Bahrs starred in Comets’ riveting 2012 story
Every great playwright knows that character development is a science that is as delicate as it is inexact.
Put your hero through too much conflict or, in Brian Bahrs' case, beat him up too much, and you might crush his spirit. Perhaps worse, you might come away with an angst-ridden antagonist, rather than a protagonist who wears his battle scars like a badge.
More important than the storyline, however, is the man playing the role. He's got to have the right makeup, comprised of clay as rich with minerals as it is malleable. The best writing in the world will come across as fallow without someone who can make the words sing.
In Brian’s case, you've got it all: a young man born to lead, just the right amount of baptism by fire, and an astounding supporting cast.
This award season, we could come up with myriad honors for him and his fellow Newman Comets following their run to the Class 3A semifinals. But we were unanimous in one vote: Brian Bahrs is your football player of the year.
Act 1: Humble beginnings
A 5-year-old Brian Bahrs hangs, by his underwear, from the doorknob of his big brother's room.
The youngest of four brothers, this was not an uncommon position for our hero to find himself in.
So when his older brothers' friends were over, and Brian insisted he be included or, at the very least, be paid attention, he usually received the latter request. Just not in the way he drew it up.
"When I was little, I used to be a pest. I was the little brother who always wanted to hang out with them," Brian said. "So they grabbed me by my underwear and put me on the doorknob, to where I couldn't move or anything. That was their signature thing to do to me. It wasn't a fun time. But I think some of those things – them picking on me – made me a tougher person."
Within a few years, his legs grew long enough for his feet to touch the floor. At that point, his then-villainous brothers improvised.
"So they put me on the corner of the door," Brian said.
"In a way, we were beating on him, but we wanted the best for him," said 22-year-old Tony, a former SVM male athlete of the year. "At that time, that's when it's annoying. But you appreciate it more when you're out of the house.
"You get to come back, and you get to watch and see his success. That's what really makes you feel good. It's the big-brother syndrome. You feel like you did something right."
Many games unfolded between four walls of the Bahrs home. The large living room doorway saw the carpet turn to turf. Alliances formed. Danny, now 27, would pair with 20-year-old Shawn, while Tony joined forces with Brian.
"[Danny] would look out for Shawn when I would beat him up, and I would always look out for Brian when Shawn would beat him up," Tony said. "And Brian and Shawn would just go at each other full-force. A friendly game of football would turn into a wrestling match, and the wrestling match would turn into a brawl. It got ugly."
Many household items were broken, including the glass sliding door during a game of baseball involving a vacuum hose and a rolled-up sock. When something broke, the elder brothers played a different game – pin the blame on the little guys.
"All the time," Tony said. "Maybe I shouldn't rat myself out. But, frequently, something would break. It wasn't me. Shawn or Brian took the fall a lot.
"Brian had to grow up quick with three older brothers. He had to toughen up. And he sure did."
Act 2: The stand-in
Over the past 2 years, the role of Tony Bahrs was played by his stunt double, Brian Bahrs.
Good luck telling their press shots apart.
The headshot, and the fact that Brian wore No. 35 because Tony did, is hardly where the similarities end. While Danny and Shawn gravitated toward each other's higher-strung personalities, Brian and Tony were united by their laid-back approaches, which they inherited from their father.
"I look up to Tony," Brian said. "We kind of relate in a lot of ways. We're both laid back. It really gave me someone to look up to and mirror in a way."
The "understudy" contributed to a Class 2A state football title in 2010, whereas Tony's Comets couldn't crack the quarterfinal code. And, while Tony won a state wrestling title his senior year, his kid brother will be chasing a third this February.
"The kid's a machine," Newman football coach Mike Papoccia said of Brian. "I don't know that much about the sport, but I wouldn't want to wrestle that kid. He's in your face ... He's always coming at you."
Brian won the 152-pound state title as a freshman, winning each of his last three bouts by a single point.
