This story originally appeared in the Oct. 2018 issue of Hail Varsity. Get more great stories like this by subscribing today.
On a chilly night in early October, fresh off his weekly Thursday evening film session, Luke Gifford made his way to Seacrest Field in east Lincoln.
Gifford, now in his fifth and final year as a Husker, had spent many a Thursday or Friday night on that field during his days as a Lincoln Southeast Knight. On this day, he was merely a spectator — and a big brother.
Gifford passed through the gates and made his way to his parents, Sam and Shannon, greeting people along the way. After chatting for a bit — his dad teasing him about being too skinny — Gifford found a seat in the stands and sat down to watch the Knights take on Lincoln Pius X. He had his eye on one player in particular: No. 13.
Isaac Gifford is Southeast’s best player. He’s the team’s leading tackler as a safety as well as a major contributor on offense, whether he’s playing running back or wide receiver.
Nathaniel Gifford, a sophomore, also suits up for the varsity squad, though he did not play against the Thunderbolts. He sees most of his action on the junior varsity and reserve teams.
Thursday’s game was a rare opportunity for Luke to see Isaac play in person. In fact, it was only the second time this season. Most weeks, the Knights play on Friday and Luke is either on the road or at the team hotel in Lincoln, getting ready for his own game on Saturday. But even when he’s not there, big brother is still watching.
“It’s super fun,” Luke said. “I pull up a video stream on Isaac every Friday if I can, and Nathaniel, I go to his games whenever I can. It’s fun to go watch them, man. It’s exciting to see them get to do it instead of them watching me.”
After spending years in the stands watching Luke play, first at Southeast and then at Nebraska, Isaac said it’s a bit surreal to see their roles reversed.
“I used to be the one watching him play and now he’s the one watching me play,” Isaac said. “It’s kind of funny to see him over there watching me.”
All the Gifford boys grew up as multi-sport athletes, but football always stood above the others. As his younger brothers followed in his footsteps on the gridiron, Luke gave them space to learn and grow on their own early on. However, as they grew into serious players, he became more involved.
“When they were younger, it’s kind of like you guys just do whatever you want, and now that they’re getting to high school and doing some different things, a little more advanced, I like to try to help them when I can,” Luke said. “I’ve looked at film for Isaac and Nathaniel a little bit every once in a while, so it’s kind of fun to talk to them and teach them things. They’re like sponges, so it’s fun to talk to them.”
Even as he sat watching in the Seacrest stands, Luke couldn’t turn the analytical side of his brain off. Encouragement and critiques alike escaped his mouth as Isaac looked to make plays.
“Oh my gosh, burn him” as Isaac split out wide.
“Cut it up, cut it up, cut it up!” on a third down run Isaac bounced to the outside.
“What are you doing? Back up!” as Isaac started inching forward into the box on third and long.
Luke also noted that Isaac probably says all the same things about him when he’s watching a Nebraska game.
In addition to their surname and their love of football, there’s something else the brothers share: leadership qualities.
All three were voted captains by their teammates this year — Luke at Nebraska, Isaac on the Southeast varsity team, Nathaniel on the reserve team.
Football has been a part of Luke’s life for a long time. He remembers when he first started playing tackle football, and one moment still sticks out vividly in his mind.
“I was playing up a little bit with older kids and I got the ball on like an end-around thing and got flipped,” he said. “Someone submarined me and flipped me. I looked at my dad on the sideline like, ‘This is what it’s like?’ This is big-boy football?’”
Luke continued to play on both sides of the ball through high school but from that day forward he decided he’d rather do the hitting than take hits. He developed into an all-state player at Southeast and earned the respect of his teammates as he was voted a team captain as a senior.
Luke committed to the Huskers in March of 2013, becoming the first member of the 2014 recruiting class. He redshirted his first year for Bo Pelini’s staff, then saw action in 17 games during three seasons under Mike Riley; his freshman and junior seasons were cut short by injury.
