Firmly Rooted: The Story of Husker Brothers
Here is the complete Hail Varsity (http://hailvarsity.com/) cover story I did on Husker football brothers. As the 2015 team struggles to find its way under a new coaching staff, this is a look back at sets of brothers who played during some of the glory years in the program, though a couple of these brothers also weathered the ups and downs of coaching transitions themselves. The story doesn’t so much focus on how the teams they played on fared as it does on the bonds that made these dudes so fiercely loyal to family and to Nebraska. As the headline puts it, these studs were firmly rooted in each other and in Big Red and nothing could shake them loose.
Firmly Rooted: The Story of Husker Brothers
Husker football sometimes truly becomes a band of brothers
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in Hail Varsity Magazine (http://hailvarsity.com/)
Nebraska recruits football players where it finds them. sometimes even in the same family. Several brother combos have played for NU. Once in a while they’re part of the same recruiting class but usually they arrive a few years apart.
Once in a great while a set of twins plays for the Huskers, including Josh and Daniel Bullocks (2001-2004). The 2015 recruit class includes another pair in Khalil and Carlos Davis, whose uncle is former Husker Lorenzo Hicks. The two freshmen are redshirting this year.
More than a few uncles, nephews and cousins have shared a familial Nebraska football lineage. There’ve been some father-son sets as well as father-son-grandson combos.
Some Husker brother duos have achieved fame on different sides of the ball (Grant and Tracey Wistrom) but most left their mark on the same side of the field, usually defense. Clete and Jim Pillen, Toby and Jimmy Williams, Christian and Jason Pete were all defensive stalwarts as were the Craver, Shanle and Booker brothers. In most cases, brother sets have been solid contributors rather than stars. That’s true of the Cottons, only that clan added a generational element. The patriarch, Barney, played at NU and sons Jake, Ben and now Sam have suited up for the Big Red. He coached two of them.
Waves of brothers come and go. The 1998 through 2003 classes saw a bumper crop. There was a dry spell until Jake and Spencer Long and the Cotton boys came long. More than a decade passed between Kris Brown and his much younger brother Drew playing for NU.
Saturday’s gridiron warriors are the subject of intense scrutiny at a Nebraska. When siblings wear the scarlet and cream, one’s success creates expectations for the other. It doesn’t always happen but more often than not success does carry over.
Four sets of siblings emblematic of this family heritage tradition are the Craigs (Curtis and Roger), the Makovickas (Jeff and Joel), the Ruuds (Barrett and Bo) and the Kelsays (Chad and Chris) Standout players, all. The Craigs and Makovickas did their thing on offense, while the Ruuds and Kelsays did theirs on defense. In each case, a younger brother followed an older brother’s lead. Their stories reveal genetics play a role, as do shared traits and values. Having a brother precede you or be there helps, but you still have to earn it yourself.
Curtis Craig was a Big Deal at Davenport (Iowa) Central High in the early 1970s. The all-everything back selected NU over other powerhouse programs. Bothered by a nagging high ankle sprain suffered at the end of his prep career, he never played I-back in Lincoln but found his niche at wingback.
By his senior year, his little brother Roger was making hay back in Davenport playing for the same coaches, Jim Fox and Jack Leabo, who mentored him. Separated by almost five years, Curtis was conscious of being a model for those behind him.
“I’m the oldest of seven kids,” he says. “The younger ones were watching me because they looked up to me, so I felt I had to step up and set the example. All I was doing was giving back what was given to me. That’s kind of how the tradition is. Whatever you learn in your time you look to give back to those trying to follow your footsteps.”
Roger took careful note of his big brother.
“I always followed him. He was kind of like my hero as a kid growing up. He was a great role model for me. He did all the right things. Without him I wouldn’t be where I am today,” says Roger, who starred at I-back and fullback at NU before a Hall of Fame-worthy NFL career.
Roger credits hanging around and playing pickup games with Curtis and his buddies for helping mature him beyond his years.
“I watched how he trained and practiced and I got in there and did things with him.”
Curtis says he was motivated to earn a college scholarship because his folks couldn’t afford to pay for school. His experience exposed Roger to NU coaches and provided an inside look at the program.
