Jayhawk Insider: Brotherly battle to take place in Lawrence
By: Mitch George
When Kansas and Iowa State take the field at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium on Saturday, two players on special teams will be wearing the number 39. Both are long snappers, both are from Orland Park, Illinois and both share the same last name. The only visible difference will be their uniform colors–one will be wearing crimson and blue, and the other gold and cardinal. They’re brothers–John and Steve Wirtel.
John is a sixth-year Jayhawk who has been sidelined due to injuries his last two seasons, earning extra eligibility, while Steve is in his third season long snapping for Iowa State.
Though they may seem similar at first glance, John says he and his brother couldn’t be more different in terms of personality.
“He’s very, very competitive,” John said. “He’s very feisty. He likes to talk a lot. I stay more reserved and focused.”
Their mother, Colleen Wirtel, agreed wholeheartedly. On another note, she elaborated that they share select personality traits.
“They’ve both got hearts bigger than their bodies,” she said. “They are both just genuine, really good kids.”
In a playful measure of competition, John switched his number from 68 to 39 prior to this season. The change was due to a roster move, however it didn’t hurt that his brother’s number was available.
“I switched to 39 to create more of a rivalry with him and get in his head a little bit, and let him know who the better 39 is,” John said with a smile on his face.
Despite their contrasts, they’re best friends and John says they “talk to each other about everything.”
A specific moment John recalled talking to his brother came last season when Steve and the Cyclones were playing against Akron on the road. Steve bounced a snap, and he was so distraught that the first person he called after the game was John to ask for advice and tips on how to improve.
“It was one of those moments where I told him ‘Don’t worry about it. You’re fine. Everyone has one now and again, but you’re going to be fine,'” he said.
As expected, many friends and family will be in attendance in Lawrence when the family affair takes place. Fittingly, 39 Wirtel supporters will be in the stands to watch them. They will be traveling great lengths, from Tennessee and Florida, to see the first duel between the duo. Each will be wearing a customized Wirtel shirt, and Colleen made sure to note that they will be absent of any sort of team affiliation in order to maintain a fair contest.
The Wirtel parents, Colleen and John Wirtel Sr., attempt to attend each of their sons’ home games every season. Fortunately, Kansas tends to be at home when Iowa State hits the road, saving them from any tough decisions.
From their home town in Illinois, they routinely drive to Lawrence and Ames. Their trek to Lawrence is more than seven hours, while it takes them more than four hours to reach Jack Trice Stadium.
The family matchup would have taken place two seasons ago when Steve was a freshman and John was a senior, but a complete ACL tear in John’s right knee prevented it from taking place. After this injury, they were expected to meet in Ames the following year. However, John was once again stricken with an ACL injury, this time coupled with a meniscus tear.
“It’s hard to watch it happen one time, but to watch him go through it a second time is even worse,” Colleen said. “We were all supposed to live what we’re going to live this weekend two years ago. That didn’t happen. Then we hoped for the following year. That didn’t happen … Honestly, he’s taught me a lot.”
While staying an extra two collegiate seasons may seem like a burden to some, John thinks it will benefit him in the long run.
“I’m always a big-picture guy,” he said. “I have goals and aspirations to play at the next level … With changing my form up, working with Coach (Zac) Woodfin, my strength has jumped up big-time. My weight is exactly where I want it.”
Wirtel entered the Kansas football program at 6 feet, 3 inches tall and 215 pounds. As a second-year senior, he has added 35 pounds of muscle since his freshman season, which allows him to adopt an advanced form of long snapping.
John explained that he’s now able to be a “look snapper” rather than a “no-look snapper.” This means that, when long snapping, he can look at the holder throughout the entirety of the snap process and rely solely on his upper body strength to deliver the football. Alternatively, if a long snapper isn’t as developed, he would need to find the holder initially, but then look forward until he snaps the ball. This technique allows the snapper to draw power from his lower body during the snap.
In addition to gaining a physical advantage against his opponents, Wirtel used his extra two years to work toward an MBA, which he expects to complete in the summer.
If not for these years, John and Steve likely would never have received the opportunity to out-snap one another on the same field.
No matter the outcome of the game, Colleen explained that she is equally proud of both of her sons’ accomplishments and character qualities.
“I don’t think there are words to say how proud I am,” she said, getting choked up and attempting to hold back her tears. “They’re just great, great kids. They’re each other’s best friend, and what more could a parent ask for?”