Cornell's Brautigam overcomes to play the game he loves

Cornell's Nick Brautigam has overcome a lot to play football for the Rams

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His blonde hair is long. We're talking Clay Matthews long.

The Green Bay Packers linebacker actually might look at Nick Brautigam's shoulder-length flow and say "Dang, that dude's got some long hair."

"It'll be two years ago this weekend, actually," Brautigam said about his last appointment at the barber shop. "It's the second most important relationship in my life, next to my girlfriend of five years."

He swears he's going to cut it at the end of the football season. It's going to be short and neat the rest of the way.

But he can't do it, yet.

It began with he and some of his Cornell College teammates thinking it looked cool. Now it's become sort of a superstition.

Brautigam refused to get a haircut after he blew out his left knee for the second time early last season. If shorter hair meant injuries, long hair must mean strength and staying healthy.

Makes sense, right?

"All I thought after I got hurt last year was 'This can't be true? Not again. I thought it was all over,'" Brautigam said. "But deep down I keep playing for a love of the game. It's just not time for me to give it up."

If anyone has a reason to give it up, it's Nick Brautigam. It's unreal what he has gone through physically in the last four years.

He tore his left ACL the first time as a senior in high school at Dubuque Wahlert. He was hoping for a scholarship to play at the University of Iowa until it happened.

His status changed to preferred walk-on at Iowa after that, so he decided to play at Division II Northern Michigan.

"I do think about what it would have been like playing in front of 70,000, 80,000 people. Playing on ESPN. That was always my dream," he said. "But everything happens for a reason."

Brautigam had surgery for a torn right labrum after getting hurt in a basketball game his senior year. He blew out his right knee as a freshman in college.

Nick decided to transfer to Cornell when his father, Vince, got the head coaching job three years ago. He never would have gotten that chance had he never gotten hurt.

That's the only neat thing about this whole deal.

"I love it," he said. "I grew up being on his sidelines as a little kid. That's all I ever wanted to do was to play for him. Coming out of high school, I had some scholarships and D-I looks. That didn't really work out. When he got the job here, it was a no brainer to transfer from Northern Michigan. Playing for my dad has always been my dream."

"I'm proud of him," Vince Brautigam said. "Just by the pure fact of what his body has gone through. If there was a comeback player of the year, by ESPN or whoever, it's him. He's been through so much and keeps playing."

That was in serious question after his re-tore his left ACL in Cornell's second game last season. Playing for his dad and an up-and-coming program is great and all, but when is enough, enough?

Nick talked to his family and his girlfriend, Brianna Neyen, for advice.

"The second time there was so much more anguish," said Allison Brautigam, Nick's mom. "After the first ACL, there was no question whatsoever that we was going to play again. I basically just told him that I will love no matter what you choose. I've been proud of you since the day you were born and that won't change, even if you don't play football anymore.

"Deep in my heart, I don't want him to play. But I also know that he loves it. It's been a long, hard work for Nick. He's a tough kid."

There's zero question about that. Nick said he'll have a difficult time getting out of bed and moving around for a couple of days after a game.

The shoulder isn't really an issue, but arthritis already has begun to set in his knees.

"Fighting through the injuries is hard," Brautigam said. "Coming back, if it were up to me and my well being and all that kind of stuff, I think I would have called it quits already. But it's not about me. It's about this coaching staff and the players around me, and everybody that depends on me. So you just brace up, and hopefully stay healthy this year."

Knock on wood, or tug on his hair, Brautigam has stayed healthy. He's averaging 8.5 tackles per game for Cornell (2-2), which hosts St. Norbert on Saturday afternoon at Ash Park.

That includes a mammoth 19-tackle outing two weeks ago against Monmouth. He had 15 solo stops, a Cornell single-game record.

Quite a player, quite a story in perserverence.

"Getting hurt again is definitely in my mind on Saturdays," he admitted. "Every game, I put the brace on my knees, it's a reminder of what has happened."

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