NAVARRE, Fla. — How do blue-chip recruits make the final separation when they choose among several powerhouse programs? Most top-tier schools offer similar levels of tradition, competition and facilities.
A lot of recruits pick based on chances at early playing time. Others choose whichever is closest to home. Relationships with coaching staffs and other recruits go a long way for some.
But when Nick Brahms made his commitment decision from the 35 FBS schools across the country that offered him a scholarship, he looked to the skies.
“I would say the thing that landed it for me was the aviation program,” Brahms told SEC Country. “That’s what set Auburn apart.”
The son of a pilot, Brahms points toward the potential of a professional aviation degree as the ultimate difference-maker in choosing Auburn over plenty of top-notch schools.
It’s a different direction than most highly rated football recruits. But the 4-star offensive guard is a different kind of player, in more ways than one.
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Brahms has a 4.58 GPA to his name and will transfer into Auburn with about 40 college credits thanks to dual-enrollment classes in high school. If aviation doesn’t work out, the self-professed math lover’s fall back option is engineering.
He pairs his brains with brawn on the football field as he skyrocketed in recruiting circles before his senior year. Brahms went from a few offers from Ivy League programs and small schools to taking calls from schools such as Miami, North Carolina, Oregon, Stanford and Tennessee on a daily basis.
“You just get to put people in the dirt, man,” Brahms said when asked about playing on the interior line for Auburn. “That’s what the offensive line is all about. I’m excited.”
Brahms also comes to Auburn in January in a different situation than the rest of the Tigers’ early enrollees. He didn’t play a single snap of his senior season at Navarre (Fla.) High School due to a major leg injury.
But Brahms managed to turn that setback into a positive. And in a few weeks, after he’s recognized as one of the top players in the country at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, he’ll finish his whirlwind trip to the Plains as a sealed member of Auburn’s impressive 2017 recruiting class.
It’s been quite a remarkable journey for this high-flying offensive lineman.
We have liftoff
Nick Brahms flew under the radar, so to speak, for most of his high school career.
“He did The Opening regional camp as a sophomore, and we really didn’t get a lot of feedback,” Nick’s father, Keith Brahms, told SEC Country. “But it didn’t seem like anybody was paying attention.”
A versatile offensive lineman who played nearly everywhere up front for the Navarre Raiders during his first three seasons of high school, Brahms waited for his opportunity to break out. He already had a reputation on film for being a tough customer in the trenches.
“I’ve had coaches says he’s really kind of nasty,” Navarre High coach Jay Walls told 247Sports. “He’s not a dirty player at all, but he’s real intense about finishing the block.”
When Brahms headed to a Rivals camp in New Orleans in March, he had a scholarship offer from only one FBS school — Florida Atlantic. He didn’t even have a star rating by his name.
But his life changed after his performances in New Orleans, thanks in large part to someone Brahms doesn’t fully know to this day.
“I went to a Rivals camp, and I only had like 13 offers from small schools. Ivy League, stuff like that,” Brahms said. “There was this guy there who was like, ‘Bro, I’ve never seen anyone have the technique you have. Give me 10 schools you want to get in touch with.'”
Brahms gave him the list of schools. Shortly after that, his name caught on like wildfire in the recruiting landscape.
Bleacher Report hailed him as the nation’s most underrated high school recruit. He suddenly had 4 stars across the major recruiting services. When Brahms went back to New Orleans for a regional camp for The Opening in April, he had offers from more than 20 major schools.
“It was crazy there for a little while,” Keith Brahms said. “There were times when he was getting three or four offers in a day. I was just shaking my head at all of it, thinking that this couldn’t be normal. It was an exciting time, but it started to wear on him after a while. Coaches were contacting him at all times of the day and night.”
Between the Rivals camp and The Opening regional, when he received an invitation to the national recruiting showcase at the Nike campus in Oregon, Brahms went on several unofficial visits.
“Obviously, Auburn is SEC football, and that excited us,” Keith Brahms said. “It’s only three and a half hours from our house, so I was like, ‘It’d be great if Nick could go here.’ When we first started looking at that, it was sort of a dream instead of reality.
“We were interested in it, but we didn’t put a lot of stock into it at first until he really hitting it big and got ranked as well as we did. Offers came pouring in, and Auburn was one of them. That was big for us.”
