By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - With a shaved head, rust-colored beard and deep voice, Iowa redshirt freshman fullback Brady Ross looks and sounds mature beyond his years.
His appearance is spot on because you’d be hard pressed to find a more mature or a tougher kid than Ross.
Life has given him no choice but to be that way.
In one respect, Ross is just a kid, considering he doesn’t turn 21 until Feb 20. Ross hasn’t even reached the legal drinking age yet, but he has endured the shock and devastation from his father’s suicide in July, and will forever live with the pain and suffering.
“I think about him every day,” Ross said Thursday. “I have dreams every now and then.”
Todd Ross was just 50-years old when he committed suicide. His body was discovered on July 20th and barely a month before the Iowa football team’s 2016 season opener against Miami of Ohio.
“He told my mom that he had been having real weird thoughts and stuff like that," Brady Ross said of his father. “He went missing for a couple days and then eventually he was found."
Todd Ross had exhibited strange behavior in the days before his suicide, like driving to the home of a friend, who had been dead for over a year and not remembering why he was there. He suffered from memory loss, struggled with cognitive reasoning and was losing control of normal functions.
An autopsy would reveal the cause.
“The autopsy showed that he had some pretty advanced brain cancer that was really effecting his thinking,” Brady Ross said of his father.
Todd Ross accomplished a great deal in his 50 years, but more than anything, he was a beloved and respected husband and father.
He gave his children the strength, resolve and confidence to overcome adversity.
Brady Ross suffers every day without his father, but he stays the course because that’s what Todd would expect him to do.
“It was tough,” Brady said of losing his father. “Me and my dad had a lot of long car rides, a lot of really good conversations. He’s the best guy I ever knew and I learned a lot of things from him."
Brady’s father was his biggest fan, but also a willing critic.
“He’d shoot you straight,” Brady said. “In sixth grade, when I thought I was going to be a basketball player he told me, not so fast on that one. So when he said something, you could trust him because you knew he’d shoot you straight.”
Todd’s honesty actually helped convince Brady to join the Iowa football team as a preferred walk-on after a standout career at Humboldt High School.
Brady had scholarship offers from several Division II schools and was considering taking that route until his father convinced him to think bigger.
“He was a guy that really believed in me a lot,” Brady said. “When I was facing a decision whether or not to take a scholarship to a division two school or walk-on at Iowa because I wasn’t sure if I was good enough to play here, but he was.
“He kind of was instrumental in talking me into this and talking me into not settling. No one believed in me more than him.”
Brady knows that his father would be proud of what he has accomplished as one of Iowa’s top two fullbacks. Brady has appeared in all 12 games this season while rotating with Drake Kulick.
However, Kulick was injured against Nebraska in the regular-season finale and won’t play against Florida in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 2 in Tampa, Fla.
Brady Ross will assume even more responsibility in the Outback Bowl and the 6-foot-1, 240-pounder is up for the challenge. He came to Iowa in the fall of 2015 as a linebacker, but switched to fullback prior to 2016 spring practice.
The possibility of switching to fullback had been on Brady’s mind for a while, even during the recruiting process. Brady said his father embraced the position switch.
“Actually a key component to me coming here is that I knew Iowa had a fullback and I knew that was a very real possibility in the future,” Brady Ross said. “They never mentioned anything to me about being a fullback in the recruiting process, but I kind of knew it was a very real possibility and so did (my dad).
“Towards the end I actually was a fullback and he knew I was going to be a fullback and he was just thrilled and really looking forward to seeing me on the field.”
That statement nearly brought me to tears, but I gained strength during our interview just from watching Brady Ross handle each question with poise and grace.
I kept thinking that I was two years older than his father and that my father will turn 91 in March. My mother is also still alive at the age of 87.
What did I do to deserve such a better fate than Brady Ross, I kept asking myself.
There is no answer to that question. Life is filled with uncertainties, with nothing more uncertain than life itself.
Adversity hits everybody at some point. How you deal with it depends a lot on the support and love that is present in your life.
Brady Ross is fortunate to come from a close family, actually two close families if you include his teammates and coaches. Todd left behind a wife, three sons and a daughter, along with too many friends to count.
They helped to comfort Brady during the lowest moments, but so did his Iowa teammates. Brady said he was flooded with calls and text message from his teammates after they learned about his father’s death.
“I couldn’t even answer them all at the time,” Brady said. “But the outpouring of support was really well felt. My family commented to me; wow, it’s great you’re part of a program like this. You’ve got coaches and players who reach out like that and have a genuine care for you.”
Brady Ross already had the respect of his teammates before his father committed suicide. They knew he was tough and courageous because you don't play fullback or linebacker at Iowa without being both.
But they saw another side of Brady after his father's death. They saw a young man who was devastated, but not broken.
His father had only been dead for about two weeks when Iowa started preseason practice in August. And yet, there was Brady Ross ready to work when practice started.
“It’s pretty crazy when you think about it,” said Iowa junior linebacker Josey Jewell. “That’s a tough situation. I don’t know what I’d do, and he handled it very maturely. That had to be tough. I don’t know if I would have done it as good as he did. He’s a tough dude. He’s the man.”
Brady Ross was introduced to sports, including football, by his father. That's why Brady often thinks about his father while playing on the field.
"I think a lot about dad when it comes to football and when I’m playing football," Brady Ross said. "He’s the one that taught me how to play football.”
It's fair to say that Todd Ross taught his son way more than how to play football. He taught Brady how to be a man.