LAWRENCE — Kansas long snapper John Wirtel has waited two years for Saturday’s contest against Iowa State.
In some ways, the redshirt senior has anticipated this particular matchup for 21 years.
Wirtel, a 23-year-old sixth-year senior for the Jayhawks (3-5, 1-4 Big 12), will at 11 a.m. Saturday operate on the opposite sideline of his 21-year-old brother Steve Wirtel, a junior long snapper for the Cyclones (4-3, 3-2). Shelved the last two seasons of this showdown with a pair of knee injuries, John Wirtel can for the first time at the collegiate level compete against his only sibling.
The looming matchup has yet to produce a verbal tussle — at least as of Tuesday.
“There isn’t a bunch of trash talk or anything. It’s pretty civil,” said the elder Wirtel. “... There always is a rivalry in a lot of things, but he’s my best friend. We’re tied at the hip.”
For the Jayhawks’ Wirtel, the game represents a rewarding chapter near the end of a lengthy Jayhawk career that has taken its share of lumps.
Just making it out of September is a noteworthy accomplishment, joked Wirtel, who two years ago tore the ACL in his right knee. He’d tweaked it earlier that season in the weight room and it had given out on him a couple of times during games, but a freak accident off the field ended his campaign and set in motion two years of adversity.
“I just jumped over a six-inch hurdle and kind of blew it out,” Wirtel said. “My fault for not wearing the (knee) brace and taking those precautions.”
Wirtel last season partially tore that same ACL and suffered a large tear of his meniscus, a season-ending blow. The injuries, though, opened the door to the pursuit of a Master’s degree for the 6-foot-3, 250-pound native of Orland Park, Ill., who walked on at KU ahead of the 2013 season but soon after earned a full scholarship.
Faith — both spiritual and in the direction of the program under fourth-year coach David Beaty — kept Wirtel’s spirits high during the admittedly “tough” two-year stretch. Dreams of someday having a professional career kept him from throwing in the towel altogether.
That Wirtel remains relatively unknown despite his six-year tenure in Lawrence likely points to his mistake-free execution of his duties — “Honestly we’re kind of like offensive linemen” in that respect, Wirtel acknowledged.
Beaty appreciates Wirtel’s contributions to the Jayhawks’ much-improved special teams unit.
“I say this all the time: Maybe the best value that you can get on a football team in college for a scholarship is a long snapper,” Beaty said. “Typically you can’t afford to scholarship more than one at a time, so most of the time that means the guy is probably going to be your starter from the first day. John has been that type of player since he first got here.”
Wirtel’s path to the less-than-glamorous long snapper position began at a young age.
Then a lanky fourth grader playing Pee Wee football for the Orland Park Pioneers, Wirtel had the luxury of being coached by his father John Wirtel Sr., who was that team’s special teams coordinator. When a teammate reached a weight limit and was advanced to an older team, the Pioneers were left without their snapper, a conundrum for Wirtel’s father.
“He tells this story: He’s sitting in the car, he’s thinking he needs someone long and lengthy, someone who can do this,” Wirtel Jr. recalled. “And then he goes, ‘Duh,’ and he looks at me. He had me try it out and that’s kind of how everything started and I stuck with it ever since and I’m glad I did.”
As Wirtel Jr. made hay as a snapper and later a deep snapper, his brother followed in his footsteps, though not to KU. Steve Wirtel had an offer from the Jayhawks but not a full-ride scholarship, which is what the Cyclones provided in eventually winning over the recruit.
“I showed him everything KU had to offer, but the biggest thing was I just wanted to be a big brother to him, a family member, and not inhibit anything,” John Wirtel said. “It’s his choice. It’s his decision.”
Since the younger Wirtel arrived at ISU, the brothers have communicated virtually every day either by call or text message. That was true earlier this season when, after botching a snap in a contest against Akron, the “distraught” Cyclone sought guidance from his Jayhawk sibling. Everyone makes mistakes, Wirtel Jr. told his brother. Just hang in there.
Wirtel Jr. has often played the role of calming force for a brother nicknamed “Stormy” by their grandfather Mike “... because he’s always wreaking havoc or causing a scene or doing something. ... He’s a big instigator too,” Wirtel Jr. said.
“He’s very, very competitive. He’s very feisty,” Wirtel Jr. said. “He’s one of those that he likes to talk a lot. I’m more reserved and stay focused on my thing and do my job. I’d say that’s probably the biggest difference. He’s a big-time talker.”
But again, in terms of trash talk, it’s been mostly quiet ahead of Saturday’s matchup — though the Jayhawk long snapper may have fired the first shot Tuesday.
To accommodate teammate Jack Luavasa's role on special teams this offseason, Wirtel Jr. abandoned his scheduled jersey switch to No. 87 and instead chose No. 39 — the same digits his brother wears.
“I decided to switch it to 39 just to create a little more of a rivalry with him and get in his head a little bit,” Wirtel Jr. said, “and let him know who the better 39 is.”
Has it worked?
“I think so far,” Wirtel Jr. said with a laugh.