For most, the phrase “yellow brick road” conjures up thoughts of a fairy tale, where a young girl is trying to find her way home to Kansas.

In Fitchburg resident Will Popp’s case, a “yellow brick road” symbolizes a few early mornings, some mental stamina and a chance he received to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps, after completing the FBI National Academy Youth Leadership Program.

Popp was the Wisconsin delegate for the 2019 program, a teenage version of the FBI National Academy, from June 20-28.

Popp, who is starting his sophomore year this fall, was one of 60 students aged 14-16 selected to attend from around the world, he spent a little over a week in Quantico, Virginia, at the end of June.

The FBI Leadership Program is an “intense eight-day program (with) classroom lectures on leadership, ethics, values, juvenile crime and character strength,” a news release from Lakeside Lutheran High School, where Popp attends, said.

Popp found out about the program from his maternal grandfather Tom Marquardt, who is a retired FBI agent and served as a counselor at the professional FBI National Academy, meant to educate U.S. law enforcement officers.

Marquardt’s career spanned more than three decades, working in Boston, New York City and Detroit before coming to the Madison area in 1979. He was asked to be a counselor for the National FBI Program in the early 2000’s, and completed four thirteen-week sessions in a single year.

“I had officers from Chile, Switzerland, Lebanon,” he said. “Everyone brings something to the table.”

Following his grandfather’s suggestion, Popp applied to the youth version of the program, having to submit his school transcripts, a list of his extracurriculars and an essay he wrote on what he thought leadership to be.

From there, he was one of six students interviewed by a panel of four law enforcement officers at the Appleton Police Department, and received the call he’d been selected later that night.

“The whole process of him going through the motions of him applying made me really proud,” Popp’s mother Sarah said. “I think it was such a great experience at such a young age to go through such a lengthy application … most kids don’t get that.”

During that week, Popp was transported into a world of “long days,” where he and other program participants were up at 4 or 5 a.m. doing physical training, and spending the rest of the days completing classes on leadership and ethical decision making.

Attending the program helped change how Popp viewed himself, he said.

“Going into it, I wasn’t a really confident person,” he said. “But I learned that I can be a confident leader and outspoken, and be a leader not just by actions, but through words.”

‘Hard but fun’

At the start of the week-long leadership program, Popp wasn’t really a fan of the early morning starts.

And running through PT was “hard but fun,” Popp said, as he learned he could tackle any physical challenge put in front of him as long as he had the mental ability to keep pushing himself, including a planking competition where he outlasted the other participants for seven minutes and eight seconds.

“If you have a strong will, you can do it,” he said. “I was shaking so hard, but I knew I was not giving up.”

Enduring the Yellow Brick Road was also a tough feat, Popp said, where he was sent running through the woods, parking garages and hilly, rocky terrain.

But the friendships he developed in the process made the early mornings worth it.

“I have so many friends all over the U.S. and all over the world, and it’s so nice that I’ll be able to keep in touch with them,” he said.

A potential career

Popp and Marquardt both have their “yellow bricks,” earned from completing the U.S. Marine physical challenge dubbed “The Yellow Brick Road,” Popp’s earned from completing an abbreviated version.

For Popp and Marquardt, have matching bricks is something they take pride in.

And while it’s not a guarantee that Popp will join his grandfather by going into law enforcement following the FBI Youth Leadership Program – Popp is still only a sophomore in high school, after all – it’s something he’s now started seriously considering.

“Before it was just an idea, but now I’m really thinking about it,” he said.

Should Popp follow into Sarah’s father’s footsteps of choosing a career in law enforcement, Sarah said there couldn’t be a better “family” for her son to join.

“Should he follow in law enforcement, I don’t think I could be more proud of him,” she said.

Email reporter Kimberly Wethal at kimberly.wethal@wcinet.com and follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wethal.