Nov. 3, 2010
By Skip Myslenski
NUsports.com Special Contributor
The one brother is a 'Cat linebacker and his theatre of operations is always some field that is plush, lush and verdant. The other brother is an Army Ranger and his theatre of operations is an Afghanistan that is arid, ominous and war torn. But they are closer than neighbors, closer even than your pinkie is to your ring finger, and always each is nestled there in the other's mind.
They motivate each other, and they monitor each other's actions, and any success achieved by one is a success that reverberates through the very sinew of the other. The one, the 'Cat junior Bryce McNaul, enjoyed one of those very moments during his team's win last Saturday at Indiana and soon, on the computer of his parents' home outside of Minneapolis, there was mail that had been sent across thousands of miles.
It was from Second Lieutenant Austin McNaul and it was addressed to their mother Debra McNaul and it was written, every bit of it, in capital letters. "He said," remembers the 'Cat, "'It is great that Bryce is playing so well.' And he said, 'Even if he's not be thankful that he's out there and he's healthy because it's a dream come true for him.' And he goes, 'I'm very proud of him.'"
For the past two Saturdays, against both Michigan State and the Hoosiers, Bryce McNaul has shone, burned brightly and led the 'Cats in tackles. But that is no more than a mere hook for this story, which is replete with the elements of any good novel and with telling testimony to the power of perseverance. It is the tale of a young man who is as well-spoken as Cicero, as mannerly as a maitre d', as perceptive as any Agatha Christie sleuth, and it all begins with the hamstring he pulled three days before he arrived in Evanston for the start of his freshman season as a 'Cat. "I was thinking I had to go above and beyond the training protocols they gave me. It was kind of a foolish, high school, Mr. Invincible thing," he remembers. "I tried to do too much. I didn't really know what my body's limitation were when it came to something like a hamstring pull. What was that? I didn't know. It was actually the first time I was injured as a football player."
He would get through his redshirt year without further scathing, but then came another injury, a separated right shoulder suffered in spring practice. ("I did a good amount of damage to it," he says). He recovered from that, but then blew out his right hamstring on the very first day of practice up at Camp Kenosha. He recovered from that, but throughout that season of '08 suffered chronic subluxing (instability) of his shoulder. Finally, after the Alamo Bowl, he had reconstructive surgery, which solved that issue but kept him idle through spring practice.
Last fall, he now goes on, "I had some dings and bruises, a dislocated finger here and there, and then in the Minnesota game (on Sept. 26), I kind of blew out my right knee. The ACLs and all the tendons held on. I think the doctors, they looked at me, their eyes were wide open when I came in the next morning after they read the MRI. They were, 'You need to say a few prayers. Your knee held on and we don't know how.' I tore my calf and had a bone contusion there in my knee that kept me out until Iowa (on Nov. 7). I wouldn't say I was 100 percent for Iowa. But I came into Iowa (week), I think I practiced a day before I got sicker than I've ever been sick in my life. I had IVs and shots and was in the hospital laid up and they traveled me down to Iowa (where he didn't play). Then I came into Illinois week and made a few plays there at Illinois and started against Wisconsin and played in the Outback Bowl. After the Outback Bowl I was kind of like, 'Where do I go from here? It's now or never for me.'"
Did he ever, through all of this, think he would never make it back?
"I'll be honest. There were a lot of times when I put my face in my hands and said, 'Why me?' I had a lot of phone calls with my family. I try to be there for them. But, shoot, a lot of. . .times I needed a phone call, I needed them to tell me you're going to be fine. They always emphasized not lowering my expectations of myself. Coach (Pat) Fitz(gerald) does too. It's one of those things when you get knocked down, you get knocked down, you get knocked down, do you lower your expectations, do you expect less of yourself? I don't think Coach Fitz would ever let me do that, and my family certainly wouldn't either. So. Yeah. A tremendous motivator, I guess, the injuries were. They never really kept me down."
But, we tell him, studies show that people get most depressed when they are ill or when they lose something they love. Since both fates befall an injured athlete, we then wonder, did he ever get depressed?
