Iowa fullback Brady Ross plays with heavy heart
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Brady Ross will write his father’s initials on his wrist tape — again — and stride onto the Raymond James Stadium turf to compete in the Jan. 2 Outback Bowl with a new purpose.
The Iowa fullback has been playing all season with his dad’s death weighing heavily on his mind. He carries constant wrist-tape reminders of Todd Ross, who died July 20 at age 50.
“I always think about him a lot, so that won’t change anything,” Ross told reporters last week ahead of the Hawkeyes’ matchup with Florida in the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla.
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What’s new is this will be the first full game for Ross without his kindred spirit and fellow fullback Drake Kulick. Kulick suffered a gruesome broken leg during a pileup on Iowa’s first play against Nebraska on Nov. 25, leaving Ross, a redshirt freshman, to come on and play the rest of the snaps in that 40-10 win.
Kulick shook his injury off to wave and give a thumbs-up gesture to the crowd while being carted off the field.
“He’s cut from a different cloth,” Ross said with a soft laugh. “Might as well go out like a badass.”
It’s as apt a word as any to describe fullbacks in general. Not only is the position an endangered species — the NFL All-Pro team will no longer include a designated fullback for the first time this year — but those who play it are typically unrecognizable to the average fan.
Ross wears the anonymity with a sense of pride and said he’ll be competing in the Outback Bowl as a way to honor Kulick.
“We’re just really lucky to be able to play the game of football,” said Ross, who was a star tailback at Humboldt High School and came to Iowa intending to play linebacker.
Fullback was a fallback option. And Ross fell hard, embracing the new position during two summers spent back home learning how to get lower to the ground.
“When I transitioned to fullback, I struggled mightily to learn the techniques. You’re in high school, chances are you’re the biggest, fastest, strongest guy on the field and they’re going to hand you the ball and you can just run straight up and down and you don’t have a worry in the world,” said Ross, who scored 46 touchdowns at Humboldt.
“Here, if you run into (linebacker) Josey Jewell with your hat high in the air, you’re going to feel it. So I had to learn how to stay low and run low. I would go to my high school field in the summer and get really low and run around in circles, trying to pound the muscle memory into me. Because you can think about all that stuff, but once the bullets start flying, you’ve just got to pound it in your muscle memory.”
Fortunately, Ross said, there were no witnesses to his bizarre workout regimen. But it did work. The 6-foot-1, 240-pounder earned a timeshare with Kulick, a junior, at a position that Iowa values like few other major-college football programs.
When your primary objective as an athlete is to keep your head low to the ground, you have to live with the fact that others are going to get the glory. Iowa gained 3,999 yards in its 8-4 regular season. Ross accounted for eight of them — a six-yard pass reception at Rutgers and a two-yard rush at Illinois.
The Hawkeyes won both games, meaning they are undefeated in contests in which Ross carries the ball.
“The offensive line did a tremendous job. It’s very fun playing behind those guys. A lot of what we do is based on what they do. If they don’t get movement, it’s going to be tough for us,” Ross said.
Tailbacks LeShun Daniels Jr. and Akrum Wadley are on the verge of becoming the first Hawkeye duo to each eclipse 1,000 rushing yards in a season. Surely, Ross had some hand in that?
“Those two guys are special in their own way,” Ross said, keeping his head low as usual. “A lot of times, they’ll cover for your mistakes.”
The only thing that gets Ross’s voice to rise is talk of short-yardage situations. These are the stuff of dreams for fullbacks.
Case in point: Ross’s first play as a Hawkeye was a second-and-goal from the 1-yard line. It was the first quarter of the season-opener against Miami of Ohio. Ross blocked; Daniels scored. Ross looked up and saw 70,000 fans screaming at Kinnick Stadium.
This is his adrenaline rush.
“Everyone knows what you’re going to do. You’ve just got to line up and do it,” Ross said.
“You’ve got to get fired up. I used to bite my shirt when I was little and I’d get in fights with my brothers (Spencer and Taylor). I obviously can’t do that now. You’ve got to bear down on your mouthguard and try to pry a hole open.”
With that, Ross’s interviews were concluded. He had to exit the Iowa football complex anyway.
Kulick was waiting to give him a ride home. Just two fullbacks sharing another journey.