“I told him this is what’s going to happen, this is what you need to do.”
Curtis didn’t have that luxury when he arrived at NU.
“I didn’t have anybody to tell me what to do when I got there. I had to just kind of figure it out and then go from there.”
When Curtis was a senior he was still putting Roger through his paces
“He worked with me. He was like a coach,” Roger says.
Big brother touted his little brother to Husker coaches.
Curtis recalls, “I knew he was going to have the possibility to do more than what I did. I said to the staff, ‘ You need to go look at my brother, he’s going to be a good one,’ They did and the rest is history. When you come from a family that has a scholarship athlete the coaches always go back to try and recruit your siblings who are good athletes, too.”
As a tribute to Curtis, whose No. 33 was retired at Davenport Central, Roger wore that number with the San Francisco 49rs.
“I carried Curt with me in the NFL,” Roger says. “I have a lot of respect for my brother.”
Jeff and Joel Makovicka
A duo who took the walk-on route to Husker glory, Jeff and Joel Makovicka, may be the only brother ball carrier combo in Husker history. Reared on a Brainard, Neb. farm, these siblings separated by four years learned values about doing your best that carried them through 8-man football, careers at NU and all the way to the NFL.
Big brother Jeff says with kid brother Joel watching him, “it increased the importance that I did the right thing.”
The pair always saw themselves playing at NU, they just weren’t sure they’d ever get the chance.
Joel says seeing Jeff make, fueled his own fire.
“When Jeff got there and he succeeded I knew it became not just a goal that was a dream, it was more an attainable and achievable goal and so it made me work that much harder.”
Once Joel joined him on campus, Jeff showed him the ropes. “I knew i had to carry on what we were taught at home. We were in Lincoln, but I told Joel, ‘That doesn’t mean you leave the farm – the farm’s still in you and dad’s still around in your head.'”
Joel relied on Jeff to get him through his first year.
“I remember talking to him not knowing if this was going to be right for me and him saying, ‘Hang in there, everybody goes through this.’
There’s a lot of times I had to lean on him to get to where I wanted to be and he was there for me. It was an adjustment, especially from where we came from, playing 8-man football.”
Joel appreciates that Jeff’s road was tougher than his.
“It was lot harder for him to go to Nebraska because he was the first one to go. He kind of paved the way. He got his foot in the door and then widened the door for me to get there.”
Another advantage of Jeff being there ahead of him was Joel meeting the coaching staff, watching practice and “knowing what to expect.”
Jeff says it wasn’t all him helping Joel but Joel helping him as well.
“It provided a great amount of benefit to me having a younger brother there, especially when I was a senior. We roomed together on the road. For the pre-game routine we made a point to be out there stretching together. We’d often discuss points of the game. During the game, when I’d come off the field, I’d say to him, ‘Hey, did you see that set. Did you see that tendency?’ Did i get the cut block?’ And you’d get such a brutally honest assessment because it was your brother.”
Jeff recognizes the long odds he and Joel overcame to become fullbacks for national title teams (Jeff in 1994 and 1995 and Joel in 1997). Joel was Jeff’s backup in ’95.
“It’s really special. I knew he was going to be this great one because I’d seen him playing with guys three-four years older than him,” Jeff says.
In the ’95 season finale versus Oklahoma NU was driving late when Jeff came out and Joel went in and broke off a memorable scoring run marked by broken tackles, grit and determination.
“That kind of run in that game against that team solidified in my mind he was going to be OK and represented everything we’re about,” says Jeff about that passing-the-torch moment.
The Makovickas are proud of setting the physical tone for NU then.
“Theres no question,” Joel says. “We also take pride in carrying the banner for the walk-ons and kind of having that chip on our shoulder that, you know what, maybe you didn’t think we were good enough coming out of high school to earn a scholarship but you’re damn well going to give us one when we get there.”
Joel went onto a fine NFL career but injuries never allowed Jeff to stay healthy long enough to secure a spot.
The family pipeline continued with younger brothers Justin and Jordan, who grew up around the NU program, until they opted to leave.
