Putting their faith on the line

| September 25, 2013 | 0 Comments
From left, Christian Triplett, Kevin Kneisl, Wyatt Russek, Ben Jacobs and Walker Russek all bring their Catholic faith to the offensive line at Delano High School.  Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

From left, Christian Triplett, Kevin Kneisl, Wyatt Russek, Ben Jacobs and Walker Russek all bring their Catholic faith to the offensive line at Delano High School. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

When five members of the Delano High School football team take the field on a Friday night, their task is simple: move people across from them so each of the team’s three star running backs can whisk by on his way to the end zone.

At a combined weight of nearly 1,300 pounds, these starters on the offensive line present a formidable obstacle for opposing defenders who hope to bring down Delano ball carriers.

In fact, the quintet of blockers — three seniors, a sophomore and a ninth-grader — are a big reason why the Tigers are undefeated and ranked No. 3 in the state in Class 4A. Delano has aspirations to not only get to the state tournament, but win it all.

Yet, the center of these linemen’s lives is not football, even though they are in the thick of a regular season that includes a conference game against defending Class 4A Hutchinson. As fun as the game is for them, and as much as they enjoy playing together, what binds them together is faith — specifically, their Catholic faith.

All five starting linemen — seniors Ben Jacobs, left guard; Wyatt Russek, right guard; and Christian Triplett, right tackle; sophomore Kevin Kneisl, left tackle; and ninth-grader Walker Russek, center  — are members of Delano Catholic Community. They pray together before every game, see each other at Mass on  Sunday, and their spiritual presence is felt as far away as Africa.

Helping those in need

Chemistry is said to be an important part of the effectiveness of any offensive line — at every level all the way up to the pros — and these five players have forged a bond that carries from the football field to the church building of St. Peter, one of two worship sites in the parish.

And, this bond will last far beyond the end of this season, which they hope will extend all the way to Thanksgiving weekend, when state championship games are played.

Even now, three of the players are looking ahead to next summer, when they will travel together to a small village in the African country of Uganda to help build a science lab for the school at Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in Bethany, not far from the capital city of Kampala.

For one of the three players, Wyatt Russek, it will be his second trip to the village. He went in the summer of 2012, and he intends to go back, this time with his brother, Walker, and Kneisl.

It all began in 2010 when the Russeks reached out to a family in need a half mile from their house. Jeff Reither and his wife Laura, who belong to St. Anne in Hamel where Laura works, have a son, Isaiah, who has Down syndrome and serious heart problems.

Jeff and Laura, who have seven children and No. 8 on the way, were spending a lot of time driving their son to Gillette Children’s Hospital in St. Paul and couldn’t do ordinary things like mow the lawn.

“We did not expect him to live,” Jeff said. “He’s had five open heart surgeries. We’ve been in the hospital 29 times now — 29 different times over 200-and-some nights.”

In the midst of going back and forth to the hospital, Jeff opened an email from Stephanie Russek, mother of Wyatt and Walker, and wife of Eric, who was an offensive lineman for Delano and now is a varsity assistant coach.

“I don’t know how they got my email,” Jeff said. “That was when [Stephanie] said, ‘I know you will not ask for help, but we are going to do your lawn for the year.’ And, that’s how I met the boys. They would come down every week, they’d bike down and mow the lawn and do the weeds.”

Eventually, the conversations went beyond football to faith. When Wyatt was confirmed last year, Jeff was his sponsor. And, Jeff saw evidence of Wyatt’s strong faith even before the mission trip a year ago.

As he got to know the boys, Jeff brought up the mission trip and said he was going with a group from his hometown parish of St. Mary in Neillsville, Wis. Wyatt expressed interest, but his parents were reluctant to let him go, as he had never traveled overseas before.

Then, he did something that surprised everyone.

“Wyatt led a novena for his family,” Jeff said of the boy’s intent to show that he was serious about going. “Wyatt leading that novena was impressive to me.”
What’s more, Jeff considers Wyatt one of the quieter members of the offensive line, and figures it would be harder for him to speak up about his desire to go on a mission trip.

On the field, the five starters prefer to let their running backs get the accolades, while they quietly open rushing lanes. And, make no mistake — the backs have had huge holes to run through. Delano’s run-first offense has amassed nearly 1,000 rushing yards in its first three games, with individual backs getting as many as 250 a game.

“Our offensive line coach told us that he wants 350 a game and we’ve been close [to that amount],” said Wyatt, one of two team captains, along with Triplett. “We like the pressure. We’ve all trained for this all summer. We’ve been playing since fifth grade together, us three [seniors]. We’ve all had different positions, and Christian just got moved to the line this year. He was tight end before.”

Perhaps the most surprising addition to the line this year was Walker, who was happy to just make varsity. But, his size, strength and maturity convinced long-time head coach Merrill Pavlovich to give him a try as a starter.

It couldn’t be a better fit for Walker, who, literally, has become the center of it all. He knows he shares the same faith as his fellow offensive linemen, and that means he will get more help than criticism, even when he makes mistakes.

“We all know each other very well from church,” said Triplett, who is the largest member of the line at 6-foot-4, 290 pounds, and is being recruited by several Division I schools, including the University of Minnesota. “I think we just are able to guide ourselves with each other to make blocks and do the right things on the line.”

Faith champions

The truth is, these five do the right things on the line and off the line. That’s one reason Eric Russek enjoys watching them and coaching them. It has been a treat to see his two oldest boys play side by side, following in the tradition of Delano football started by Eric’s father, Jim, who played for the Tigers in the 1960s.

“It’s very special,” Eric said. “I never expected it to happen — very, very cool. All of these guys, I’m proud of every one of them. I’ve worked with them and been on retreats with these guys.

“None of these guys has any bad baggage. They’re all good, clean kids. They all get good grades. I don’t see them getting in trouble at school, ever. They are leaders in the classroom and on the football team, too. They all could be captains in one way or another because of the way they lead.”

And, as they make a strong push to become state champions, they already have become, in the eyes of family, friends and coaches, faith champions.

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