"Depressed?" Bryce McNaul repeats. "Definitely. Definitely. I think one of the biggest pains I've felt here during my college years was watching others play the game that I love. It's like your woman is playing that game and, wow, you're so jealous of the guys who are out there. They're able to play. It's not even like I want their spot, I want their plays, their stats. I want that ability to go out there and play. When you're on the sideline, you can either call it in and say poor me, or you can be, like, 'Wait 'til I get out there. I'm going to make the most of it.'"
"I just got a Facebook page so I have the ability to drop him a line," Bryce McNaul says. "I was one of those guys, 'That's immature. There's no point to having a Facebook page. It's kind of like a gossip thing.' But here I am trying to learn how to use it so I can talk to my brother in Afghanistan."
Only now, after missing this season's first two games with one more injury, is Bryce McNaul full healthy and dancing with his woman and, as he once promised himself, making the very most of it. "It's been a tough road for him," says Fitzgerald. "Here's a guy, early in his career, we thought here's a guy who has a chance to be a three, four year starter for us and then injuries popped up. He had a tough road. He had to be patient and fight through some things. He's done a great job of it. I think that's helped him mature and grow and now that sweet taste of success and being productive on the field is just going to make him better and better."
"I know it's been frustrating for him. He'd be going along and getting experience and building confidence, and then he wouldn't be able to play," adds Mike Hankwitz, the 'Cat defensive coordinator. "There's no substitute for that experience and the confidence that comes from playing. If you make a mistake, you fix it the next week. Something else happens, you remember that. He's done a great job of learning from his experiences, remembering those things, and he's become very productive for us. He's a smart football player. He studies, he knows tendencies, so he kind of knows what to expect and when he sees it now, he's got more confidence in triggering and making plays."
"A big part of it, I'm a firm believer in being in the rhythm of the game. That helps a lot," McNaul himself now picks up. "The last -- I don't want to say meaningful because I played a lot on special teams -- but the last time where I played linebacker was back in high school. When I think back to when I was making a lot of plays in high school and stuff, you're in tune with the rhythm of the game and what you can expect from your own performance and your ability, kind of second nature, to flow and read and see plays develop before they do. That just comes from being on the field more. I think it would be very rare if you saw someone come out there like a shot and make a bunch of plays right off the bat. It's very rare. But, yeah. The more I play the more I feel comfortable back there."
Players sometimes say the game unfolds as if in slow motion for them. Has that happened for him?
"Definitely. Yeah. Yeah. Actually it's something I talk about with my grandfather, of all people. He's always emphasizing, 'Let the game slow down for you. Let the game slow down for you.' I never tried to write that off. But those words, man, they're pretty profound the more and more I'm playing here. The game does tend to slow and you start to see things better."
Does he ever see himself on film and wonder, "Damn, how did I do that?"
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't. I'm not sitting back and saying I'm really impressed with myself. But, yeah, you do. So much of your time and your life is invested in what we do here on the field. So if you're dedicated with what you're doing here, you're going to be obsessed, and if you're obsessed, that's all you think about. It's funny how much you think when you're not playing, and then when you're actually playing, you're not really thinking. You're just kind of out there. So you kind of sit back and kind of scratch your head a little bit and say, 'Wow. I am able to go into that mode where I can just play.' That's another big difference between going out there and just doing my job and going out there and making a difference in the game. The ability to just go and play and not so much think about things."
What are his ultimate goals?
"I've got some private things I'd like to reach," he says. "But all I can really ask of myself is to have no regrets. I'm never going to regret playing with an unrelenting attack. I don't want to go out there and hesitate. I don't want to go out there and think too much. I know that's not going to get me where I want to go and I know it's not going to get our team where we want to go."
He finishes relating that missive his brother sent to his mom and now its words -- "A dream come true for him; I'm very proud of him" -- just hang there, hang there surrounded by emotion that is palpable. Then, finally, Bryce McNaul says, "I find a lot of fulfillment in my family and being there for my family and I know he does too. We're a real special bunch, I like to think. So it means the world to me. One of the big motivations for me was always my big brother. There was a sense of urgency (entering this season) knowing that he was going to war, and now he's in Afghanistan and I know his eyes are fixed back here in the States and on what I'm doing.
"So its real neat for me, especially the past couple of weeks. The Michigan State loss was tough. But I felt I had a good game and at least I could send him a few pictures and tell him about a few plays here and there. I know that probably brought a smile to his face, and I know this 'W' at Indiana really made him happy. I know it's a big deal to him. A really big deal."
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