Sports, as a whole, help to create lifelong friendships for many who have played.
For Anthem native, Josh Van Gysel, the relationships he cultivated through football is the reason why he’s still playing the game.
“The biggest thing for me was the relationships I’ve had within the sport whether that be the coaches or the players,” Van Gysel said. “It’s really been a huge part of my football journey and me playing all these years. Without that, I probably would have stopped playing a long time ago because it wouldn’t have been as enjoyable or quite the same experience. I’m really grateful to have those.”
The Boulder Creek High School alum chose to play his collegiate football at Central College in Pella, Iowa. The Dutch haven’t had a losing season since 1960 and despite its status as a Division III program, the team is the fourth-winningest NCAA football team since 1975 with a .793 winning percentage.
“I feel like there’s a little bit of extra pressure (that comes with winning),” said Van Gysel, a 19-year-old business major. “They haven’t had a losing season in I don’t know how many years. You have to keep that going as well as trying to do your best, but also you have to understand the culture and tradition behind the program.”
Jeff McMartin is in his 17th season as Central’s head coach, leading the Dutch to a 126-42 record since he took over the program.
McMartin, along with his coaching staff, watched Van Gysel’s highlight film and liked what they saw.
“He feels things really well,” McMartin said. “He’s not easily blocked. He’s very instinctual in tracking the ball. He’s got a good frame and good size. He’s just going to be able to get bigger and stronger throughout his college career. He had played against some really good competition.”
The 5-foot-11, 240-pound linebacker liked what he saw in Central College before his visit, but the trip cemented the decision to play there.
“They’d had a really successful history with football, so I really wanted to be a part of that,” Van Gysel said. “Then when I came on the visit, I really liked the school and getting to meet all of the players. I just kind of fell in love with it there.”
The recruitment process for Central’s football team is very particular. McMartin said he is looking for a few specific things in recruiting for his team. Van Gysel happened to check all of the boxes.
“Part of our recruiting strategy and team building philosophy is to find guys that have three characteristics: they’re great football players, outstanding students and tremendous people and good leaders,” he said, “They’re high-character guys.”
Troy Rohrbacker was Van Gysel’s coach from Pee Wee football through middle school. He said Van Gysel has always been hard working and goal oriented.
“Josh is one of those individuals who is really driven,” Rohrbacker said. “If he had a goal in mind, he was going to achieve it regardless. He didn’t let other people influence what he wanted to do. If he had something in his head, that was what he was going to do.”
With football, Van Gysel gets to do something he loves daily: compete. He rises to any challenge.
“Early on, you could tell that his work ethic would absolutely drive him,” Rohrbacker said. “He wasn’t afraid of work and football is a lot of work. He loves to compete and show that it doesn’t matter who you are as long as you have the heart, and Josh has the heart.”
The transition from high school to college athletics is a jump that many athletes struggle with, regardless of the sport. With football, it’s even more difficult as student-athletes at the next level are much bigger, faster and stronger.
But Rohrbacker, however, was not the slightest bit concerned about Van Gysel’s ability to thrive in collegiate football and take his game up a notch.
“I think the competition part of it alone for him would be the driving motivation for him to excel at that level. He won’t let himself fail,” Rohrbacker said.
That transition became even more difficult for Van Gysel when the team’s spring games were canceled due to the pandemic.
Taking it in stride, Van Gysel took the cancellation as an opportunity to get better elsewhere.
“It kind of sucked learning that we weren’t going to be able to have a season,” he said. “You kind of just have to roll with it, but I just took it as an opportunity to learn the defense and build a relationship with the guys. So, sure, it sucked, but it ended up being helpful in other ways.”
With hard work and determination, the team returned to a semi-normal practice schedule and Van Gysel found himself as a starter on the team’s defense as a freshman. He is expected to be a key member of the defense moving forward.
“He’s continuing to grow in his position,” McMartin said. “He’s learning every day that there’s a new scenario coming up that he’s experiencing for the first time. There’s still a lot of growing going on, but he’s doing such a great job that he’s been able to get up to speed quickly. We’re really excited about him. I mean, he’s starting for us as a freshman. That just doesn’t happen around here a lot. He’s a good football player and that will only get better with more experience.”
For Van Gysel, there is a mix of excitement and nerves about playing for a successful program such as Central. But he’s looking forward to competing and proving he has what it takes to add to that winning culture .
“Upholding that tradition as well as adding to it makes it more fun,” he said. “It’s truly an amazing experience that not many programs can say that they have.”
On the football field, though Van Gysel said he thoroughly enjoys hitting and the physical process of making a tackle. Rohrbacker said he is the kind of person to make a huge tackle on his opponent but then instantly help them up.
“Character as an individual goes a long way not only in football, but in life as well,” Rohrbacker said. “I’ve always found Josh to be a person of character. He was always on that tried-and-true path of ‘I am who I am.’ He is just a good kid. Josh’s character is just something that is going to lead him far in life.”