"[Missing that] really affected me,” said Tony, who was wrestling for Spartanburg in South Carolina at the time. “I was getting homesick. I didn't want to miss out on my little brother's career in high school."
Tony transferred to Northern Illinois, and he – along with every other sibling, parent and cousin who could make it – attended each and every Comets home football game, and traveled to Champaign last February to see Bahrs win a second 152-pound title.
"He's a good kid, and he works his butt off. I think that's what separates him from the rest of us. I think he's been the most successful out of all of us," Tony admitted.
"We look forward to watching him excel at the collegiate level. All of us brothers, we share that success. We were living it through him. You can't really describe it, seeing your little brother be successful."
Act 3: A signature role
No matter how versatile the actor, there's usually one tailor-made part for which we will always remember him. For Brian Bahrs, that role is fullback.
While he never strayed from his linebacker position, Brian thought about joining his favorite co-star, Nick Rude, at tailback for his senior football season. They played off one another from sixth grade through their sophomore season, carving up defenses as complementary halfbacks. That is, until Papoccia put Brian at fullback during his junior year.
"He's just the toughest kid we had. We just didn't have anybody who came close to him," Papoccia said. "And on offense and defense, that's the position that kid's gonna play. With the offense we run, fullback is the most important position we run."
Bahrs rushed for 1,131 yards, and if not for being derailed by bitter rival Morrison in the 2A quarterfinals, who's to say the Comets wouldn't have won it all?
"I had an awesome year," Brian said. "But, more importantly it was a great season for the team."
After about a week at tailback this past August, Brian told Papoccia he realized he needed to move back to fullback.
“We just weren’t getting what we needed out of the position,” Papoccia said, “and he understood that.”
When Brian wasn't racking up any of his 903 yards or scoring one of his 13 touchdowns, he was paving the way for his best friends. Rude led the team with 1,252 yards and scored 15 times, and junior Jake Snow, whom Bahrs recruited hard while they worked together on a detasseling crew for Papoccia, broke out with 618 yards and eight touchdowns.
"I tell Nick and Snow all the time that I'd rather block for you than run with it,” Brian said. “The thrill of hitting somebody and them not knowing it is a better feeling than running with the ball. Them doing great meant so much to me."
Act 4: Critical acclaim
Papoccia doesn't need to go into deliberation when asked who was better: Brian or Tony.
"Brian," he answers without hesitation. "On one of the best teams I've ever had, he's the best player.
"I find it hard to believe anyone would have the charisma Brian has with his team. The kids feed off him."
Papoccia saw it coming 6 years ago, when Brian was turning heads as a human bowling ball with the Newman Meteors' junior-tackle troupe.
"Everybody was scared of him," Papoccia said. "I went to all their home games, and I loved seeing it when he'd come out on the field. The other team would just look at him. He was a voodoo god to a lot of these people. They didn't want to touch him, and a lot of time they didn't. They shied away from him."
But what sets Brian apart is the way he refuses to take his final bows without lining up with the entire cast. After all, he couldn't have plowed alleyways without the holes his linemen opened.
"They did an awesome job for us," Brian said. "Especially the sophomores – David Rowzee and Jacob Barnes. Sometimes I just get on their butts, and so would the other guys on the team. They did so great for us, and I couldn't thank them enough after every game."
And when the show was over at the hands of Aurora Christian, that humble, everyday teddy bear kept things in perspective.
"They were a phenomenal football team," Brian said, " and I was not ashamed to lose to them. We worked so hard all year, and it's just a football game. It's not the end of the world. But it was such a life experience.
"Being in football really showed me how to have teamwork and work with others. That will really help me in my future life."
The show must go on
About 15 schools have expressed interest in Brian Bahrs' football talent. They include Coe College, Wartburg College and Luther College in Iowa, as well as Benedictine University and North Central College in Illinois. He's very interested in attending St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, and playing for the Fighting Bees, but is yet to meet with representatives from the school.