The story of a journey to brotherhood built on similarities, years of hard work, friendship and reliance on one another.
In football there is an old formation called the Wing-T. In it there are three running backs, one at each end of the offensive line and one in the backfield. While each running back has the same position and there are shared responsibilities, they each have their own role and their own specific set of skills that help create a strong running offense.
This type of offense literally and metaphorically describes my relationship with my best friends whom I consider brothers, Niko Otero and Robert “Bobby” Ruiz.
In a literal sense, this was the type of offense that my high school football team ran. It is what introduced me to my brothers; on the gridiron, our blood, sweat and tears were spilled and brought us together.
Metaphorically, this type of offense best describes my relationship with them: different people but strangely similar.
Upbringings in sports
Growing up, our fathers yelling and coaching from the sideline was a shared experience we faced. But each of them had a different reason for pushing us hard in sports.
Niko’s father wasn’t able to play sports during his childhood because his parents migrated to the U.S.
“He [Niko’s father] didn’t have the luxury to go to football practice and all that. So he raised me and my brother through sports. The lessons I learned in those settings have translated well, like brotherhood,” said Niko.
For Bobby, both sides of his family thrived in sports like football and wrestling. Bobby’s father and his older cousins were studs in football, so Bobby was raised to be the same way.
“Being involved in multiple sports helped develop me as a person. Through sports I learned what a brotherhood is … taking care of one another, relying on one another. I took that going into high school,” said Bobby.
For me, my father didn’t have my grandfather pushing him in sports when he was growing up. Although my father was athletically gifted, he would get in trouble off the field, and his dad wasn’t there to set him straight.
My father pushed me to be the athlete and teammate that he wasn’t when he was growing up. My dad’s tough ways instilled in me a drive to do my personal best and lift up my teammates.
The lessons we learned through sports set up our morales and prepared us to come together in high school.
Strangers on campus
Our paths crossed at La Serna High School, which hosted the local powerhouse football program. The funny thing about the start of our friendship is that we were all shy, which prolonged the time before we eventually met each other.
While interviewing Bobby and Niko, Bobby and I couldn’t help but give Niko a hard time about how reserved and quiet he was. “Making the initial friendship was hard,” laughed Niko as he defended himself.
His quietness let him go under the radar, so Bobby and I didn’t have much of a first impression of him. But that didn’t stop Niko from having first impressions about us.
“I remember seeing how yoked you were in the weight room,” Niko said to me. “Then Bobby, I remember you tried talking to me, but I was too shy, so I shook you off.”
Bobby and I had grown to become teammates first. We were both starters as running backs on offense and as linebackers on defense. Besides running drills together and communicating with each other on the field, the friendship hadn’t developed yet.
During our interview, Bobby and I laughed about how some expletives were shouted out at one another during our freshman season but that we respected each others’ hard work and athleticism.
Niko came into the picture in the middle of the season when I went down with a leg injury. He had just started to learn the position and was now thrown into the fire.
From Bobby and my perspective, we saw a wide-eyed, quiet kid getting fed to lions. We felt bad for Niko, so while I was out due to my injury, I would give him some extra tips and encouragement from the sideline, and Bobby would help him in the huddle.
“Your eyes were so huge when you got on the field,” chuckled Bobby as we reminisced about Niko becoming a starter.
Over the next few games, Niko developed into a really good player and earned that starting spot.
Once I recovered from my injury, the coaches put me back into the starting lineup. We each finished strong our freshman season and were all pulled up to varsity during the playoffs.
Although we had come together as teammates, the friendship was still a work in progress. But that didn’t stop Bobby from seeing something special in us.
“That’s when the trio was finally formed,” said Bobby.
While we were familiar with each other and understood that we would be teammates the next three years, it was all thanks to Bobby for bringing us together as friends.
Growing up, Bobby’s father would always invite his football teammates to come over, eat, hangout and workout during the season. He was used to that brother atmosphere, and he carried that philosophy over to us.
“I just thought ‘Let’s just see if they wanna hangout.’ You know, let’s get better,” said Bobby.
And that’s exactly what we did.
That summer going into our sophomore year, we would workout together consistently. By physically pushing ourselves to get better, our relationship with one another got stronger too. Our hard work and friendship was on full display that year.
On the field, it was our best season as a unit and as individuals. We were pulled up to varsity once again, and our coaches recognized us as the next “guys” when we would be seniors. On campus, we started to hangout more, our friend circles grew and we shared in highschool drama.
Our junior and senior year solidified our brotherhood.
It started with Niko suffering a frightening hip injury in a preseason game. It shook Bobby and I to the core that our best friend wouldn’t play with us this season and that there was a possibility that he wouldn’t play our senior year.
With our spirits already low, we were faced with the challenge of loving the sport and wanting to play.
For Bobby and I, we had to deal with the weight of leadership. We were pulled down to help the JV team, which felt like babysitting to us. The physical toll of practicing against varsity, playing in JV games then traveling with varsity on Fridays was challenging.
Niko didn’t want to disappoint his father. The pressure of having to play well was starting to weigh heavy, and the injury only amplified that pressure. The thought of not being able to play again challenged his love for the game.
Toward the middle of the season, Bobby sprained both his ankles, and I dislocated my elbow (both injuries happened in the same game). The trio was sidelined for the rest of the season — something we look back on and laugh at.
Once again we banned together to come back strong. Completing physical therapy, doing summer workouts and spending more time with one another, we built our way back to loving the sport. We were playing for brotherhood now.
We went on to have a successful senior year despite losing in the playoffs. Niko made an incredible comeback, and Bobby was a weapon on both sides of the ball. I couldn’t have been prouder to play beside them.
Most friendships fade away after high school, but ours continued.
It helped that we went to the same community college, but we made a conscious effort to still see each other. And whenever life hit one of us, we were there for each other.
We knew how to console each other after losing our grandfathers, we kept each other sane during the pandemic, we supported each other after rejection from career opportunities, Bobby would give Niko and I advice during our single struggles and we still pushed each other to be our best selves in our personal ventures.
Even with school, work, everyday challenges of life and periods of not being able to hangout, the brotherhood is still going strong. Now, here we are, reminiscing about our eight-year bond, learning more about each other and what we mean to each other.
I had to ask them one last question: Why has this brotherhood lasted?
“Our football positions made us rely on each other. I knew you guys would make a block and were willing to make adjustments. That codependency carried over and made me want to stick with you guys … I don’t think I can make friends like you guys again. We speak our existence into each other’s lives,” said Niko.
“As men we don’t vent as much as we should. So just us talking is relieving. Whenever we hang out, it’s always reflective and encouraging. Just being in the moment with you guys is nice…Just like the Bible says two, for us three, is better than one [Ecclesiastes 4:9-12],” said Bobby.
I wanted to write an ending that encapsulated our brotherhood, but the truth is I couldn’t say it any better than my boys. I am truly blessed to go through life with friends who I regard as brothers.
“A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17)