NEW PALESTINE — While most players head to the sideline for a breather and gulp of water to recover in between possessions, Nick Brickens finds his second wind.
The word “stop” literally has no meaning to the New Palestine senior. His brief downtime entails a light jog across the line of scrimmage, switching from lead tailback to the defensive backfield.
When special teams are deployed, the team’s starting punter might take a second or two to adjust his chinstrap, or if needed, tighten his shoulder pads before gearing up to return a kick.
Playing 170 to 190 snaps on Friday night is routine for the Dragons’ undisputed Iron Man and so is going full speed.
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“It really is unbelievable. He may be the only player we have that honestly doesn’t ever come off the field,” New Palestine head coach Kyle Ralph remarked. “He’s never on the sideline unless I pull him off on offense to give him a rest here or there, but in the playoffs that hasn’t happened at all.
“He’s one of those kids that doesn’t make any excuses. … It takes a special kind of kid to do what he does.”
At 5-foot-9 and 191 pounds, Brickens is far from the biggest nor is he the fastest player on the team, but what he lacks in tape-measure attributes, he more than makes up for in endurance, strength and sacrifice.
The unsung catalyst of the state’s top-scoring offense, Brickens is the second leading rusher for the unbeaten Dragons with 1,553 yards and 20 touchdowns.
On seven occasions he’s topped 100 yards rushing in a game this season, churning out a season-high 223 yards on 17 carries against rival Delta during the regular season — the ninth of 13 wins for top-ranked Class 5A New Palestine.
He’s averaging nearly 10 yards per carry and 119.5 yards a game. What doesn’t show up in the box score, however, is the dirty work: the read blocks and the hard sells on play action, a primary reason the Dragons broke the state’s single-season record in total offense (6,942 yards) last week at semistate.
“Both blocking for me and running himself, he literally does everything,” New Palestine quarterback Alex Neligh said. “He’s probably the most versatile dude on our team and one of the most valuable.”
His humility makes him invaluable to the program’s past three years of unprecedented success and 41-1 record during that span.
While Neligh, an All-American and Mr. Football candidate, shatters school records on a weekly basis, Brickens breaks spirits whether with a lowered shoulder, a jarring tackle or a coffin kick deep into enemy territory.
Victory is the team captain’s reward and New Palestine has racked up 28 straight for the state’s longest active winning streak and 10th best all-time.
“He would be the superstar on most teams,” senior right guard Matt Moeller said. “He’s been an absolute beast this season. He’s a very shifty running back, so a lot of teams have to focus on him, which has allowed Alex to get all his rushing yards (1,931). Really, he’s just happy to do whatever’s best for the team.”
Last year, that role involved taking a back seat to running back James Young, who set the school’s single-season record for rushing touchdowns (35) and piled up 2,882 yards in his career for the 4A state champs.
“As a sophomore Nick actually ran the ball more for us then as a junior,” Ralph said. “We thought he was a talented running back, but with James, a 210-pound workhorse to wear teams down for us, it didn’t make much sense for us to play Nick both ways.”
Watching his carries drop from 48 to 21 one year to the next, Brickens instead focused on other tasks like defense and punting.
As a defensive back, he plucked three interceptions and tallied 73 tackles in 2014. The year prior, he was the team’s third-best tackler with 93 and ball hawked to the tune of two picks.
His punting average was 31.6 yards in 35 attempts as a junior, and he returned one kickoff for a touchdown.
While pulling quintuplet duty this fall, his numbers have spiked to a 38.2 average on punts and a career-high 428 yards on kick returns with two punt return touchdowns. For good measure, he’s accounted for 61 tackles, once again third-best.
On offense, according to center Andrew Yazel, Brickens has few equals.
“A lot of times people say you can’t do it without the offensive line, but without Nick we wouldn’t be here now,” the senior captain said. “He makes great cuts, he makes great reads and is just a great running back. He runs through a lot of the stuff we miss.
“He even helps me block a lot of the times. I’ll give him credit on that,” Yazel added with a joking smile.
Putting in his time during offseason workouts in preparation for his new role this fall, Brickens did more than bulk up. He elevated his blue-collar reputation.
“I made sure my attendance all summer was over 95 percent,” Brickens said.
It showed as he crushed every running back lifting record and kept stride for stride with his heavier teammates.
“He’s obviously not a bigger guy. He’s kind of short and stocky,” the 272-pound Yazel said. “But he ended up beating me and Joe Izbicki on power cleans. He maxed out at around 300 pounds. He just works really hard.”
It’s the only way Brickens knows.
“We just want to win, so if it works, we’re going with it,” he said. “All of us knew we could get back to where we were last year. We wanted it really bad. We’ve been thinking about it for the longest time. If we missed our opportunity, we would be disappointed. Whatever it takes.”