Through the first six weeks of the season, three men have played an instrumental role in the success of the Bethel Royals football program. They would never admit to such a thing, however. Instead the three feel they are just doing their jobs. Nothing special; just doing what is expected. That is one of the very special aspects of Three Kings running backs senior Brandon Marquardt, junior Marshall Klitzke and freshman Bridgeport Tusler. They are a group whose foundation is one of substance and character, and those two attributes are taken to the field every day in practice, every day in the classroom, every Saturday in games, and everywhere they go.
The three create one of the most dynamic backfields in all of Division-III football, and are a match-up nightmare for virtually any team they face. Not only are all three outstanding ball-carriers, bruising to tackle and tough to bring down, they also bring their own dimension to the offense that makes them very hard to scheme against.
The King of Diamonds is Brandon Marquardt, a huge back who has a great deal of speed, and can catch passes, lineup in the slot and return kicks. He is the gem on the team who plays many roles for this offense and special teams. He has two kickoff returns this season for touchdowns, a rushing touchdown and two receiving ones. He has rushed for 386 yards and gained another 117 yards receiving.
Bethel Coach Steve Johnson described Marquardt as “incredibly fast,” and this is a sentiment his mates gladly agree upon. “Fast is an understatement,” Tusler says about his running back partner, and Klitzke says that “Brando” has “speed like no one I have seen.” He is quick once he has the ball in his hands, and his speed allows him to get open in the passing game. No linebacker is able to cover him because of his speed, and he is too big and powerful for most safeties, making him virtually unable to be covered.
The King of Hearts, Bridgeport Tusler, is a passionate player about the game and his team, and he leads the team with six rushing touchdowns and adds two more receiving. He has gained 250 yards rushing this season and has 296 more receiving. The freshman back is described by his coach as “electric” and it is with good reason. With the ball in his hands he is one of the most difficult backs in the country to bring down, and has speed to get open and moves to fake out nearly any defender trying to bring him down. While his number of rushing yards may not seem like much, the 7.6 yards per carry proves that he has the speed to get through holes and to take it to the house. His teammates agree.
“He is electric,” notes Klitzke. “He adds a whole new dynamic to our offense that makes us very difficult as an offense.”
Marquardt agrees. “He is a lot of fun to watch, and really makes some outstanding plays.”
No one is going to mistake Klitzke, the King of Clubs, for being the quickest guy on the team, but that is perfectly ok with him. Coach Johnson described the junior as “tough,” and this is the part of the game that the fullback loves – the physicality. “I love battling for extra yards, I even love blocking. I love getting to hit people.” Hit is what he does. He doesn’t race through open holes in the line; he creates them. He is a load for anyone to try to bring down, and because of his toughness he may be the most difficult of the three to bring down. He leads the team in rushing with 416 yards and has four rushing TDs.
His teammates recognize the toughness in him. “Marsh is the hardest working guy on the team,” Marquardt explains. Tusler points out that Klitzke’s “work ethic exceeds everyone else’s,” and pointed out that the fullback “works his butt off, setting a great example for the other guys.”
Combined the three have rushed for 1052 yards, have 452 yards receiving and 17 total touchdowns. That is an average of 250-plus yards and three touchdowns a game, clearly a major reason why the team is dominating games the way that they are, and are able to keep possession of the ball.
While these are very impressive numbers to say that least, it is the character of these men that really makes them stand out. These are three guys that embrace the mantra of their Coach, that love is the essential foundation this team is built upon, and who also see their role together as more of a brotherhood than teammates. It wasn’t always that way however.
When Klitzke arrived three seasons ago, injuries led to a situation where he and Marquardt were competing for carries, causing a strain in their relationship. Marquardt remembers that “there was a great deal of tension between us at first,” and Klitzke blames it directly on the competing role that the two were thrust into. “We were competing against each other for touches, and both of us had a feeling that we should be the one carrying the ball.” The tension was understandable, but this is Bethel, and divisions like this are not tolerated because they do not embrace the foundation of love and brotherhood.
The situation needed to be remedied, but it was not anyone who intervened to create a change. Instead, it was the two who remedied the situation on their own. “There was tension between Marsh and myself at first, but all that changed because our love as a teammates and friends was too valuable. We didn’t want this to be our relationship, and so it isn’t.”
Klitzke agrees. “It’s important for there to be good chemistry on our team, and there is no place for jealousy in that. Brando and I are good friends, and that makes us a better team.”
