By Blake Dowson
Midway through the second quarter of Iowa’s 42-3 victory over Iowa State, redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Keegan Render trotted out to the huddle after starting right guard Sean Welsh went down with a knee injury.
On the sideline, junior linebacker Ben Niemann was sitting on the bench with the rest of the defensive unit making adjustments, but he managed to pop his head up over the whiteboard to see his childhood friend run on the field for the first significant snaps of his career.
“That was definitely cool,” Niemann said. “Obviously, on the sideline, we were making adjustments, so I didn’t get to see a lot, but [Render] and the offense put up 42 points. He was doing something right.”
Looking at the Iowa roster, it wouldn’t be obvious that the two share such a close friendship. Render is from Indianola, Iowa. Niemann is from Sycamore, Illinois.
But the Niemann family didn’t call Sycamore home until Ben was a high-school sophomore when his father, Jay, was hired as Northern Illinois’ defensive coordinator.
Before the move, Jay Niemann — now coordinating the defense at Rutgers — spent time as the co-defensive coordinator at Hardin-Simmons in Abilene, Texas, from 2008-10 and roamed the sidelines as the head coach of the Simpson Storm from 2002-07, a small Division 3 school located south of Des Moines, in Indianola.
Ben was getting ready to start kindergarten when his family moved to Indianola. It was in Ms. Ricketts class that he and Render met and started to build their friendship.
“[We became friends] in kindergarten when I got to Indianola,” Niemann said. “We were in the same class, and then we were in a lot of classes up through elementary school together. We’d play with each other at recess.”
From recess to hanging out at each other’s house to traveling around on the weekends together playing basketball, Niemann and Render became close friends.
“Then we played AAU basketball together, too,” Niemann said. “We would have sleepovers and stuff. It was fun.”
The beginning of fourth grade meant tryouts for the Indianola Youth Football League, which featured fourth- through sixth-graders. Every season, the youth league brings together all of the interested fourth-graders and has them run the 40-yard dash, throw themselves at a couple tackling dummies, and test their lateral agility.
The league draft follows the tryout, with the draft order working much like that of the NFL Draft — the teams with the worst records from the year before get the first picks of the draft.
Render’s fate was set; his older brother was already on the Dolphins roster. Niemann on the other hand, was up for grabs.
“When we were doing the tryouts, I felt like [Niemann] was the best one in the draft,” said Rick Branson, the then-head coach of the youth Dolphins.
Branson, who had had some success the year before with the Dolphins, was near the bottom of the draft order, though. He didn’t think there was any way Niemann would fall to him, he said.
“He was surprisingly not the first kid drafted; he didn’t initially get picked,” Branson said. “There was really no other player I wanted before him. I was really surprised I got him.”
As soon as Niemann got the call that the Dolphins had drafted him, he thought of Render.
Render was equally excited to be able to play with his best friend, who would quickly become one of the most dominant players in the league. Seemingly every youth football league has that one kid who is head-and-shoulders more athletic than everyone else. Branson said Niemann was that kid. But not without the help of Render.
“I was the center, and he was the quarterback,” Render said. “It was fun blocking for him and watching him score so much.”
The team ran through Niemann, quite literally — he played quarterback and linebacker.
With teams being split up into “purple” and “gold” squads (the younger kids played the first and third quarter on the purple squad, and the older ones played the second and fourth with the gold,) Niemann was placed on the purple squad his fifth-grade season.
Nathaniel Johnson, a sixth-grader at the time and gold squad quarterback opposite Niemann, said his group didn’t really need to do much with Niemann on the team.
“We scored one touchdown all year; it was kind of embarrassing,” Johnson said. “It was all [Niemann] on the purple squad; he was the guy scrambling around running all over the place and scoring touchdowns. It was sad on our end; he was scoring all these touchdowns.”
It was obvious Niemann had football in his blood from a young age, and it was obvious he was a coach’s son. For Render, it took a while longer to grasp the mentality it takes to become a Division 1 football player.
“The interesting thing about Ben … as a sixth grader after every game, he’d come over and ask what he did wrong and what he could do better,” Branson said. “[Keegan] was not a really hard-nosed kid. We had to motivate him to hit people hard. He was just as apt to let up if he thought he was going to hurt somebody.”
