This story originally appeared in the Hail Varsity 2021 Nebraska Football Yearbook. Never miss a Yearbook, or any issue of the magazine, with a subscription to Hail Varsity.
Ben Stille crossed his arms in front of his chest. He wasn’t in practice gear for Nebraska’s fifth practice of spring football, instead wearing a grey sweatshirt cut off at the shoulders with a black long sleeve shirt underneath. He stood facing sophomore defensive lineman Casey Rogers, offering input on a previous practice drill. He spoke passionately, leaning forward as he made his points.
If you didn’t know any better, you’d have thought Stille was one of the Huskers’ coaches.
Stille, however, is a sixth-year senior for Nebraska. The defensive end—who joined the team in 2016 and has been a regular starter since 2018—decided to use the extra year of eligibility afforded by the NCAA amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Blessed to take advantage of another year to compete with my brothers, coaches, and for the best fans in college football,” Stille tweeted in mid-January. It was shared alongside a video that highlighted some of Stille’s biggest hits over his career as a Husker.
Stille’s decision was a big one for Nebraska. Outside of returning its entire defensive line from the 2020 season, Stille brings more than experience to the table for the Huskers. He brings leadership.
On the fifth practice of the Nebraska’s spring football, both were on full display.
Nebraska’s 2020 season ended in mid-December with a 28-21 win over Rutgers. The Huskers had an opportunity to play in a bowl game—every team was eligible in 2020 no matter the record—but the team opted not to pursue it. Players and coaches took time off for the holidays, looking to regroup after a long and bizarre season.
Over the four weeks that followed, fans were left to wonder what might happen with Nebraska’s seniors. They could return for one more year if they wanted, but it was unclear who might take the NCAA up on its offer.
Announcements slowly trickled out.
Outside linebacker JoJo Domann was the first to share that he would return for one more year. Safeties Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke, alongside cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt (who isn’t a senior but had NFL Draft interest if he decided to declare), followed.
“But what about Stille?” fans would tweet in response to each announcement. It wasn’t clear which way Stille might be leaning, and the anticipation was building.
Coach Scott Frost and his staff have relied heavily on Stille since they arrived at Nebraska in 2018, settling the 6-foot-5, 295-pound Stille in at defensive end for his sophomore season. Stille started in 11 of his 12 appearances in that first year with defensive coordinator Erik Chinander. By 2019, he was the de facto fourth starter on a three-man front. He managed a career-high 31 tackles with eight tackles for loss and three sacks.
As a senior in 2020, Stille started all eight games for Nebraska at defensive end. He finished the season with 27 tackles, three tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.
The Nebraska coaches saw the potential that was still there for Stille and wanted him to return for one more season. Chinander made the pitch public prior to the Huskers’ Senior Day on Dec. 12.
“I really, truly believe that his best football has been played in the last few games and he’s going to continue to get better,” Chinander said. “I hope we get him back for another year because I think he’s on the verge of having a big-time breakout here.”
It wasn’t an easy decision for Stille though. His decision had layers; some his peers did not have to consider.
Stille weighed the pros and cons. The relationships topped the list of reasons to return, especially Stille’s relationship with defensive line coach Tony Tuioti.
“I love Coach T,” Stille said. “If I came back, just knowing who I’d be playing for played into the decision a ton.”
Another was the program itself. Stille has seen a lot in his time at Nebraska, but he hasn’t seen the success he’d like the Huskers to have.
“I want to leave this place a better place than I found it,” Stille said. “The only way to do that was to come back another year and try to leave this program in a higher place than I found it.”
There were still cons, of course.
First, it would be Stille’s sixth year in college. He’s already graduated with his undergraduate degree and his master’s degree—both in in nutrition and health sciences—and would have to spend his final semester as a non-degree seeking student. He’d also turn 24 years old during 2021 season, and a sixth season would mean more wear and tear.
“For me, a lot of it was can my body go through another college season? Will that benefit me future-wise?” Stille said. “My ultimate goal, obviously, is to play as long as I can in the NFL. It was just a decision to see whether or not coming back another year was going to benefit that or if it was just going to prolong another year and put me at risk.”
On top of that, Stille needed shoulder surgery. It wasn’t a big deal—it’s something he’s known he needed to do since high school—but it was still something Stille needed to get cleaned up. He also knew it would take time.
