Commentary

Nebraska wrestler Brester follows Olympian Vering's path to Lincoln

Originally Published: February 25, 2009
By Alisha Ricardi | ESPN.com

In the tiny town of Howells, Neb., 12-year-old twins Heath and Hunter Schroeder don their bedroom walls with posters of their idols.

There's Brett Favre and Jeff Gordon. And alongside those legends are images of Brad Vering and Craig Brester.

Not so familiar with the latter two names? Unless you're a wrestling buff, you're probably not alone.

Craig Brester
Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Media Relations After finishing fourth at the NCAAs last year, Craig Brester is working for the title.

But among the roughly 640 people who populate Howells, those names are famous. They belong to two of the town's very own -- a two-time Olympic wrestler and the young Nebraska Cornhusker who could follow in his footsteps. And although the Schroeder twins are the sons of the man who coached both those athletes through high school, they certainly are not the only kids in town to place Vering and Brester among their sports heroes.

Vering is no stranger to wrestling's spotlight. The 31-year-old was the three-time Nebraska state champion from 1994 to 1996 and the 2000 NCAA national champion at 197 pounds. He competed in Greco-Roman for the 2004 U.S. Olympic team, and was the No. 2 wrestler in the world at 185 pounds heading into the 2008 Beijing Games, where he finished 12th.

Brester is not as well known to the wrestling community -- yet.

A junior 197-pound contender, Brester has quickly found success at Nebraska. In two seasons, he has pulled off consecutive second-place finishes at the Big 12 championships and made back-to-back trips to the NCAA championships, where his fourth-place finish last year was enough for All-America honors.

So for Brester, who is 27-3 this season, to eventually find his way to his own national title and USA wrestling career seems almost inevitable -- not only because of the direction in which he is heading, but because of the place from which both he and Vering came.

Ninety-two miles north of Lincoln, Neb., lies Howells, a farming town through and through. Parents rise well before dawn to begin the day's work on the farms, and children go home after school to do their share. Hard work is not just a way of life in Howells; it's a state of being. Add that instilled mindset to a natural athlete, and it's a killer combination.

"Most of our kids that have been successful are farm kids," said Lee Schroeder, who coached both Vering and Brester at Howells High School before retiring two years ago. "They know how to work and know sweat and blood, and they're not scared of it."

Brad Vering
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesTwo-time Olympian Brad Vering, above in red, remains close with hometown friend Brester.

Howells has excelled not only in wrestling -- the town has won four of the past six state team titles and boasts its first four-time state champion in Bryan Mejstrik (2006 to 2009) -- but also in football. Howells' 41-26 victory over Axtell this past November gave the football team its seventh Class D-1 eight-man state championship in the past nine seasons.

Howells proves that from hard-working athletes comes success -- no matter how small the talent pool might be.

Brester is a prime example. The son of farmers, he grew up doing basic chores on his family's land -- feeding the cattle, the horses and the hogs and tending to the crops as needed.

Schroeder would hold summer practice sessions early enough to have wrestlers like Brester home by 8 a.m. to get to work on the farms. During the school year, it wasn't unusual for Brester and his teammates to finish a wrestling match only to head home to do chores.

"You definitely learn hard work real quick growing up on a farm," said Brester, 22, who is still close with Schroeder and Vering. "… It was just what was expected of you, to work hard. It got me on the right track to where I'm headed."

Schroeder might also have a lot to do with that.

"He's just a really good guy -- he'd do anything for you … he's just a smart guy," Vering said of Schroeder, whose constant openness to learning new wrestling techniques Vering credits for the growth of Howells' wrestlers. "He's always trying to help us improve and get our lives in order, kind of like a father figure, I'd say. It's easy to focus on wrestling because everything else is in order."

That's because in a town where community means family, the support system never wavers; it isn't unusual for 100 people to make the trek from Howells to Lincoln to cheer on Brester in a home match.

"There's no pressure," Brester said of his hometown's enthusiasm for its athletes. "But when you're in practice, you think about it. Everyone comes down and supports you, and it kind of drives you like that. It makes you work harder to make them proud."

Having coached Vering for a season after arriving at Nebraska in 2000 and having spent nearly three years now with Brester under his wing, Huskers coach Mark Manning knows athletes from Howells are a different breed.

"A lot of [Brester's] upbringing -- how his mom and dad raised him, the culture of living on a farm and doing chores … every day, being a part of a team on the farm -- I think Craig has learned a valuable lesson that most kids probably don't learn," Manning said. "And he learned that in 18 years of life, and it carried over into wrestling.

"The standard was set when he was on the farm and doing work. He brings that into wrestling and just gets it done."

[+] EnlargeCraig Brester and Mark Manning
Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Media Relations Nebraska coach Mark Manning believes Brester can go far in wrestling.

Although Manning sees few similarities between Vering and Brester on the mat, he said the extraordinary attitude and work ethic both possess is undeniable. And so he -- as well as Schroeder and Vering -- easily could see Brester following Vering's path in wrestling, if Brester so chooses. Manning and Brester have yet to discuss the junior's postgrad plans, but Manning said the conversation will come up this spring after the season is over.

"That's a little ways in the future," Brester, the No. 2 wrestler in his weight class, said of possibly continuing to wrestle after Nebraska, "but right now I'm just focused on my college career and trying to accomplish goals this season and next year, too."

Those goals include becoming the Big 12 and national champion.

To get there, Brester has some work to do, after falling 3-2 to No. 1 Jake Varner in the Huskers' Senior Day dual with Iowa State on Sunday.

About 200 to 300 Howells fans showed up to that match in Lincoln to show their support. Schroeder was there, and although Vering couldn't make the trip from his home in Colorado Springs, Colo., he watched online. Then Schroeder and Vering called each other on Schroeder's way home to figure out how Brester could have beat Varner, so that if the two end up paired against each other at nationals, Brester can come out on top.

That's Howells for ya.

Alisha Ricardi is an editor for ESPN.com. E-mail her at espn.ar@gmail.com.