By Mitchell Skurzewski
Aaron Karlen knew he wanted to be a police officer since he was in middle school. It was a desire that began after regular interactions with Marathon County deputies, part of his experience helping with the family business.
But, as long as he wanted to be a policeman, Karlen had another dream: playing professional football. It was a long road from the playing field to the police beat, but today the transformation from football player to officer is finally complete. Now, Karlen is a member of the Wausau Police force, and his calm demeanor and positive attitude is making a positive difference in the department and in the community.
While Karlen was growing up his father owned a business in Edgar. Among other services, Karlen Tractor & Auto often towed vehicles for stranded motorists on area roadways. And as a youngster, Aaron would tag along with his father on service calls, talking with the deputies who were there to help. Those interactions kick-started his interest in policing – an interest that only grew in high school when he went on several ride-alongs with police, solidifying his path onto a criminal justice career.
But at the same time that interest was growing, so was his aptitude as an athlete. In football, Karlen was a standout all-state linebacker at Edgar High School. He went on to play at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where he was a Division III All-American defensive end during both his junior and senior years. Karlen amassed 61 tackles and 11 sacks in 2015, his senior year.
His skills on the field and tenacious work ethic off the field allowed him to chase those elusive professional football dreams that are so hard to come by.
Karlen earned a tryout with the Seattle Seahawks. But he ultimately found significant interest from Canadian Football League teams. He bounced between the Calgary, Ottawa and Montreal teams in 2016, before signing a two-year deal with the Montreal Alouettes.
But, even as his success continued, something was missing.
“Why am I doing this?”
Aaron Karlen remembers lying on his bed, feet crossed, head on his hands, staring at the ceiling of his small apartment in Montreal, Canada in late spring 2017. He had just made his Canadian Football League pro team for a second consecutive year. But there was one problem, and it was a big one: The burning passion he once felt to play football just wasn’t there anymore.
“Like everybody, I had dreamed of playing pro sports in the sport I love,” Karlen said. “But I was lying in bed thinking ‘Why am I doing this?’”
While being a professional athlete seems synonymous with living a glamorous lifestyle, that vision isn’t always true, Karlen said, at least not for most players. Some days he would go to the grocery store and not know if he could afford a $150 trip, or if he’d better limit himself to $30. The future was uncertain, and he knew he was at risk of being cut at any time.
Another difficult part of professional football is that the camaraderie found in college sports isn’t there once you turn pro, Karlen said.
“(The other players) don’t care if you get hurt, cut. They want your spot,” Karlen said. “It’s not a brotherhood like college, where you learn to love like brothers. You don’t have that.”
The final straw for Karlen came when he realized he wasn’t looking forward to workouts. Karlen had always been a gym rat, constantly in the weight room lifting weights, working with resistance bands, doing agility drills to improve his flexibility and quickness.
So when he was “almost dreading going to practice” Karlen knew it was time to walk away. Football was his past, not his future.
“Then I knew it was time to go,” Karlen said. “It was not fun for me anymore. At practice you can get better. You work to be more explosive, get smarter, more athletic. And I loved working to get better. So I knew I had to walk away. Like anything you put so much into- I put my heart, my sweat, my blood into it- there were tears shed. But I knew it was time.”
So Karlen went to the facility, knocked on the door and told the Alouettes’ general manager Kavis Reed, he was walking away.
“I threw everything I had into it. So, I knew it was the right decision. It was time for me to pursue my other dream,” Karlen said.
Despite his pursuit of professional football, Karlen was always chasing his police dream, too.
He graduated from Fox Valley Technical College Law Enforcement Academy in May 2017, shortly after notifying the Alouettes of his retirement from football. Within two months, Karlen landed a job at Marathon County Sheriff’s Office, a part-time position, mostly working court security. In April 2018, was hired at Wausau Police Department. And he made quite an impression on Wausau Police Chief Ben Bliven.
“I remember the first time I ever talked to Aaron,” Wausau Police Chief, Ben Bliven said, adding that the Marathon County Chief Deputy Chad Billeb had put in a good word for Karlen. Even though Bliven didn’t have any openings, Billeb asked if he’d just give him a few minutes.
