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updated: 11/2/2010 8:15 PM

NU's McNaul keeps close ties with brother in Afghanistan

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  • Northwestern weakside linebacker Bryce McNaul against Rice earlier this season.

    Northwestern weakside linebacker Bryce McNaul against Rice earlier this season.
    Courtesy of Stephen J. Carrera

  • Northwestern weakside linebacker Bryce McNaul keeps his eye on the ball and his thoughts on his brother Austin.

    Northwestern weakside linebacker Bryce McNaul keeps his eye on the ball and his thoughts on his brother Austin.
    Courtesy of Stephen J. Carrera


As a platoon leader deployed in Afghanistan less than a month ago, second lieutenant Austin McNaul has time for little but getting up to speed on the war.

But when he gets a moment, he races to the Internet to see how Bryce, his 6-foot-3, 230-pound little brother, fares as Northwestern's starting weakside linebacker.

After the redshirt junior piled up a career-high 13 tackles in Saturday's 20-17 victory at Indiana, Austin used his four minutes of free time to fire off an e-mail to their mother. Debra McNaul forwarded it to Bryce.

"He said in all capital letters, 'IT IS GREAT THAT BRYCE IS PLAYING SO WELL," Bryce said. "And he said, 'Even if he's not, be thankful that he's out there and he's healthy, because it's a dream come true for him. And he goes, 'I'm very proud of him.'"

Now, it's not uncommon for brothers to enjoy a mutual admiration society, but the McNauls' extends up and down the family tree.

Bryce and Austin are the third generation of rugged athletes in their suburban Minneapolis-based family. They're an abnormally tight group regardless of the age differential.

"I find a lot of fulfillment in my family and being there for my family," Bryce said. "I know (Austin) does, too. We're a real special bunch, I like to think. It means the world to me."

Austin, while preparing to serve his country, started as the Number 8 on Army's nationally ranked rugby club team.

Their father, Eric, played football at Cincinnati Moeller for Gerry Faust when the school won the 1977 mythical national title.

Their grandfather, Daniel Drotar, was a two-time all-state player in California. As Bryce ramps up his play during his first year as a starter a campaign that came two seasons later than the McNauls and the Wildcats coaching staff hoped his grandfather's words resonate.

"He's always emphasizing, 'Let the game slow down for you. Let the game slow down for you,'" Bryce said. "I was never trying to write them off, but, man, those words are pretty profound the more and more I'm playing here. The game does tend to slow down and you start to see things better."

After posting 21 tackles in his first four starts, McNaul owns 23 tackles and 1 forced fumble in his last two games. Barring injury, he will make his seventh consecutive start Saturday at Penn State.

You need the "barring injury" qualifier because McNaul's first three years at NU were spent breaking and rebuilding his body.

•Three days before he reported to camp as a true freshman in 2007, he pulled his right hamstring.

•Midway through spring ball in 2008 as he challenged for the starting WILL linebacker spot, he separated his right shoulder.

•On the first day of Camp Kenosha in August 2008, he blew out his right hamstring … then he continually reinjured his shoulder during the course of the season while trying to help on special teams.

•He underwent reconstructive surgery on his right shoulder after the 2008 Alamo Bowl, which knocked him out of the 2009 spring practices.

•After earning a big role on special teams last season, McNaul suffered a potentially catastrophic right-knee injury in the Big Ten opener against Minnesota.

"I kind of blew out my knee," McNaul said. "Actually, the ACL and all the tendons held on, which I think the doctors looked at me and their eyes were, like, wide open.

"When I came in the next morning after they read the MRI, they were like, 'You need to say a few prayers. Your knee held on, but we don't know how.' But I tore my calf and had a bone contusion in my knee that kept me out until Iowa."

McNaul finally made his first start in last year's regular-season finale against Wisconsin and earned a starting job this fall. Of course, he promptly injured his shoulder and had to sit out the Vanderbilt and Illinois State wins.

"It's been a tough road for him," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "Early in his career we thought, 'Here's a guy who had a chance to be a two-, three-, four-year starter for us. Then the injuries popped up."

And nearly dragged him down. McNaul admits to being depressed, though he's so outgoing and assertive that he must mean it more in a figurative sense.

"I think one of the biggest pains that I've felt during my college years here is watching others play the game that I love," McNaul said. "It's like your woman (equals) playing that game. And, wow, you're just so jealous of those guys that are out there and they're able to play.

"Not even like, 'I want their spots, their plays, their stats.' You're just like, 'I want that ability to be out there playing.' When you're sitting from the sideline, you can either call it in and say, 'Poor me,' or you can be like, 'Wait 'til I get out there' and make the most of it."

Now that he is, Bryce broke down recently and created a Facebook account if only to share his experiences with someone nine time zones and one world away.

"I was one of those guys who was, 'There's no point in having a Facebook page. It's just a gossip thing,'" Bryce said. "But here I am trying to learn how to use it to talk to my brother in Afghanistan."