— Nick Brahms (@Nick_Brahms) December 11, 2016
Brahms visited Auburn in March, shortly after reaching out to Tigers offensive line coach Herb Hand on Twitter. Brahms became well-versed in marketing himself on social media to prospective schools.
“I first heard from Auburn in the spring,” Brahms said. “I remember going on a visit on my birthday, March 3. In February, I DMed Coach Hand … You have to get in touch with coaches. Once they followed me back, I would say, ‘Hey, Coach, what’s up?’ And then I would send them my highlights. It just goes from there. If they like you, then they’ll extend you an offer.”
By the time Auburn extended an official scholarship offer to Brahms in May, he already had been contacted by a laundry list of SEC and ACC powers, plus others such as Oregon and Stanford.
“I gave that guy my list of schools — Stanford, Auburn, all that — and the next week, I’m not even joking, I got like 20 offers,” Brahms said. “I was on the phone all the time. It was the craziest thing that ever happened to me.”
— Nick Brahms (@Nick_Brahms) July 10, 2016
Flight and family
Keith Brahms is an international pilot for Delta Airlines. So for most of his life, Brahms has had his eyes on the skies.
“He’s brought me back stuff from Thailand and places like that on his trips,” Brahms said. “We get to fly for a lot less since he works for Delta. We got to go on a few great vacations.”
Brahms reached great heights off the football field with his academics. He talks about his love for math and works through a high school schedule in which he takes some early college courses through a nearby community college.
“He’s got a pretty good head start,” Keith Brahms said. “He’s been a dual-enrolling student in high school. He just graduated with straight As, and he’ll go to Auburn with about 40 credits already. It’s a pretty good deal.”
At first, Brahms thought he would go into engineering whenever he went to college. But the thought of “sitting at a desk and just doing math all the time” didn’t greatly appeal to him.
“I love math, but I didn’t see myself doing that for the rest of my life,” Brahms said.
Brahms decided to look elsewhere academically during his grand tour of programs across the southeast. When he came back to the Plains for another unofficial visit during the spring, he looked to his father’s career path and took a visit to the Auburn airport.
“He was interested in engineering, but I thought he was still trying to find his way,” Keith Brahms said. “We went back to Auburn for another visit, and he wanted to go see the aviation program down at the airport. They put him in an airplane and all that stuff. After that, he was like, ‘This is what I want to do.'”
Auburn’s aviation program set the Tigers apart from other top schools in Brahms’ list, including Miami, North Carolina and Tennessee.
“Football is going to be over one day,” Brahms said. “I have zero flying hours heading into Auburn, but I’m excited.”
Brahms’ father said he never pushed his son to going into aviation, but he’s excited to see him follow in his footsteps.
“It came as a pleasant surprise to us when he decided he wanted to go into aviation,” Keith Brahms said. “I think there are some good opportunities in the future because there’s a big wave of retirements coming in commercial aviation. … He’s going to be a professional aviation major and minor in business. That’s a good combination.”
In addition to his pilot father, Brahms had another family connection waiting for him when he decided he wanted to come to Auburn. His older sister Olivia is an animal science student at Auburn.
“I’ll like having her up there,” Brahms said. “I actually went on a visit with her and my family, and she loved it. She fell in love with Auburn.”
Brahms made his commitment to Auburn official in July at The Opening. One month later, he was back in Navarre, getting ready to lead a talented Raiders squad into what was destined to be a strong senior season.
But in his final two-a-day practice during fall camp, Brahms suffered a major setback.
“I went to pull, and somebody fell on my leg,” Brahms said. “Broke my fibula. I had 10 screws put in.”
Brahms didn’t have a chance to play his senior season for Navarre. Instead of playing with his teammates, he had to focus on a long and grueling rehab process.
However, in the immediate aftermath of his August injury, Brahms’ commitment to Auburn — and vice versa — strengthened.
“Coach Malzahn, Coach Hand and Coach Burns didn’t flinch one second when Nick got hurt,” Keith Brahms said. “Of course, they were sad for him and upset that he couldn’t play. But they weren’t upset about it from an Auburn perspective. … I never expected the level of commitment they showed my son.”
