By Shawn Ekwall
Mark Brahmer has coached his share of talented football players.
Over his 27 seasons as the head man at Pierce High, which has gone 221-66 under his tutelage, two players stand above the rest.
One is tight end Matt Herian, who possessed an uncommon combination of size, speed and athleticism that eventually landed him at Nebraska where he was on the edge of stardom in the early-2000s before a nasty leg injury all but derailed his career.
The other is Brahmer’s son, Ben, also a tight end, who plays a little receiver, too. He has size (6-foot-6, 220 pounds), speed and athleticism. Ben will head to Nebraska on scholarship next fall. The comparisons are hard to avoid.
“Matt … we had to move him around more,” Coach Brahmer said. “The game has changed for Ben. He learned wide receiver play as a young guy, where Matt was a more straight ahead kind of guy early on. We had to move Matt around as he got older and he learned the receiver position later. Both had those attributes – good speed, could jump and catch.”
Herian’s years under Brahmer at Pierce were from 1998-2001. In that span, the Bluejays earned a pair of Class C-1 runner-up finishes in 1999 and 2001.
Ben and his 2022 senior teammates will be looking to add a second state title in their four years. They finished as runner-up a year ago, losing to Columbus Lakeview in the finals at Memorial Stadium.
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At first, Coach Brahmer had a tough time convincing people how good Herian was.
He posted eye-popping stats, sure, but the conventional wisdom was that he was doing it against small schools.
“Nobody believed how good he was,” Brahmer said.
That changed one day in 2001, when Herian and his coach were at a summer football camp at NU. After one session, Husker receivers coach Ron Brown asked Herian to stay late with a few other receivers and tight ends.
“I think it was Day 2 of camp, and Coach Brown asked Matt to stay back and run one more drill,” Brahmer said. “Coach was throwing behind receivers forcing them to adjust to make a tough catch. He throws high and way behind Matt, and Matt reaches back with his left hand and makes a one-handed, bare-hand catch.
“I was standing by (recruiting coordinator) Jeff Jamrog and prior to that play, he asked me point blank, ‘Can Matt play here?’ I told him, ‘Yes, I believe he can.’
“After that play, Jamrog grinned and shook his head and said, ‘I think you’re right.’”
Herian, while vaguely recalling the moment, said it was indeed the summer camp circuit prior to his senior year that elevated his stock.
“I had a breakout year my sophomore year (1999) but didn’t go to camps that summer because I pulled a hamstring in track that spring,” Herian said. “So the next summer I was on a few schools’ radars and had an offer from Coach (Dan) McCarney after Iowa State’s camp. Then I went to camp at UNL and really put my best foot forward and tested out well. That’s when Coach Solich told me I’d be getting a letter in the mail and to make sure I read it.”
Herian went on to play for the Huskers from 2002-2006. He was on pace for a monster year in 2004 before suffering a compound fracture of his left leg against Missouri in late October. The injury forced him to miss the entire 2005 season before playing in 2006 as a senior.
He finished with a modest 12 catches and two touchdowns as a senior after tallying 46 catches for 792 yards and six TDs his sophomore and junior years.
Tampa Bay signed him as a free agent in 2007, but an Achilles injury at the tail end of training camp ended his hopes of making the team.
Herian has since made peace with his unfortunate injury situations.
“There’s always what-ifs in the back of your mind,” Herian said. “But by that time Coach Callahan was on board and they brought in some other guys like Maurice (Purify), Nate (Swift) and Marlon (Lucky).
“They maybe depended on me more before my injury, but things happen.”
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Like so many small-town Nebraska kids, Ben Brahmer’s life-long goal was to play for the home-state Huskers.
That dream will become a reality after Ben committed to Nebraska back in April of 2021.
Growing up with older sisters Jaci and Maggie, both college volleyball players, along with mom Carmen, a former Doane track standout, it was the ladies of the household who many times set the tone for Ben as far as work ethic.
“It’s every little kid’s dream growing up to play in Memorial Stadium,” Ben said. “And I credit my sisters who helped me become a better athlete. They showed me early on how hard you had to work. I knew I had to put that work in to get where I wanted.”
Jaci and Maggie both were standout athletes at Pierce High and both continued their volleyball careers at Wayne State. They spent many hours in the gym, practicing not only volleyball, but also basketball while training to build speed and agility.
Ben credits his parents for providing him the support he’s needed over the years, saying they’ve “pushed me to work hard and helped me become a man.”
Coach Brahmer says wife, the former Carmen Kapke, provides the “softer” side of the two. He admittedly tends to have a rougher edge. And he readily acknowledges that whatever athletic talents his kids have comes from mom.
“She was a great athlete in high school (Fairbury High) and in college. An All-American,” he said. “A lot of the kids’ abilities come from her. I was a two-hour a day weight room guy just to keep up.”
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One of Ben’s favorite plays is one his dad put in years ago for Herian. It’s a play the Bluejays still use today. Its name won’t be revealed here due to the up-tempo offense and vocal calls the Bluejays make at the line of scrimmage. But it’s no surprise it’s still successful with Ben as the target.