He missed all of spring ball and had to watch as his teammates showed Scott Frost and the rest of the new coaching staff what they could do. Luke returned to the field for fall camp and did his best to make up for lost time.
As the season approached, Frost’s initial inclination was to punt on naming season-long team captains in 2018 while he continued to learn more about his roster and re-shape the program.
"My guess is we probably won’t end up with captains for the whole year," Frost said on the Thursday before the season was set to begin. "It’s probably going to be on a game-by-game basis.”
The players convinced him otherwise, however, and later that night, Nebraska announced that four seniors had been voted team captains: wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr., nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg, left guard Jerald Foster and Gifford.
“I was super-excited; a dream come true, really,” Luke said. “You think about it when you’re a little kid and it always seems liked a pipe dream. To get the opportunity to do it is a pretty cool honor.”
Foster was a teammate and a captain with Luke at Southeast as well, while Stoltenberg is from Gretna, making three of the team’s four captains homegrown Huskers. That made the experience all the more special for Gifford.
“To be able to do it with (Foster) in high school and then do it again here, and Mick as well — we’re roommates — it’s a pretty unique situation,” he said.
Inside linebackers coach, a Southeast alum and former Husker captain, Barrett Ruud said he was excited to see two fellow former Knights voted captains.
“It’s awesome, and it’s kind of what I’d expect too,” Ruud said. “I think they’re raised well over in that area, him especially. Luke, he’s got a great family and just does everything the right way. He commands respect just because of the way he carries himself. He’s a really good player on the field, does everything the right way. We couldn’t have asked for a better guy to lead the team.”
The 2018 season certainly hasn’t gone the way the coaches, players and fans were hoping with five straight losses to open the Frost era in Lincoln, but Gifford is looking at the tough times as a learning experience.
“Jerald and I actually went through some of it in high school,” Gifford said. “We didn’t have a great year our senior year (they went 5-5). There are different ways to lead and there are different personalities and ways to lead each person. I think it’s important to realize you’ve got to talk to people in different ways and we’re learning that. You have to set the example, even when you’re not talking; the things that you do everyone’s looking at, so there’s a magnifying glass on you. You’ve got to be on it all the time.”
“Culture” was one of the buzz words throughout the teams’ early struggles, but Ruud said Gifford is one of the guys leading that culture shift the coaches are trying to bring about in Lincoln.
“He’s making sure everything’s trying to go according to plan and making sure he’s carrying out what the coaches are asking him to do,” Ruud said. “Leadership’s been good, it really has. A guy like him and DJ (Foster), another Southeast guy, they do a good job of getting in front of the guys and making sure they know what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable.”
Even before he was named a captain, Luke did his best to lead others. Sophomore outside linebacker Breon Dixon singled him out during fall camp as someone who really helped him after he transferred from Ole Miss.
“At the time when I came in, he was going through his difficult place in his life where he’s been hurt coming off of last season,” Dixon said. “He’s out there just being able to watch the guys, not really being able to practice. I’m sure he’s a player that loves the game just like I do, so being out there, just having to watch everybody else, that has to be hard on anybody . . . He’s still the guy that comes to me on the sideline: ‘Hey Breon, you’re doing good, that was a great play right there, you made the tackle, but I think you could swim off the blocker this way better and it will make you get there even quicker,’ or ‘You made the sack, but I think you can use this move, this pass-rush thing inside and you’re going to make that sack even easier; you may have made it even harder on yourself.’
“Everything that he tells me, I’d say that’s a person that I look up to and I’m going to listen to, I’m going to be all ears to whatever he’s telling me because I feel like he’s a person that’s got my best interest, especially at my position, being here, having done it.”
Gifford’s leadership has been recognized by more than just his teammates as well. He was one of 27 student-athletes across all sports at Nebraska to receive the Sam Foltz 27 Hero Leadership Award for 2018. Created in 2006 as the Hero Leadership Award in order to recognize student-athlete leaders who consistently go above and beyond with community service and leadership, it was renamed in honor of late Husker punter Sam Foltz. Recipients are identified by Life Skills staff members and endorsed by head coaches.
