IOWA CITY, Iowa — When the basement wasn’t Grand Central Station, it was Madison Square Garden. The carpet served as the makeshift mat. Every couch cushion doubled as a potential launching point. Lord help the love seat.
“Never a dull moment,” Lou Ann Niemann, super mom of Iowa Hawkeyes linebackers Ben and Nick, said with a laugh, “whether they were slam-dunking the basketball or playing King Kong. A lot of times, they would just have WWE wrestling matches and move the furniture out of the way.”
The adjustable basketball hoop rested perilously close to the ping-pong table. The ping-pong table rested perilously close to the drywall.
Throw in a pair of growing, frisky siblings born two years apart, and you can start to do the math.
Also, the invoices.
“You’d probably have to see it to believe it,” recalled their father, Jay Niemann, the Rutgers defensive coordinator and occasional brother-vs.-brother referee over the years. “Yeah, the drywall repairman has been to our house more than once, let’s put it that way.
“Ben and Nick love to compete in everything they do. And when you bring friends to the house, there’s four or five of them and there are going to be times when things get out of control.”
And yet, up close, Ben Niemann, the senior defender, comes off too poised, too level, too dang nice to carry a rap sheet of accidental home wreckage from Waterloo to Abilene. Of course, he also ran with a neighborhood crew in Indianola, Iowa, that featured three guys who’d eventually play football at Iowa; two more who’d play at Western Illinois; and another who would run track at Iowa State.
“So we got into some pretty intense games,” Ben said. “It’s kind of funny, but we had some great times out there.”
‘Little brother’s a little bit bigger’
They’re a package deal, in good times and bad. Mission trips. Fishing getaways. Football. Especially football. A dozen years earlier, Ben and Nick were slinging it around for the Dolphins of the Indianola Youth Football League, a roster that also included future Hawkeyes guard Keegan Render.
“I mean all the backyard football games, Wiffle ball, [Nick] was right there,” Ben said. “We’d be on the same team, honestly, a lot, getting paired up against the neighborhood kids just to even out the teams. We basically did all that stuff growing up together.”
The games have always been there — the family muse, the family bond, the family business. When Ben and Nick were Dolphins, Dad was the head coach at Division III Simpson College, his fifth stop on a journey that stretched from Western Washington (1985) to Drake (1989-1996) to Northern Iowa (1997-2001) to the Storm (2002-2007).
Ben counted six different moves growing up; Nick counted five.
“But I loved it,” Ben said. “It’s great, just being able to call [Dad] up on the phone. And he understands what I’m going through and … he’s coached so many guys in our sport, and having a father figure like him to look up to is big-time. And we moved a lot, and at times that was tough, but every spot, we were able to make great friends, and the transition was pretty smooth, so yeah, I wouldn’t change anything.”
“[Jay] was never too hard on us; he always wanted us to be happy and do whatever we wanted to do,” said Nick, who redshirted for the Hawkeyes last fall. “I think he wanted us to pursue football, but he never forced it on us.
“I mean, I always liked football and I wanted to play, and having him as a coach was kind of nice, because you didn’t want to let him down. You want to do the best you could and live up to his expectations. He wasn’t hard on us, but he kind of internally pushed me a little bit harder.”
At every turn, they’ve met the bar. Ben’s made 27 straight starts at outside linebacker for the Hawkeyes, anchored a division champion defense in 2015, and was tapped as an Academic All-Big Ten selection a year ago. Nick was a linebacker/tight end and captain as a senior at Sycamore (Ill.) High School as a senior in 2015, rated by 247Sports as a 3-star prospect with 5-star upside.
“Ben used to push him around and get in his face,” Lou Ann said. “And I love it now because Nick’s actually a little bigger than Ben. Ben’s got to behave now. Little brother’s a little bit bigger.”
“We’ve been pretty close ever since we were little, yeah,” Nick says. “We haven’t played [basketball] in a while, but when we were younger, he usually beat me. We were both really competitive. I got pretty mad at him.”
What’d you do to retaliate?
“Nothing,” Nick replied. Then he shrugged. “Just got back, tried to beat him the next time.”
‘He knew in his heart that’s where he wanted to be’
They’re relentless as hell, classic coach’s sons, two steps and three chess moves ahead. The smiles and lean builds are a matching set, and it amuses Lou Ann to no end to hear that Nick sometimes gets called “Ben” on campus, and vice versa.
“They’re both very personable, but Ben is more serious,” Mom said. “Nick is probably just a little bit more light-hearted.
“Nick loves the outdoors — if he can get a minute to go fishing, that was the last thing he did before fall camp. Ben enjoys the outdoors, but Nick, since he was little, has always had a fishing pole in his hand.”
And yet the younger Niemann ultimately eschewed interest from lakeside campuses at Wisconsin and Northwestern in order to be a big fish in Iowa City. Just like old times.
“I kept my options open throughout the whole process,” Nick explained, “but it’s always nice to have an older sibling there who can help you when you’re new, who can just get involved and plug in right away, just [for] learning the defense and kind of learning the ropes. Someone I can easily look up to and know I’ll get good advice from.”
Nick also watched his father’s journey continue from Simpson to Hardin-Simmons (2008-2010) in Texas, then Northern Illinois (2011-2015) and Rutgers. Football connections cast a wide net, but the younger Niemann also couldn’t out of his skull the good times with the kids back in Indianola, the friends who never left. Even after he did.
“Deep down, I felt like Iowa was where he wanted to be all along,” said Jay, who played linebacker at Iowa State and hails from the southwestern Iowa town of Avoca, eight minutes north of Lou Ann’s native Hancock. “He had other offers from other places, but Iowa — he knew in his heart that’s where he wanted to be.”
“Jay had to take a step back with both boys and be a dad and not be selfish as a coach,” Lou Ann noted. “Nick really liked Wisconsin and really liked Northwestern but at the end of the day, he was at Iowa.
“I was grateful. Some of the other schools knew that was where he ultimately wanted to be, so it’s easier to have both boys together.”
So long as you hide the ping-pong table.
“I was playing my dad, and he hit a shot off the corner and I dove for it and my shoulder went straight through the wall,” Ben recalled. “So yeah, pretty intense. Honestly, we just tried to have fun. But we’re competitive and I think that helped us get to where we are.”
Mind you, this lady helped carry the baton across the line, too:
Happy Mother’s Day to the best Mom two boys could ask for! We love you Lou Ann! pic.twitter.com/GLL1Xh4kzc
— Jay Niemann (@CoachNiemann) May 12, 2014
Mom can be easy to miss on Saturdays at Kinnick Stadium, unless you get a really good look. Lou Ann wears a Hawkeye jersey with Ben’s No. 44 on the front and Nick’s No. 49 on the back, custom-made via mail order.
Never a dull moment.
“I tried to do it [in Iowa City] and nobody on campus would do it,” she said, laughing again. “But it’s a great problem to have.”
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