Take Five: Badger Bob Adamov returns to Madison

As part of the 1998 Wisconsin Badger football team that exceeded expectations to win a Big Ten title, qualify for the 1999 Rose Bowl, and upset UCLA, Bob Adamov is accustomed to beating the odds. One of the Badgers’ fabled walk-ons, he became a safety and team captain, but after leaving UW, he also faced an unexpected health scare. If you believe in synergy, he has returned to Madison to work with Exact Sciences on the very same health issue — the prospect of colorectal cancer — that he’s twice stared down.

In this Take Five interview, the Sturgeon Bay native recalls his days with the Badgers, his health issues, and his chance to wage a very personal fight against cancer in his new role with Exact Sciences, where he’s engaged in direct sales of Cologuard, the company’s noninvasive screening test for colorectal cancer, to primary care physicians. Here are excerpts from our talk.

IB: I’d like to get into a number of topics, but first I’d like to talk about how serious your health challenges have been. As I understand, you’ve had polyps and while most polyps are benign, or non-cancerous, they can become malignant, or cancerous. So what can you tell me about your health battles?

Bob Adamov

Adamov: It was a number of years ago, so I was maybe in my mid 30s, and I was 15 years away from needing screening because we don’t have a history of colorectal cancer in my family. I had a GI [gastrointestinal] issue, and it really was acute. It’s never happened again since, but I spent a number of years in the GI field with a previous organization and dealt with colorectal cancer. Through that education, I knew that you shouldn’t just let something like that go, regardless of how benign it may seem.

So I called a friend of mine. It was a Thursday afternoon and we were up for Thanksgiving, and he was a GI in New York City. I explained my symptoms to him, and he said it’s probably nothing major. He gave me an indication of what it might be, but he also said to follow up and get a colonoscopy anyway. I called another friend of mine, a GI, who was in Raleigh, North Carolina, which is where I was living, and talked to him, and he was like, ‘Can you get in Monday?’ I said ‘Yes, I can work my way back Saturday, that works great.’ So I went in for my procedure on Monday and they removed five polyps from me when I was 35 years old.

Since then, they’ve put me on a five-year schedule, and when I went back in for my second colonoscopy, because I had become a higher risk overnight, they removed four more. So the colorectal screening side of it, and the war on colorectal cancer, and the prevention for these 50,000 people who are dying every year does hit home to me because the knowledge that I had gained saved my life. In 15 years, I would have had cancer undoubtedly and it probably would have been pretty late stage if I didn’t have future and subsequent symptoms. Overall, that’s one of the things that really did attract me to Exact Sciences because they are committed to helping win this war on cancer through early detection. I’m somebody for whom the knowledge can come through from what the company does each day, with the education they are providing and Cologuard and the products that we have to help get people screened. It’s also people at Exact taking a stance on ensuring that people are educated. The product in and of itself is great, but there is also education that is needed.

IB: So this is very personal for you, as well.

Adamov: Yes, it is. It’s hard not to know somebody close to you or close family friends who have not been affected by colorectal cancer. That’s really one of the sad things about it. When detected early, it’s very preventable.

IB: The UW football program is known for its successful walk-on program, and perhaps J.J. Watt is the most famous example, but you’re also an illustration of how successful it has been. Why do you think the Wisconsin program attracts so many athletic late bloomers or guys who are overlooked in the recruiting process?

Adamov: One of the things that Coach Barry Alvarez instilled early on was to make the walk-on program a priority. It’s a testament to the young men they bring into the program, and it’s not just from an athletic standpoint. Some of us in the walk-on role might be one-tenth of a second slower or an inch shorter or a couple of pounds lighter, but they are really looking at the attitude, the character, and the integrity of the individual that in every sense of the word is still athletic. They are still good football players, but maybe they just didn’t hit on some of the athletic measurements that people really look at. So they also are bringing in people like the J.J. Watts and the Jimmy Leonhards. The list goes on and on of successful walk-ons that they brought in, a number of which have gone on from contributing to the Badger football program to playing in the NFL and having great careers.