Stoltenberg and walk-ons Todd Honas and Matt Jarzynka are the other recipients from the football team.
“Any time you can be compared to Foltz, man, it’s a huge honor,” Luke said. “He was such a good dude in everything he did and just the way he carried himself and the leader that he was, I’m just glad that he gets to be remembered like that. For me to have an honor like that and be put in the same category is pretty cool.”
As for Isaac, he suited up for the varsity team as a freshman, played almost exclusively on defense as a sophomore and developed into a key two-way player as a junior. Throughout it all, he never felt any pressure from being Luke Gifford’s little brother.
“I’m just making my own legacy, I guess you could say,” Isaac said. “I’m not focusing on what Luke did and what he accomplished; I’m just trying to do my own thing.”
Just like his brother before him, his fellow Knights recognized Isaac’s leadership and voted him a team captain this season.
“I’m pretty happy that I was chosen to be in that position; it means a lot to know that the guys that are playing on the team think that highly of me to vote for me as a junior,” Isaac said. “It’s an honor to be a captain this year.”
Isaac said he never reached out to Luke specifically for advice, but he definitely paid attention to the way his older brother went about his business at Nebraska and tried to emulate him at Southeast.
On that chilly Thursday night in early October, the Knights scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter — one by Isaac — to beat the Thunderbolts 21-14 and improve to 4-3 on the season. Isaac finished with eight tackles and a fumble recovery on defense as well as 14 carries for 42 yards and the touchdown on offense.
“There’s been a lot of good things and a lot of bad things,” Isaac said about Southeast’s season. “We’ve got things to fix and we’ve fixed a lot of things since the beginning of the season. I think we can make a good run in getting in the playoffs and we can play hard and I know we can win. I know the ability that this team has and that we can win a lot of games.”
The week before the Pius game, Southeast beat Bellevue East 55-7, and Nathaniel made his varsity debut.
“It was pretty funny,” Isaac said. “At halftime I knew he was going to get some plays and I had to pump him up a little bit to get him ready to play his first snaps of varsity. I’m looking forward to playing with him next year; hopefully he plays a lot.”
Luke said he’s proud of what his brothers have already accomplished and the leadership they have shown.
“I was pretty excited for them,” Luke said. “It’s pretty cool that people look up to you and you get to set that example. Southeast has a pretty high tradition. It’s cool. It shows a lot of character for those two and I know they’re excited for it.”
All three Gifford boys being named captains isn’t a coincidence. Isaac said their parents were always in their ear, encouraging them to be leaders rather than followers. The boys took those words to heart.
“They’ve been huge, honestly,” Luke said. “My dad and then my mom, too. My mom, not as much sports, but she’s always been there for us and she always reminded us that there is so much more to life than sports, and when you have tough times — I remember my redshirt freshman year after the BYU game (when BYU won on a Hail Mary with Gifford on the field), that was a low point in my life, or I thought it was. Now I realize it was pretty irrelevant. Obviously it hurt and at the time it sucked, but there’s so much more to live for. So they’ve been huge; I wouldn’t be where I’m at without them.”
The Pius game might have been the last chance for Luke to see the Knights in person this season. He has to focus on helping the Huskers get their season turned around in order to leave the program in a good place for the next generation of leaders. But even if he can’t be at Southeast games in person, he’ll still be watching.
As for Isaac, he’s balancing trying to lead the Knights to the playoffs while also trying to follow in his brother’s footsteps and make it to the next level. He already holds a scholarship offer from Oregon State and has taken several unofficial visits to Nebraska.
And Nathaniel, well, his story is just getting started.
The three Gifford brothers are at different stages of their lives, but they have one thing in common: leadership.
It runs in the family.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.