The youth quarterback grew up around his father and all of the football teams he coached, and his father’s coaching career is why he moved away from Indianola after his sixth-grade year.
Niemann, who had gone through all of elementary school in Indianola, had to leave Render and the rest of his friends behind in central Iowa.
And it wasn’t just Niemann affected. Render didn’t just lose his quarterback, he lost one of his best friends as well.
“He didn’t really talk about it much, but I think [Ben moving] was pretty hard on him,” Karen Render, Keegan Render’s mother, said. “There was a whole group that was pretty close. I know he missed him a lot.”
The two stayed in touch while Niemann moved from Indianola to Abilene and again from Abilene to Sycamore, and Niemann even found time to visit every once in a while. Football was often the topic of their discussions, and as they got deeper into their high-school playing days, the topic would move to college recruiting from time to time.
Although Niemann was the one scoring all of the touchdowns in their youth football games, Render was the more heavily recruited of the two.
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz offered Render a scholarship fairly early in the recruiting process, before Niemann was on the team’s radar.
While Render was deciding between such programs as Iowa, Iowa State, and a few others, Niemann committed to playing for his dad at Northern Illinois.
It wasn’t until Niemann showed up at an Iowa football camp in the spring of 2013 that Ferentz took notice, but it didn’t take long before he and his staff had their minds made up about the linebacker.
After Niemann finished up at camp, he drove two hours west to hang out with Render and some friends in his old hometown. There, he got the call.
“Once I got offered, I was actually in Indianola that weekend, and I stayed with Keegan, and we talked about it a little bit,” Niemann said. “It just kind of worked out.”
A week later, on June 22, both Niemann and Render were in Iowa City for a recruiting weekend, when Render officially committed to the Hawkeyes.
At that point, Niemann was still committed to Northern Illinois. But that lasted less than a month.
Ferentz said the toughest part about recruiting Niemann was that he was in the process of prying him away from his father. Ferentz, who has coached three of his sons at Iowa, said he knows how special — and rare — those opportunities are.
“I talked to Jay, and I felt awful,” Ferentz recalled. “I mean, it was a really painful conversation in some ways, just because I know as a coach how special it is to have a son on the team … On one hand, it made sense for him to come here. On the other hand, it was kind of like I was asking for his daughter’s hand in marriage in some ways, except I was stealing something.”
Niemann de-committed from Northern Illinois and committed to the Hawkeyes on July 20, 2013, and he made plans to room with Render his freshman year.
“[Render] kind of stepped back and let me do my own thing [with recruitment,]” Niemann said. “He really wasn’t trying to pressure me into anything, but we both said it would be pretty cool if we could play together, and we ended up being roommates freshman year.”
Niemann saw the field on special teams as a freshman (even blocking a punt and scoring against Northwestern,) while Render redshirted.
In 2015, Niemann stepped into a starting role at the outside linebacker position as a true sophomore, while Render saw action in all 14 games for the Hawkeyes as a backup offensive lineman.
But even after two years wearing the Black and Gold and a trip to Pasadena under their belts, the two still found time to go back to the days of wearing orange and teal for the youth-league Dolphins.
“Last year, after they went to the Rose Bowl, I texted them both and congratulated them on a great year,” Branson said. “Ben texted me back about the old [youth league] days, and said he and Keegan talk frequently about the youth football days.”
Now, the two friends are in their third year together on campus, and both have more expanded roles on the team. Niemann has become a hybrid linebacker/cover guy, and Render started his first career game against North Dakota State.
To add to the excitement, Ben’s younger brother, Nick, a true freshman linebacker, is now also a Hawkeye.
“Whenever I went over to the Niemann’s house, Nick was always with us,” Render said. “I eat breakfast with Nick, so we’re pretty close, too.”
For Render and Niemann, meeting up at Iowa after spending so much time together is an important chapter, but it certainly isn’t the end.
Each has high aspirations both for themselves and the football team, but both keep in perspective how unique it is to be able to go through all of it with their childhood best friend.
“It’s just fun being guys from Indianola and going through things with a guy you’ve known your whole life,” Render said.