I really think it’s a situation that Coach Alvarez has instilled in the program, and Coach Paul Chryst because of his ties to the UW, as well, understands that there is just a certain character and person that we’re looking for to join the Wisconsin football program, and they go out and find them. Not all of them can get scholarships, and the ones who don’t are offered an opportunity like anyone else is, whether you’re on a tendered offer or not, to make plays and contribute to the team, and that success begets more success. If you’re getting people who are on the fence, and this is where I was, where maybe you have some Division II offers, but the phenotype of the individual says, ‘I want to go for the best,’ the Badgers are able to get them because they know there is an opportunity for walk-ons to make an impact on the team.



IB: Speaking of Coach Alvarez, now Athletic Director Alvarez, what life lessons did you learn from him that can be applied to business?

Adamov: Oh gosh, many things. I think back to some of the things coach would tell us, and I still use them today. Being on the sales side and the leadership side, he would often say don’t confuse effort with results. That’s one of the things that really stood out to me. There are many people who are trying, but the world and business rewards those who get the job done. It applied for us as teenagers and people in our early 20s on the football field, and it’s still very applicable now in the business world. Another thing he would say is don’t flinch, which is the title of his book, and that’s when things are going to happen, and not everything is roses. When it’s not, how do you handle it? How do you handle adversity? How do you handle it when things are not going the way you draw them up? How do you maintain a calm demeanor and a focus to continue to achieve the goal? That’s one that really stuck out and has applied to me from a business standpoint.

Another one, and this probably relates to me being me being a pretty excitable person, is that nothing is ever as good or as bad as it seems. The truth is always somewhere in the middle. So this would come in when you were having a really good first half and blowing a team out. That would probably be one of the first things he would say in his halftime talk, just to level us out. Nothing is ever as good or as bad as it seems. The truth is always somewhere in the middle, and that is applied in life going back to the adversity side of it. It’s never that bad, and when things are going great, there is still more greatness to be achieved. Those are some of the sayings that have stuck out to me, but also the overall value of teamwork and being a great teammate, how to be a leader and get the best out of people, and of course there is work ethic and determination. He really did model that. We probably all thought that Coach Alvarez was going to be a Hall of Fame coach when we played for him because we thought that much of him, but then to go on and be able to look back and know that you were able to grow up as a young adult under that type of tutelage is something that I value more now because I’m able to reflect on it.

IB: I realize the Rose Bowl win against UCLA is probably the biggest game you played in, in part because few so-called experts gave the Badgers much of a chance, but the one game in the entire Alvarez era that stands out to me was that Saturday night game at Camp Randall against Purdue and Drew Brees when he threw 83 passes. You won by a touchdown and it was such a contrast in styles between a pound-the-rock team and a passing team. What do you remember most about that game?

Adamov: Quite honestly, being a little bit tired [laughs]. We were on the field a lot, just with the number of plays. To be honest, right now it’s Jump Around. That was the first time Jump Around happened. Being on the field and seeing that, it was amazing. We didn’t know at the time that it was going to become one of the greatest college football traditions of all time, but to be there and see it firsthand when it started was pretty spectacular.

IB: Current and former UW athletes are known for their community involvement. Now that you’re back, how do you plan to get involved beyond what you do for Exact Sciences?

Adamov: This is something that I’m really excited about, and part of it is a learning process for me. I know the W Club does a lot in the community, and so I want to be able to tap into that network to be able to give back because I did leave a long time ago. When we were in school, coach would have us go to the hospital before games — I think it was on Thursday — and it was great to be with the kids and put a smile on their face. If there are opportunities to do something like that, because I’ve done that throughout my life now in the various cities that I’ve lived in, most recently at Duke University in the pediatric bone marrow transplant unit, I would like to find those opportunities.

Exact Sciences does a lot of things in the community with United Way initiatives and what they give back, so there are opportunities through work. I am looking to understand what is available because it’s been a number of years since I’ve been here, and my family is in the process of moving back. As those come up, it’s going to be something that’s high on my list of priorities, and a lot of that was instilled in me while I was at the University of Wisconsin.

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