Speaking of pipelines, the Ruuds are a three-generation Husker clan. Clarence Swanson was an early 20th century stud. His great-grandson Tom Ruud was a force at linebacker six decades later. Other relatives and close family friends also played for the Huskers.
Tom’s two boys, Barrett and Bo, followed his example to become linebackers. They developed under the tutelage of youth coaches and Lincoln Southeast coach Chuck Mizerski and alongside future Division I athletes. it was like growing up in the “family business.”
“It was never like a pipe-dream to be successful at football,” Barrett says. “We saw a lot guys up close and personal live that out, so we knew it was attainable. The one thing our dad would point out to us is it takes a lot of work to get there and that the guys that work the hardest tend to have the most success. We weren’t pushed into any sports but once we decided that’s what we wanted to do we had a lot of resources as far as what it took to be successful. A lot of kids have no idea when they first start playing sports. The more serious we got we could ask questions about what did it take to reach the next level.”
Only a year-and-a-half apart, the Ruud boys grew up doing pretty much everything together, so whatever Barrett got into first, Bo followed suit.
Bo says, “We grew up playing against each other from day one. It was always great competition. We both loved it. We both loved playing football and basketball and golf and whatever we could do to play and compete at.”
When he first got to Nebraska, Barrett had to make his own way. When Bo arrived, his big brother had his back.
“I went in there as a freshman learning on the fly,” Barrett says, “as opposed to Bo coming in and having me already there. He had a little more of a comfort zone. He already knew the work he was getting into for the most part. That’s probably the biggest difference to having a brother in the program.”
Bo agrees, saying, “I think there’s a big advantage being the younger brother. You get to see how it’s done a little bit before you get there.
Plus, having your brother is another friend you’ve got on the team.”
Bo says playing together for a dynasty high school program and the storied Nebraska program they grew up idolizing is “a pretty neat deal.” “It just happened the way it happened without planning it. We both had a desire to make it to the next level and we obviously grew up in a Husker family. It’s just something we always wanted to do.” The brothers were with each on their respective NFL draft days. While Barrett’s long NFL career with Tampa Bay is well-documented, it’s not widely known that Bo’s final three weeks in The League were spent with Barrett in the Buccaneers’ preseason camp before being cut.
Always close, the brothers drew even closer when their mother, who was their biggest fan, died suddenly of a heart attack.
“You naturally lean on each other and your whole family when something like that happens,” Barrett says.
The brothers enjoy fly fishing together.
Before Chad and Chris Kelsay came along, their hometown of Auburn, Neb. hadn’t produced a scholarship Husker football player in decades. Chad, the eldest by two years, was a Big Red fan but wasn’t sure he was D-I material until attending an NU camp.
“I tested out real well and that kind of put me on the radar of Nebraska.”
With Chris wrecking havoc the next year for Auburn, he became a hot recruiting target, too.
Chad says, “Chris got to know the coaching staff real well and as Chris was coming up through high school it was obvious he was going to have an opportunity to play football at the collegiate level he knew the coaching staff and they started recruiting him.”
“Having two brothers from a community the size of Auburn play at Nebraska was exciting for the town,” Chad says.
Two years apart in age, the brothers were there years apart in school.
Chad’s exploits at rush end naturally inspired Chris, who says his transition to college life and football was helped by having Chad there..
“Ever since we were little kids growing up I always looked up to him both in the classroom and on the football field in how he went about his business. So it was definitely a benefit I tried to take advantage of and I think in the long run it kind of put me ahead of the cart compared to a lot of guys coming in there.”
Neither brother was the most athletically gifted player, but they made up for it with a work ethic they ascribe to their rural growing up.
“If you don’t have it in you and its not how you’ve been brought up, it’s harder to just flip a switch and all of a sudden be a guy that’s going to work harder than everybody else,” Chad says.
Once again defying the odds, both made it to the NFL, though Chad’s stint there ended before Chris joined the league.
“That’s pretty special. Not too many people can say that. We’re blessed to have had the opportunity to do what we’ve done,” Chris says.
Long retired from the game, the Kelsays are together again, this time as sales representatives at Truck Center Companies in Omaha.