after coaching changes among Clemson’s assistants made Mellusi believe he wouldn’t get much opportunity to play had he stayed for another season. He needed a change of scenery and scheme to show how he can help a team win. His talent and experience were key factors in the Badgers’ interest in bringing Mellusi on board — UW needed to deepen its stable of backs who could contribute this season.

But it took some time for Mellusi to feel comfortable enough in his new environment to share his thoughts. He felt like he had to get his play in order first before he could make suggestions or share ideas.

UW’s tailbacks needed someone to take ownership of the group. The group had enough quiet voices even when it had all of its scholarship players. It needed a jolt and someone to push the rest of the room. Now that he’s more settled, teammates such as senior safety Collin Wilder, who transferred earlier in his career and has been in Mellusi’s shoes, are starting to see Mellusi take that role.

“Obviously leadership is needed in that unit,” Wilder said. “It’s open for who wants it, like who wants to take it, who wants to take on that leadership role? I think I can see Chez slowly starting to, you know, take that on. It’s tough when you transfer and you don’t know if you’re stepping on any toes. You don’t know who really is the leader of that group until you get here. I can tell he’s starting to figure out he can be that guy.”

Freshman Braelon Allen emerged as the other half of a 1-2 punch in the backfield with Mellusi last week. The two have been working together since they arrived on campus and Mellusi knows firsthand the rare situation Allen is in. Like Allen, Mellusi was a 17-year-old freshman at Clemson. Mellusi has been guiding Allen in how to study a defense’s tendencies and the details of pass protection, a key factor to earning playing time at the position.

“He’s been a huge leader for us,” Allen said about Mellusi.

Rocky, Dash and football

While Mellusi isn’t in a movie of his own yet, he already has a stage name. Chez is a shortened version of his actual name, Cesare (pronounced Chez-uh-ray), a name he shares with his paternal grandfather.

The nickname came when he moved to Naples in middle school and has stuck.

Mellusi’s mother, Thyrza Mathis, said you can learn a lot about her son from the movies he goes back to time and again.

“If you see Chez and you see the movie ‘Rocky,’ all of them, there’s a part of him ... that competition is who he is,” Mathis said. “It’s not giving up. Rocky doesn’t give up in any of those movies. His whole balance has always been, ‘If they can do that in the movies, I can make that happen.’”

Another favorite, one that Mathis says explains where Mellusi got his love of running, was the 2004 hit “The Incredibles.”

“When he was younger, this was even before he knew anything about football, he loved ‘The Incredibles’ and he thought he was Dash,” Mathis said, referencing the young boy with super speed who’s part of the Incredibles family in the movie. “He had pajamas Dash, underwear Dash, everything you knew, he was Dash. He was like, ‘Mom, one day I’m going to be like Dash and I’m going to run so fast.’ That really should be his nickname.”

As he’s gotten older, ‘80s classics such as “Scarface” and “Rambo” have ascended his list, a product of the movie marathons he’d pull off with his late uncle, Ray Ray.

Mellusi grew up in Washington, D.C., and was on the couch watching every Washington Football Team game with his dad, Mario. Those hours watching games were also history lessons, and Mellusi has an array of stored trivia about old lineups and results. He always had a ball in his hands as a child, Mathis said, but football took hold in middle school and became his focus.

The family moved to Florida as Mellusi’s football talents started to show, but he has a tattoo of the Washington Nationals logo on his left arm to commemorate his hometown.

Mathis said it was difficult to watch her son go through the transfer process, but she believed him when he said he would find a place willing to give him an opportunity. UW has been that and more, she said.

“I don’t even call it luck, this is a blessing,” Mathis said. “I know that Clemson prepared him in a way to understand there’s something about patience that you have to learn. I really, truly believe that my son learned that word ‘patience’ at Clemson.

“I have to say, I thought Clemson — this is just facts — I thought Clemson had a huge fan base. Oh, my God, Wisconsin (fans) beat Clemson. I felt like we were at home and it’s just like, this is our child living his dream, finally. God forbid, even if he doesn’t make it to the NFL, at least he got to show and play and enjoy his college life.”


This article originally ran on madison.com.

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