“Aaron called me, the first conversation before he applied, he was just a very engaging person,” Bliven said. “Lots of energy, very genuine. So his personality stuck out from day one.”
Karlen has now been part of the Wausau Police Department for over three years, and Bliven said he’s happy to have him as part of his officer crew.
“We hire for character, train for skill,” Bliven said. “Things we look for are not specific degrees. We want people of character who are service-oriented. And Aaron is all about helping others and he cares immensely about doing what is right.”
Bliven said Karlen is a hard worker who always wants to do the right thing.
“That is probably why he was successful in his football career, too,” Bliven said. “He has a work ethic and sense of right and wrong and wants to help other people. That’s what makes him a great cop.”
Karlen’s move from football to protect and serve and keep his local communities safe was important to him. And a situation in January 2020, for which on April 14 he was given a Preservation of Life Award from the Wausau Police Department, certainly highlights why making the move from the gridiron to police work was good for Karlen – and the community.
“A privilege to serve Wausau”
Aaron Karlen was joking with a Wausau West High School student and her brother on a community relations visit on New Year’s Day 2020. That lighthearted visit wound up being short-lived when he heard a “shots fired” call on the radio, from dispatch. He leaned his ear closer to make sure he heard it correctly.
This is the life of an officer: one moment Karlen was in a friendly conversation, the next he was in a potentially life-threatening situation.
Karlen raced out the door to his squad vehicle, turned the key in the ignition, flipped the sirens on and raced toward the west side of Wausau. The call directed him to the Cloverbelt Credit Union parking lot on 24th Avenue.
When he arrived on scene, Karlen blocked the road with his cruiser. Wausau Police Lt. Luis Lopes-Serrao and a Marathon County Sheriff’s deputy were already on scene. Karlen said he saw an unconscious woman – and a witness said the suspect was running east in a big flannel coat.
Karlen quickly spotted the man about 50 yards away.
“I said to show me your hands, saw a silver flash and realized he had a gun,” Karlen said.
Karlen quickly reacted and tried to talk to the man, relate to him and get him to calm down. But the man wandered closer to and continued to switch the gun from under his chin, to his temple and to his chest. When he was about 20 yards away, Karlen, said, he became pretty uncomfortable.
“All we had to protect us was an 18 by 18 rock pillar for cover,” he said. “I realized my leg was bouncing like crazy and I was nervous, so I just told myself to take deep breaths. I aimed my weapon at him and I had no idea what was going to happen. We never want to use deadly force.”
Karlen worked to establish a rapport with the man, calming him with words offering help and opportunities to end the situation without the use of force. For 13 minutes and 47 seconds, the conversation continued.
“I’m begging you,” Karlen told the man. “We can work past this; I will personally sit with you; I am here to help you. I promise you every one of us are here to help you.”
Finally, the suspect lowered his gun. Karlen and his fellow officers breathed a huge sigh of relief.
“It felt like 13 hours,” Karlen said said. “I am just glad the situation was resolved peacefully, because it doesn’t always go that way.”
In the aftermath, Karlen and other officers spent more than 11 hours getting the man checked out by hospital and crisis personnel, getting him to open up about what was happening in his life.
“You never know what someone is going through,” Karlen said. “At the end of the day we just want everyone to be able to go home safely.”
For his actions that day, Karlen received the Preservation of Life award. Bliven said Karlen performed exceptionally, with the sincerity in his voice making all the difference.
“It’s among most dynamic situations an officer will encounter,” Bliven said. “Every second and every word matters.The stress an officer feels in that situation is enormous and to be able to operate in that scenario, a life and death situation the way he did says a lot about him. It can be hard for people to operate in those circumstances. His sincere heart for serving others really shines through in that situation.”
Being a police officer is difficult. But it is exactly where Karlen belongs. His second act, his second dream, is living up to all his expectations. And while his passion for football may have waned, the passion he has for protecting the local community is sky high.
“It is truly a privilege to serve in Wausau,” Karlen said. “I am so happy to be where I am and doing what I love.”
A few years ago “doing what I love” for Karlen meant football. Now, it means protecting and serving – all close to home.