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Using the gridiron as a launch pad

Brighton High School graduate and 22-year college coach veteran Bryan Applewhite named the University of Nebraska Huskers’ football team running backs coach in 2022. His path to the coveted position was dotted with many lessons, mantras and counsel from teachers and coaches starting in elementary school and through various college levels. He shares the advice he received and how he used it to become a success and mentor in his own right.

When Bryan Applewhite graduated from Brighton High School in 1993, Brighton was still a small farm town with a much smaller population compared to what it is today.

Because the school district and town were small, in those years, Applewhite felt there wasn’t much pressure to excel on the gridiron. They had a smaller pool of potential athletes from which to recruit, limited opportunities to learn the strategic side of playing football, and they had fewer resources to support the growth of individual players each year. Bryan Applewhite coaching at TCU

“No one really expected anything of us. We were just the football team from the small town over,” Applewhite recalled. 

When it came to his playing abilities, Applewhite knew he could deliver more than what was expected of him. His coaches did too.

“Coaches stressed that if we wanted to go on to play football in college, we had to dig deeper, focus harder and give our absolute best during games and practice.”

Applewhite got a lot of advice and counsel from mentor coaches and teachers. What those people may not have realized is that their words were planted in his heart and they came back to him throughout his life.

Teacher Aaron Wides was a mentor who told Applewhite that “good enough is not good enough.” 

That message applied to pretty much everything that was a priority for Applewhite. He had a hunger to succeed whether it was in a certain skill, a sport or personal habit. He knew he had to be willing to put in his very best effort to make it happen. That all certainly applied to football and Applewhite had a lot of opportunity to invest more of himself.

Applewhite got the same strong message from others he considered role models. In fact, at Henderson Elementary School, Applewhite developed great respect for his teacher Aaron Wides who taught him in first and fourth grade. Coach Nelson Mitchell (Coach Mitch) was another adult who helped shape Applewhite and who led by example. Coach Mitch coached Applewhite in football, basketball and baseball. Applewhite continues to count Coach Mitch as a valuable advisor as the two stay in touch and talk regularly.

Coach Les Tapia was the head baseball coach at Brighton High School. Applewhite remembers him as being demanding, but always fair and consistent in his leadership and expectations of his players. And Coach J. R. McMillian was Applewhite’s head football coach, who preached to his players, “Work hard! Work hard!”

And then there was Coach Tom Cortez who was the Brighton High head wrestling coach. In his youth, Cortez himself was a BHS wrestler who had a tremendous commitment to wrestling. Cortez studied the art of wrestling, practiced situational reactions to gain the upper hand in his matches and he learned how to capitalize on his opponent’s weaknesses. These skills propelled Cortez to earning three state titles in four years. After earning his college degree and taking on the head wrestling coach position at his high school alma mater, Cortez taught those same skills to his own wrestlers. He was a strong coach who taught his team essential and strategic skills. He expected his team members to go all-in during practice and in competition while achieving at high levels. Bryan Applewhite at the University of Nebraska

Applewhite saw how Cortez lived his commitment and how he translated that into a powerful adult mentorship for his team members. Cortez had the swagger of a champion and the loyalty of a team that consistently posted wins in their sport and in their lives. Applewhite was so inspired with how Cortez used his experience to benefit his team, he took careful mental notes because someday he was going to do the same for a team of his own.

After high school, Applewhite went on to play football for the University of Northern Colorado (UNC) from 1993 to 1998. He was warned about the pitfalls of becoming stagnant in his sport conditioning and skill acquisition. As one coach put it, “If you’re not changing, you’re not growing.”

Applewhite internalized that mantra and it seems the rest of the football team did, too. While at UNC, his team won two back-to-back national championships in 1997 and 1998. 

After graduating with a bachelor’s of science in psychology, Applewhite hit the ground running with his own coaching career. He started as a running backs coach for his college alma mater in 1999. Always looking for a new opportunity, his 22-year career journey went on to include coaching at the University of Wyoming, Montana State University, the University of Louisiana-Monroe, Colorado State University and Texas Christian University. Even as he coached full-time at the college level, Applewhite earned his master’s degree from UNC in sports administration.

In January 2022, he added another college coaching job to his resume. He joined the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers as its running backs coach. Nebraska boasts a nationally recognized Division I football program, holding five national championships and selling out every home game at Memorial Stadium since 1962. This fact was never lost on Applewhite and his former  football buddies.

“When I was at Brighton High, we would talk about Nebraska’s football team. They have a historical program and it feels like a dream to have been given the opportunity to to be a running backs coach for this institution. Working hard throughout my career has shown me that hard work truly does pay off,” Applewhite said.

He still has aspirations of even greater things. Applewhite’s ultimate goal is to become a college football head coach – which could be just one more step ahead.

This isn’t the only motivating factor that drives Applewhite to wake up before 5 a.m. every morning and end his work day at 8 p.m. Applewhite is motivated by the impact he can make on each player’s life as their coach.  Bryan Applewhite with football player at TCU

“I teach my players that their life isn’t just about wins and losses in football,” he said. “It’s about what they do to become a better person. I urge them to push themselves beyond their limits whether that’s in football or other areas of life.”

“I want them to know the value of getting a college education and to succeed in all aspects of their lives. I want to know that I had a meaningful impact on players’ lives beyond the football field just as my coaches and mentors did on me.”

Coach Applewhite went from being inspired by his teachers and coaches in 27J Schools to becoming a source of inspiration for college football players around the country. We are #27JProud of this Brighton High Great Grad. #IBelievein27JSchools