“That came into effect for a lot of my decision,” Stille said. “It’s a four-month minimum recovery for that surgery. If I took care of it after the season then I’d probably not be able to train at all for things like Pro Day, the Combine, or anything like that.”
The back-and-forth didn’t surprise Stille’s mom, Karen. He’s always been analytical and a planner, thinking things out and as thoroughly as he’s able. Karen remembers driving her sons—Ben is the youngest of three boys—to football games when Ben was in middle school. She would look in the rearview mirror and find Ben reading by the flashlight on the phone.
“You can take a little break,” she’d remind him. Ben didn’t want a break. He’d already planned his weekend and he needed to finish his work that night to guarantee he had time for everything else he wanted to do.
When it came to high school, Ben was already thinking about college. He enrolled in college credit courses during his time at Ashland-Greenwood (Neb.) High School in hopes of getting ahead. He even enrolled in summer classes between his senior year of high school and freshman year at Nebraska, because every little bit helped. It’s part of what allowed him to graduate with both his undergraduate and master’s degrees in five years.
Ben is intentional. Every decision—no matter how big or small—must be considered from all angles. That means when it came to the decision to return, Ben had to be sure it was the right one.
By Jan. 15, 2021, he knew it was.
“The relationship I have with Coach T and his understanding that I’m a sixth-year senior and my body has been through some things all played into it,” Ben said. “It made it easier knowing I was coming back to play for him, Chinander and Coach (Mike) Dawson.”
He also knew he had an opportunity to use the extra time to set himself up for success in the future. He knew he’d be out for spring football after his surgery, but he could still be present. There were several younger players on the defensive line that could benefit from his knowledge, and Ben knew he could benefit from them too.
In many ways, Ben’s decision to return for one more year afforded him an opportunity to see things a little differently. That was something he couldn’t have planned for.
Following surgery in early 2021, Ben settled into his role as a player-coach. It was a role that came naturally for him.
“I think I’m just a coach by nature,” Ben said. “With the d-line guys, especially, I’m super detailed, nit-picky. Ty (Robinson) will tell you. Casey (Rogers) will tell you. Any of those guys that we sit in meetings with will tell you.
“That’s just how I’m wired.”
Ben would meet with the rest of the defensive line daily throughout spring ball, going over every little detail. Ben had never had the ability to give his full attention to his teammates like this. He’d normally be gassed at practice and would spend his time recovering between drills.
He took the younger players under his wing “and allowed them to really grow,” Tuioti said, speaking up when needed and allowing others the opportunity to lead. Tuioti never intervened. He was proud to see Ben at work in a new way.
And while that time on the sidelines may have frustrated some, it didn’t for Ben. He saw it as an opportunity to grow.
“Coaching is really what I want to do in the future and this spring has really reaffirmed that,” Ben said. “That’s my calling, and what I want to go into after football.”
Ben specifically wants to be a strength coach. When his playing days are done—whether that’s after his final season at Nebraska or after a long career in the NFL—Ben would like to own his own facility for strength and conditioning. It’s why he added a business minor to his master’s degree, because opening a gym requires some business knowledge. He figured a few classes certainly wouldn’t hurt.
He’d also like to coach football, preferably at the high school level. You might be able to coerce him into a higher level of coaching, but high school feels like the best fit.
He’s already thought it out too.
“Well, I’d say there’s several reasons I’d like to coach at the high school level,” Ben said. “When you get into higher-level college ball, college ball in general, there’s instability. There are things just involved with having a family that don’t necessarily go the greatest with that job. Maybe before I have a family college would be an option, but I don’t think so after.
“Just timewise, it would be hard to coach at that level and be with your family. There’s also recruiting at the college level that is a time commitment that would take you away. That’s a lot of it, if I’m being honest.”
Then there are the high schoolers. Ben is drawn to the opportunity to provide a solid foundation for young players.
“At the high school level, there’s a lot of coaches doing the best they can but there’s not a ton of great technique,” Ben said. “Kids that come to college when they play d-line, they have to relearn it completely. I want to send kids to college out of high school with a good step forward and really be able to set them forth with a good foundation.”
This spring gave Ben a taste of his future. It reminded him why he decided to come back one more year.
It’s just as much for his teammates as it is for him.
“I think he knows he can affect the future of the team,” Karen said. “There is unfinished business and I’m sure he’s helping a lot of those other guys to have a better outcome this year and beyond.”
Ben was asked to speak at a rally to end racial injustice and police brutality in September 2020. He said yes, but he wanted to be intentional with his words.