“We still run it quite a bit and even scored a TD against Wahoo,” Ben said. “We run a no-huddle offense so we can make the call right at the line.”
Ben’s 142 receiving yards and two TDs on an opening-night 38-7 win over the Warriors showcased his growth over his four years in high school.
While his receiving stats have logically trended upward each of his three seasons, he will have his hands full improving on last year’s 63 catches for 1,119 yards and 13 TDs.
In a Week 2 win over Columbus Scotus, Ben lined up not only at tight end, but receiver, H-back and punt returner.
Speed and strength gains are evident. Hard work in the weight room will do that. Time spent lifting continues to push his game to higher levels.
Herian, who spends many Friday nights on the chain gang at Pierce games, has noticed the continued growth.
“He’s probably a bit taller than me, but he’s definitely a more defined route runner than I was,” said Herian, who was listed at Nebraska in 2004 at 6-5, 240. “I was more straight away, speed, off play-action. Ben is just so technically sound in what he does.
“He’s still developing. You can see his body has more muscle mass, and he’s not afraid to mix it up.”
There are similarities, sure, but Coach Brahmer also sees differences between Ben and Herian.
“Ben has good agility and can change directions,” the elder Brahmer said. ”Both those guys jump really well and are physical blockers. Both catch it real well. Matt’s hands were so soft. They both did, and do, so many things well.”
For Ben that includes running intermediate routes or beating the defense over the top. With his added size, he’s also a ready and able blocker on running plays.
“I feel like I’m pretty versatile,” Ben said. “We run the ball a lot here, and I’m the main blocking tight end, but I can also get behind the defense on my routes if needed.”
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Having your father as your coach can test one’s resolve. There are highs and lows. It isn’t always smooth sailing.
But Ben wouldn’t have it any other way. Playing for his dad has been a great experience, even if it’s not always easy.
“He has to be harder on me,” Ben said. “If he wasn’t, others wouldn’t have as much respect for me.”
Said his dad: “It’s been very enjoyable, but it hasn’t been easy on us. He knows I’m not going to play favorites and he’s had to earn it. But I think it’s helped prepare him for the next step to be coached up hard.”
That next step is fast approaching. And Ben feels like he’s ready to take his game to the next level in Lincoln.
“I know the competition is a lot better, but as long as I can catch the ball and get open, I can fit in,” Ben said. “I talk with Thomas (Fidone, an NU tight end) quite a bit, and he’s a great guy. In talking with Coach Whipple, he loves to use his tight ends. I just need to get down there and get some more weight on me. I hope to add 20 pounds and still run pretty well.”
Before graduating to his life as a Husker, a senior season full of individual and team goals at Pierce plays out. The ultimate aspiration? Capturing another state title.
“Personally, I’m kind of a quiet guy,” Ben said. “I want to get out of my shell and be more of a vocal leader. But as a team our two goals are simple: go undefeated and win state.”
According to Coach Brahmer, his son is blessed to play with a talented group of senior teammates.
“Ben’s fortunate he has a lot of good athletes in his class,” Brahmer said. “(Quarterback) Abram Scholting’s been pitching to him for a while. We have good running backs, are lucky to have a good line and some other talented receivers. Ben’s fortunate things have fallen into place for him.”
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Herian knows the leap from Class C-1 high school football to a Power Five school is difficult. Yet he sees the tools Ben brings to the table. He’s convinced he has what it takes to succeed at NU.
“You can see each year he’s built better,” Herian said. “Personally, I see him as a possession receiver at Nebraska. He’s not gonna blow the top off a defense, but he’ll be that guy that consistently gets open on those 5-, 8- and 10-yard routes.”
Herian also mentioned the culture of the Pierce community and the work ethic ingrained in the kids for decades as being factors that will help Ben at NU.
Visit with anyone from Pierce, he says, and sooner or later a consistent theme will surface: Hard work.
The northeast Nebraska town of 1,973 is proud of its hard-working, punch-the-clock culture, whether it’s working in agriculture or in a large plant in nearby Norfolk. Culture is one of the reasons the Bluejays are always at or near the top of Class C-1. And also why many Pierce alumni come back rather than leave their small town for perceived greener pastures.
Herian has returned home to farm and raise a family of four children with wife Lynsey.
“There’s just a lot of pride here. A blue-collar mentality,” he said. He points out that there are a lot of dads who played in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s whose sons also played or are playing now. It’s tradition. “You have so many believers in the program, and Coach Brahmer has a special talent in bringing out the best in his players.”
“Sometimes people will say to me, ‘Pierce is a football town,’ Brahmer said. “I don’t see it that way. We’re a community that wants to do well in everything we do, not just football.”
Herian played his part more than 20 years ago. An example for future Bluejays. Now it’s Ben who carries the torch.
“We both grew up in Pierce as small town kids,” Ben said. “We’re just hard workers that go to work every single day.”
Somewhere the next great Pierce tight end is watching.