— Nick Brahms (@Nick_Brahms) August 16, 2016
Brahms said a phone call from Hand is one of the most special memories of his entire recruitment.
“Right after the injury, Coach Hand called me and prayed for me,” Brahms said. “That was a big deal. That showed me that this was the right place for me. That really stuck with me.
“People were worried for me and for my future. But I was like, ‘I’m good, man. The Auburn coaches got me.’ They’re good people. They’ve supported me the whole way, with all my family and friends. I wasn’t worried.”
Brahms attacked the rehab process with the same tenacity that made him a fast-rising recruit a few months earlier.
He also was a mainstay for Navarre on the sidelines as the Raiders made their run to the Florida 6A state semifinals. The future Tiger used that time to strengthen the mental side of his game and serve as a special assistant for his team.
“He was out on the field coaching the other offensive linemen, basically working like a grad assistant, during the season,” Keith Brahms said. “I think that was a valuable experience for him, too. He got the coaching perspective. It helps you learn your craft better when you can see things from all angles. He was always out there at every practice, even when he didn’t have to be.
“Nobody would’ve said anything if he didn’t go out there, because he wasn’t going to play. He didn’t miss a thing unless he had rehab, and then he would go straight over there after rehab … It could’ve been dark days for him, and I can tell you that he was pretty upbeat and ready to hit rehab hard. I never had to tell him twice to go or drag him out of the house. He just wanted to get better.”
Brahms continued to work hard in the classroom, too. Through all the rehab, Brahms stayed on course to enroll early at Auburn.
“He’s been such a tremendous student,” Walls told WEAR-TV. “And he’s done that playing football, he’s done that being injured — severely injured — and I think that’s a credit to him and to his commitment and how hard he’s worked.”
Ready to roll again
Although Brahms hasn’t been cleared yet to play, enrolling early at Auburn might be more important to him than any other member of the Tigers’ 2017 class.
In one of his most recent visits to Auburn, Brahms said he hit it off with strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell. By coming onto the Plains a semester early, he can finish rehab from his broken leg with trained professionals — free of charge.
“It’s instrumental for his success,” Keith Brahms said. “They’re going to have control over his diet. They’re going to have him on a professional strength and conditioning regimen, and there will be a physical trainer looking after him every day. Frankly, for that kind of attention at home, it would cost me a whole lot of money. It would’ve gotten to the point where I just couldn’t do it.”
Brahms also is looking forward to getting back to his playing weight. He jokes that he’s “looking skinny” during his time away from action, and he wants to bulk up on the Plains.
“I really like what Coach Russell does in the weight room,” Brahms said. “That’ll be huge. I’ve lost a lot of weight. But I’ll gain it back. I’ll be better than ever and stronger than ever with them. He knows what he’s doing.
“I may or may not go through spring practice, but we’ll see as that gets closer.”
The well-traveled Brahms family will have a busy few days before the incoming freshman gets settled in at Auburn, though.
Brahms will cheer on his future team at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans on Jan. 2. After the Tigers play Oklahoma, he’ll head back to Navarre for a couple of days. On Jan. 5, he’ll fly to San Antonio, Texas, for the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
— Nick Brahms (@Nick_Brahms) April 13, 2016
The offensive guard is one of several players picked for the annual recruiting showcase who won’t be able to play in the contest. But Brahms and his father will be out there for some recognition and the game itself on Jan. 7.
“I remember growing up and watching those games on TV, man, and thinking about how much I wanted to do that when I got to that level playing football,” Brahms said. “It was a dream come true when I got invited. I won’t be able to play, but it’ll be a good experience. I can’t wait.”
The Brahms will fly from San Antonio to Atlanta the day after the game and take the trip down Interstate 85 to the Plains. Brahms officially arrives at Auburn on Jan. 8, ready to get to work in all areas of college life.
“He’ll be able to get comfortable to college early. He’ll get a jump on the flying stuff that he’ll have to do. That’ll be a challenge, too,” Keith Brahms said. “He knows a lot of the guys on the team already, but to actually be out there side-by-side with them is going to be good. He had to endure a year of not being able to work, almost.
“I think he’ll get sore, though. They’re going to work him. By spring, he’s going to look like a different person.”
And, judging by the past year, Brahms will be soaring at Auburn in no time.