“I never would have understood white privilege like I do now if it wasn’t for all the diversity that a college football locker room brings,” Ben told the crowd. “I am grateful for the social awareness college football has brought me and I am sad that not everyone gets to experience something like it. I’m not going to pretend that my increased awareness of my white privilege helps me understand what it’s like to be Black in America, but I see you, I hear you, I empathize with you and I stand with you.
“Change won’t come until all of us who aren’t directly affected care as much as those who are. In order to do so, we must become educated on the history and current racial injustices in our country.”
Growing up in a small town in Nebraska, Ben wasn’t exposed to much diversity. It was the Nebraska locker room that changed things for him. Hearing the stories of his Black teammates provided new perspectives. He listened, taking in everything his teammates and friends told him.
He was thankful for the opportunity to see things differently, knowing he’d never have gotten that opportunity without Nebraska. The locker room opened his world.
When the Minority Student-Athlete Collective asked him to speak at the rally, Ben turned to his faith.
“It was pretty neat to know that he would step up because he’s not that comfortable in front of the microphone or cameras, but he’s done it enough to know that he can do it,” Karen said. “I think he felt that he needed to speak up for others, so to speak. It had nothing to do with sports or anything else, other than the way he met the people, his friends. I was pretty proud of the way he just stepped up.”
Tuioti was too. He saw Ben stepping up as another testament to his character. When he sees something that needs to be addressed, Ben is going to address it.
Nebraska athletes are also provided a big platform, but it’s a fleeting platform. Once players graduate, the platform becomes more difficult to hang on to. Ben is aware of this, and he has no intention of wasting it.
“I don’t want to look back and think, ‘Oh, I wish I would have used my platform then because you really could’ve impacted change,’” Ben said. “I mainly used my platform over this past year to speak out of my faith. My mentality for that was just always you never know how long you’ll have this exact platform and it’s a very unique opportunity just from older guys and mentors that I’ve had.
“They’ve reinforced that you don’t want to waste this time, so when I was asked to speak at the rally, it was something that was important to me. I just made an effort to be intentional about that and be intentional about it and share what was on my heart.”
Ben may not say much but when he speaks, it’s worth listening.
Frost announced in early April that Ben would be out for spring ball. He told those who may be concerned there was nothing to worry about. Ben had been through spring ball enough that he could afford the time off.
Ben took the spring to focus on his health. He hadn’t had an opportunity to put attention on his body as a whole in his entire career to date. While he’d loved to have planned for time like this, it wasn’t something he could have expected. He figured he better take advantage.
Ben had received feedback from scouts over the years that there were things he could improve upon. That included his mobility and flexibility, so he spent time working on that through spring.
He even got to spend extra time with his mom. She’s a physical therapist in Ashland.
“It was nice getting to spend that time together too,” Karen said. “We would go back and forth a lot with training and anatomy questions because of his various studies. It was really nice to have that time.”
All that time rehabbing and recovering also meant that Ben feels he’s in the best shape of his Nebraska career. He’s also spent countless hours watching and studying film, so he feels he is more prepared than ever.
“I’m excited to see him when he comes back,” Tuioti said. “I know we’re going to get the best of Ben Stille.”
Ben is eager to get back to it too. That doesn’t mean he’s done coaching those younger players though. He looks to the example the seniors set for him when he was a freshman and knows there’s still plenty for him to pass along to those younger.
“Whether they like it or not, I’m not going to be here next year,” Ben said. “It’s definitely my—and I really mean it this time—last opportunity to pour anything into them. They joke with me that they didn’t think I would be coming back for this year just knowing how long I’ve been here and what not. They had all come to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t be returning this year.
“When I told them I was coming back, they were definitely surprised. In a good way or a bad way? I’m not sure.”
What Ben is sure of is that he has one more opportunity as a Husker. He has big plans when his playing days at Nebraska are done, but he has big plans for this season too.
That’s just who Ben Stille is.
Erin is the Deputy Editor and Digital Marketing Strategist for Hail Varsity. She has covered Nebraska athletics since 2012, which has included stops at Bleacher Report, Cox Media Group’s Land of 10, and even Hail Varsity (previously from 2012-2017). She has also been featured on the Big Ten Network, NET’s Big Red Wrap-Up, and a varsity of radio shows nationwide. When not covering the Huskers, Erin is probably at Chipotle.