How does one go from a career as a pro footballer to becoming a police officer? That is the fascinating story of Aaron Karlen, who is now a member of the Wausau Police Department.
The Wausau Pilot & Review wrote that Karlen had always wanted to be a police officer since childhood after meeting with police officers on service calls with his father’s business. His father’s business, Karlen Tractor & Auto, offered services for towing stranded vehicles on the highway.
Traveling with his father on these trips, the young Karlen would often interact with deputies who were on the scene to help. These interactions gave Karlen his first interest into the career of law enforcement.
His burgeoning interest was further solidified in high school when he we would take part in “ride-alongs” with police officers. At the same time, he was forging another career path as an athlete.
Karlen was an all-state linebacker at Edgar High School, and then 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.
With his talent and work ethic, Karlen even earned a try-out for the Seattle Seahawks, but ultimately received more interest from the Canadian football league, where he eventually signed a two-year deal with the Montreal Alouettes.
Despite making it pro, Karlen began to realize he no longer had the same passion for the sport.
“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?’”
He missed the camaraderie of college football, and realized that the lifestyle of being a professional athlete was not as glamorous or secure as he had hoped.
“(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.”
Eventually, Karlen realized it was time to quit when he started dreading workouts and practice. It was then that he knew he had to walk 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.
Shortly after leaving the Alouettes, Karlen graduated from Fox Valley Technical College Law Enforcement Academy in 2017, and landed a part-time position at the Marathon County Sheriff’s Office working court security.
Soon after, he was hired by the Wausau Police Department where he’s been for the past three years.
Wausau Police Chief Ben Bliven remembers the first time he spoke with Karlen.
“Aaron called me, the first conversation before he applied, he was just a very engaging person. Lots of energy, very genuine. So his personality stuck out from day one,” Bliven said.
Bliven is happy to have Aaron on board. “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.”
Karlen has already proven himself as a valuable protector of the community after an incident that earned him a Preservation of Life Award from the Wausau Police Department.
After responding to a call of “shots fired” near a high school during a community relations visit, Karlen found himself face to face with a suspect with a gun.
Karlen immediately reached out and tried to calm the situation by relating to the man who was pointing the gun at himself. His conversation with the man went on for over 13 minutes.
“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 and was taken into custody to receive further mental health evaluation.
“It felt like 13 hours. I am just glad the situation was resolved peacefully, because it doesn’t always go that way,” Karlen said.
Bliven praised Karlen for his heroic and sincere actions that day.
“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.”
Karlen knows that he is where he belongs – working as a police officer to protect the community.
“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.”