PITTSBURG — This kind of verbal shorthand, of invented language, is acquired only through years of friendship.
John Brown and Nate Dreiling — two of the greatest football players in Pittsburg State history — communicate in this manner.
Take the series of conversations they had, on a recent afternoon just days after practice started, en route from the Weede Athletic Complex to Carnie Smith Stadium.
As they talk about the toughness of players from big cities versus small towns:
“Not everybody can be as tough as kids who grow up in western Kansas,” Dreiling says, smiling. “Right, John?”
Brown, from Miami, lets out a belly laugh.
“You’re wrong for that,” he says. “You know that ain’t right!”
On a group of co-eds chanting on a sorority row lawn during rush week, just blocks from the stadium:
“They’re waiting for Nate, right?” Brown asks no one in particular.
“Just because you’re ugly,” Dreiling says.
More laughter from Brown.
As they walk by a friend they have in common — a guy named Phil:
“Phil,” Brown says, smiling.
They both laugh.
“Good ol’ Phil,” Dreiling says.
Get them apart and they’re a little more eloquent. And surprisingly aware of their legacy and what’s at stake headed into their senior season.
They’re pursuing a second NCAA Division II title to match the one they won as sophomores in 2011 and trying to bounce back from going 7-3 last season and missing the postseason despite being ranked No. 1 early in the season.
“I’d do just about anything for John,” Dreiling said. “It’s been an honor to get to know him and develop that friendship. I think what kind of player he is speaks for itself. I don’t have to sell him there. He’s also a great teammate, someone who brings the morale of the team up by what kind of an attitude he has and by making plays.”
Brown’s play over the last two seasons — he played his freshman year at Mars Hill (N.C.) before redshirting in 2010 at Coffeyville Community College — has made him one of the favorites to win the Harlon Hill Trophy this season. Already a two-time All-American, Brown put up 2,293 all-purpose yards in 2011 and 2,000 all-purpose yards last year. He’s already the Gorillas’ career leader in receptions (124) and runs a blazing, 4.35-second 40-yard dash.
“(Brown) has great work ethic, and his teammates see that, that’s why they elected him as a captain again,” Pittsburg State coach Tim Beck said. “He doesn’t take plays off. He jumps to be the first in line in every drill and wants to be out there, working, constantly. A lot of people can run really fast, but not a lot of people can run full speed and catch the ball and make decisions on the fly like he can.”
Brown (5-foot-11, 170 pounds) bulked up considerably in the offseason, training in Florida while spending time with his 1-year-old daughter Caie, then coming back to Pittsburg several weeks before camp started. He has the added benefit of having his starting quarterback back with junior Anthony Abenoja, who threw for 2,330 yards last season.
“Last year, how things ended, it was a really hurtful feeling, and it makes me go that much harder because I hate to see my teammates go through something like that,” Brown said. “I worked every day in the offseason, seven days a week, trying to get better. No days off.”
Dreiling, the son of Hutchinson High coach Randy Dreiling, is trying to become the second four-time All-American in school history. His 83 tackles last season were a career-low after posting 160 in 2010 and 139 in 2011. He’s 89 tackles away from breaking the Pitt State career mark and 109 tackles from breaking the MIAA record.
“I’ll tell you what, you’re a lot more motivated after not making the playoffs then after winning the national championship,” Dreiling said. “We want to put our program back to where we need to be, and I think, right now, our team chemistry is off the charts and that was where we fell short last year. We didn’t gel like we needed to and that was our biggest issue.
“My favorite quote from my dad, from growing up, was ‘perfect is good enough,’ and it’s something I’ve been saying since I was little. It’s the approach we took to everything. Once you taste the top, once you’ve won championships, there’s no other feeling. That’s what drives you to come back, to work harder. You’ll do whatever it takes to get back to the top. Perfect is good enough. That’s what I still say.”
And it’s with Dreiling that everything seems to begin and end with the Gorillas — not just this season, but from the moment he first played a game.
“When you talk about Nate Dreiling, you’re talking about a champion, he’s a winner,” Beck said. “He knows how to win championships. He’s going to be a great coach himself one of these days. I know he was disappointed last season, but he took it like a man. He’s like me, he doesn’t get too high and doesn’t get too low no matter what happens.”
The Gorillas, picked third in the MIAA preseason poll, are also No. 21 in the preseason Top 25. Players have been sporting black wristbands with the inscription “RECLAIM THE CULTURE” on them since camp started.
“Me and Nate, we’ve got a really good relationship, from when I first showed up here and he took me and showed me the ropes,” Brown said. “He’s a motivation for me and for the entire team, we see him making plays and we all want to make plays, too. We want to go out as winners.”