Engineering success: UW football player tackles the gridiron and a graduate education

// Electrical & Computer Engineering

Photo of Matt Henningsen

Matt Henningsen

At training camp in August 2021, University of Wisconsin-Madison football player Matt Henningsen was officially declared a freak.

In football, however, that’s a compliment; it came from Bruce Feldman at The Athletic for being especially strong (he can squat 675 pounds) and abnormally fast (he can accelerate his 291-pound body more than 19 miles per hour).

But there’s something even freakier about Henningsen than his rhinoceros physique and cheetah-like speed. It’s his mind: He’s a gifted student and is finishing up an accelerated master’s degree in electrical engineering, focusing on machine learning and signal processing.

While many players on the Badgers football team have been recognized for academic achievement, few have the time or bandwidth to take on an academically rigorous curriculum like electrical and computer engineering, much less excel at it. But the standout defensive end has accomplished so much by approaching both football and school like an engineer: He has a system, a schedule and the self-discipline to fit everything in.

When the Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, native graduated from high school, he was equally passionate about math and football. While he was offered scholarships to several smaller universities and was recruited by Ivy League programs, he had his heart set on UW-Madison, where his three older brothers attended school. “I had an opportunity to walk on to the football team at UW-Madison,” he says. “With the quality of the engineering program and how important academics was to me it felt like the right choice.”

While his true love is pure mathematics, Henningsen decided that electrical and computer engineering was a better path, allowing him to apply some of those concepts to real-world issues. And while earning an undergraduate engineering degree is challenging, completing the program with the time commitments required as a starter on a nationally ranked football team is exponentially more difficult.

“Especially in the fall semesters, I would get by just sticking to a routine,” he says.

That routine is grueling. Up at 6 a.m. Daily practice between 6:30 and 10:30 a.m. Classes from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m., then back to the stadium for meetings, film study and other game-day preparations until 7 p.m. Homework between 7 and 10 p.m. “And then I try to get some sleep. I try to stick to that routine every day,” he says.

That includes team travel days. “Guys would laugh at me because they’d see me on the plane, and I’d be working on my physics homework,” he says. “Everyone else would just be watching a movie or something.”

That discipline has paid off on both fronts. Henningsen has been named an Academic All-Big Ten athlete each of the last three years and a Big Ten Distinguished Scholar, an honor that recognizes student athletes with exceptional GPAs, for the last two years. During spring 2021, he worked on a research project at the Wisconsin Institutes for Medical Research overseen by Biomedical Engineering Professor Walter Block. The project involved developing a convolutional neural network to detect cerebral hemorrhaging on MRI images. Over the summer he worked on a project modeling the brain using electrocorticographic brain data with Barry Van Veen, Lynn H. Matthias Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Henningsen’s work on the field is equally impressive. Though a torn bicep in the second game of 2020 cut his season short, Henningsen has been a starter since 2018. Over his college career, he’s had 58 tackles, five sacks, three recovered fumbles, two touchdowns and has played in the Rose Bowl. In 2021, his bicep rehabbed, he’s excited to add to those stats.

He also plans to add another degree to the bachelor’s of science he received in December 2020. Since he had another year of playing eligibility left, Henningsen decided to pursue a master’s degree. “It’s sometimes tough to do certain master’s degrees with football because it’s so time intensive. You can’t really get an MBA or go to medical school and play,” he says. “So I wanted to find something that I knew I wanted to do and would also challenge me while I was playing football.”

He found what he was looking for with the accelerated master’s degree in machine learning and signal processing, which he will finish in December 2021. The program typically takes 12 to 16 months to complete. Unlike a traditional master’s program, which involves a research project and thesis, the accelerated degree is course-based and involves a summer capstone project, which Henningsen completed in August 2021.

This season, Henningsen is likely to spend even more time working on the team plane. “As we get into quantum mechanics and some of the more difficult machine learning classes, it’s starting to get tougher,” he says.

Currently, Henningsen doesn’t have any post-graduation employment plans, but he’s intent on giving the NFL a shot. Regardless of what happens next, he’s glad to have his degrees from UW-Madison. “The NFL only lasts so long. It’s a tough league and it’s a grind,” he says. “We’ll see where I end up. If I do go into industry, I’d like to get into something with signal processing. My capstone research was with medical imaging like MRIs and brain waves. So, I’m leaning in that direction.”

Right now, however, Henningsen doesn’t have much time in his schedule to ruminate on the future. He’s got books to crack and sacks to make. “There are guys who take football extremely seriously and school kind of comes in behind it. And there are guys who take school extremely seriously and football comes behind it,” he says. “I try to take both of them seriously and do everything I can to be as good as I can in both. There are 120 guys on a team, and only 22 starters. You have to be extremely focused on football to be one of those guys. But that doesn’t mean school has to lag behind. I just gotta do both.”

 

Author: Jason Daley