All three see that the chemistry between them is a key to why they are so dominate. “We huddle before each game,” Tusler explains, “and discuss our expectations for the game. We work together to determine what we need to do to bring home a win and represent our school well.”
Marquardt agrees, but sees an additional aspect to the relationship. “We know when it is time for us to do something so that we are doing well. We don’t come into games with the expectation of getting a certain number of yards, but when it is time, we say to each to other that we need to come through and do something to change the game.”
While there may have been jealousy early on in the careers of the two upper-classmen, that is not the case any longer. Instead, the three actively support and relish in the success of each other. As Marshall Klitzke points out, “We complement each other well, and so we allow and help each other to do well. I don’t care if I had just 10 yards and they had 150 more. The important thing is that we are all doing well.”
The Three Kings doing well was what was needed early on in the season. The Royals had seen their 11-game win-streak come to an end in a 31-14 loss at No. 5 Wartburg. Five senior receivers had graduated, and the team was looking for an identity. They had 2013 MVP Erik Peterson, but with a group of fresh faces in the receiving corps, the team needed to look in another direction to get their offense on track. The coaching staff turned to their three-headed beast to haul the load.
“Our receiving corps was developing, but we needed to take on a more active role early on,” explains Marquardt. “We were happy to give all we had to help the team.”
The group responded to the challenge of the Week 1 loss with a 315-yard day against St. Olaf and followed that up with 212 more against Carleton. The team needed their running game to keep the offense moving while their MVP gained a rhythm with his receivers, and they were rewarded with two outstanding games right off.
As Tusler puts it, Bethel was always a rushing team, but during the early part of the season they needed to be even more so. “Bethel has always run the ball about 50% of the time, because that is who we are as a team, but we got the ball a little more early on and did our best to help the team.”
Doing their best is exactly what they did. It was not just a matter of the amount of yards they were gaining in games. It was more the number of carries they had that really was making a difference for their offense. In the loss to Wartburg the team ran the ball 24 times and threw 35 more. After that the team never had a game where they passed more than they ran. The backs carried the ball 51 times against St. Olaf, while Peterson needed to throw just 18 times. Against Carleton the disparity was 36 to 22 in favor of runs, and since then the smallest difference between the two was nine more rushes than passes against Hamline. The team turned to its foundation on offense, and the three backs led the charge to five straight wins.
The three may be starring on the field each Saturday, but the spotlight is not what any one of them is about. They are much happier just being students Monday through Friday and don’t want to be seen as “just football players.” All three openly voiced that they want to be known as students at the school and not football players.
The Three Kings are proud to be a part of the Bethel Royals football team, but that is not their identity. Off the field they are three guys who want to be students excelling in the classroom. On campus they want to be young men who represent their school well and show love. They are men of faith, of integrity and humility, and it shows in their lives and in their words.
The reality of their characters is seen in how they view success. Brandon Marquardt had a definition that eventually he explained was based around doing something as well as he could and to his fullest abilities, but before coming to that conclusion it was clear that he viewed creating a close friendship and brotherhood with Klitzke as one of the most successful moments of his life. For a man who had so much success on the field it was really amazing to see that a friendship was so meaningful and special to him.
Bridgeport Tusler quoted something his grandfather told him, “Success isn’t numbers, it is faithful labor.” It is clear in his demeanor and attitude that he embraces this in all he does. The man known as “Bridge” by teammates wants to create his own sports complex where he can help young men reach their dreams of playing college ball one day. As he talked about it there was no doubt that he would succeed. There was a great deal of heart in his words, even more heart than he shows on the field, which boggles the mind to be honest.
The most interesting response related to success came from Marshall Klitzke. “Success,” he explained, “is what you do behind the scenes when no one is looking. It’s when you do things that no one else notices, but helps you to be better.” Success to him came in his integrity, and Marshall Klitzke is most definitely a man of incredible integrity.
These three young men are kings, not only for Bethel University and the Bethel Royals football team, but for themselves, their teammates, their classmates, friends and families. They are men who have showed great heart, incredible skill and perseverance, and outstanding integrity.
This Saturday the Bethel Royals will face off against rival St. Thomas with a lot of playoff and conference title implications at stake, but for three men it will be a different kind of challenge. A challenge to be good men, to give their best for the teammates, coaches and school, and to be able to say when the final gun sounds that they gave everything they had. There is no doubt that this is exactly what they will do and the Tommies may likely learn what the previous five opponents have learned – when these three give their all, the Three Kings ensure that the Royals remain atop the throne as the MIAC leaders.
By Robert Pannier