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Boys athlete of year: Bahrs learned equally from success, failure

Winning and losing

A rare combination of God-given talent and tough love from his siblings led to Newman graduate Brian Bahrs’ outstanding prep career. Like his older brother, Tony, Brian can now call himself a Sauk Valley Media male athlete of the year.
A rare combination of God-given talent and tough love from his siblings led to Newman graduate Brian Bahrs’ outstanding prep career. Like his older brother, Tony, Brian can now call himself a Sauk Valley Media male athlete of the year.

Rock music plays in the distance from the weight room in the new sports facility at Newman High School.

Below that is the sound of plates clapping against each other, as machines with gears and pulleys are engaged and released by myriad athletes in training.

Brian Bahrs sits on a set of bleachers at the far side of the empty, dim gym.

Around him are various apparatuses for sports like basketball, baseball and volleyball. There's even an empty shopping cart.

"I don't know why that's here," Sauk Valley Media's male athlete of the year says. "But it always has been. We've had a lot of fun pushing each other around in it."

Bahrs has with him a completed 160-pound state wrestling bracket from last February. He has two others at home from his freshman and junior years.

He also has five gold medals, which puts him in the same company as Mike Mena for most for a Newman athlete.

He wears his No. 35 football jersey. The same one his older brother Tony – SVM's male athlete of the year in 2008 – wore into battle.

The similarities don't end there. Brian could pass as Tony's twin, and both have the same calm, humble approach to living.

"He idolized Tony when he was growing up," Newman football coach Mike Papoccia said. "And their mannerisms are so similar, it's uncanny. If you had the two of them standing next to you, it'd be hard to tell them apart."

Bahrs acknowledges that his success is a combination of God-given talent and older-brother tough-love preparation.

But, he has perspective, and while he did plenty of winning – three individual state wrestling titles, one team wrestling state title and one football state title – he's taking away fond memories of failure that explains the unique nature of Brian Bahrs.

Taking a swing

Before speaking, Bahrs looks around the gym, probably making sure that Newman boys track coach Andy Accardi had not entered while he wasn't looking.

"To be honest, I always hated track," Bahrs said. "I was about to start a job, and I knew I couldn't have a job and still run track."

Bahrs started his gig as a host at Buffalo Wild Wings in February. He walked away from the track team, for which he was a multiple-time state qualifier in relays in his previous 3 years.

While he seated patrons, the Comets went on to win a team state title in Charleston at the end of May.

He put running behind him, and for a few short weeks, he decided to give tennis a try. He practiced with the team and went to a couple of the meets.

His brute strength didn't equate to winners on the court.

"I didn't realize how hard tennis is," Bahrs said. "There are kids there that, if we were playing football or wrestling, I'd dominate, but I'd play them in tennis, and they made me look bad."

The humbling at the hands of his peers opened his eyes to his future sports endeavors.

"I want to always be doing some sort of sport," he said. "I'd love to play football until I am in my 80s, but that's not going to happen. I'll have to take up golf or something."

Real deal

Bahrs squared his shoulders as Aurora Christian fullback Joel Bouagnon burst through the line of scrimmage with the football tucked in his arms last November.

Bahrs, the Comets middle linebacker and SVM's player of the year, squared his shoulders, using the technique taught by Papoccia and mastered by the 5-foot-7, 175-pound battering ram.

The problem? Bouagnon, at 6-2, 224, was heading downhill at full blast.

"Brian came in for the big hit like he's done a thousand times before," Papoccia said. "but he bounced right off. He came to the sideline looking at me. All I could tell him was to try and go at him lower."

No amount of technique was going to save the Comets in 41-7 mauling in the 3A semifinal game to the eventual state champions.

Aurora Christian had Division I talent in spades and an ex-NFL player on the sidelines in Don Beebe. The odds didn't keep Bahrs and his brethren from sticking their noses into the action in every play.

"Brian had the attitude that the whole team had all week," Papoccia said. "The coaching staff was looking at tape wondering how the heck we were going to stop that. The players respected that talent, but they weren't intimidated. They came out to compete, and that's why that group was one of the best teams we've had here."

While four state trophies in football are displayed in a case at Newman, no Comet team had ever advanced to the semifinals in 3A before.

Months later, ending in a loss doesn't seem to faze Bahrs. Instead, he pays homage to the skill of his opponent.

"Look, it would have been a lot of fun to play for a state championship," Bahrs said, "But I am going to be able to tell my grandkids that I played against a team that was coached by a former NFL player. Not everyone gets to say something like that."

Use that cart

The shopping cart remained empty and still, as Bahrs talked about his future. He probably should have grabbed it before leaving to help move his haul of medals, trophies and awards that he's earned since grade school.

"I started hearing about Brian when he was in fifth or sixth grade," Papoccia said. "You hear about these kids coming up, and you never know if they'll live up to it. Brian did because he was never satisfied."

He'll take that attitude to William Penn University in Oskaloosa, Iowa, in August. He'll play on the football team and pursue a business management degree.

"They offered a big scholarship," said Bahrs, who also detassels for Papoccia during the summer. "They also feel like I can play as a freshman on the varsity, so I won't have to redshirt a season."

Bahrs is lifting 4 days a week, trying to put on some extra size for duties as a running back.

In a final twist, he'll have former Comet and SVM athlete of the year in 2005, Clayton Norberg, as one of his assistant coaches.

"Clayton told me that Brian was one of their top recruits," Papoccia said. "It will be a good fit having those two together. Both had similar amounts of success in high school and knew what it took to get it. I am going to make sure they get me a schedule so that I can go watch.

"The neat thing is having both of them succeeding. They're excellent examples of what we are trying to do here."

Bahrs file

Parents: Brian and Tonya Bahrs

Siblings: Danny, 27; Jessica, 24; Tony, 23; Shawn, 21

High school: Newman

Sports: Football, wrestling

College: William Penn University, major in business management, play football

FYI: SVM Football player of the year. … Rushed for 890 yards on 155 carries with 13 TDs. … Had 103 tackles, including 56 solo. … Won 1A 160-pound state title as senior. … Won three individual state wrestling titles and one team wrestling title in career. … Also member of 2010 state champion football team.

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