There's an old adage that everything happens for a reason. From which school one attends, to what career they enter, to what sports, if any, they choose to participate in, every decision, every occurrence, is part of a master plan designed to lead each individual to a certain outcome in life.
For Washington senior center Brad Vanneman, the reasons are becoming clear.
Now the starting center and reigning offensive MVP for Washington`s football team, Vanneman came within a whisker of never setting foot on the gridiron, having not even considered the sport as a child. Vanneman's future, he was convinced, was on the basketball court.
"Before football, all I wanted to do was play basketball," he says. "When I was in middle school, I thought I was going to be the next Larry Bird. Basketball was a great love of mine."
Vanneman excelled at the game through his junior-high years, competing on an Issaquah, Wash., all-star team. When his coach, Dale Hall, suggested Vanneman try out for the junior-high football team in the fall as a way to stay in shape during the basketball off-season, Vanneman thought, "No way!"
"I told him, `I don't want to play football, I don't want to get beat up,'" Vanneman recalls.
Convinced that football would help Vanneman with his strength and footwork, Hall persisted. For his part, Vanneman continued coming to the gym, sure his coach would eventually let the idea drop.
"Then one day I was in the gym shooting around, wearing my armbands, doing my Larry Bird thing," says Vanneman. "Coach Hall comes in and tells me flat-out to get out of there and get ready for football. That was when I realized he was serious."
Two long, brutal years later, Vanneman enrolled at Issaquah High School, and was forced again to decide whether he wanted to continue his football career at the next level. He was still convinced that his future lay in basketball, feeling awkward and out-of-place on the football field. At the same time, Coach Hall had been right -- his time on the football field had helped improve his strength and footwork, and was a fun way to stay in shape for basketball season.
He stuck with it. Four months later, it was Issaquah's head football coach's turn to sit Vanneman down for a conversation that would change the course of the young athlete's life.
"He told me that if I hit the weight room hard, and continued to grow, then I could be a Division-I football player," Vanneman recalls. "I was like, `No way! What are you talking about? I want to play basketball.' But I stuck with football, and eventually fell in love with the game."
Vanneman fell in love with the competitiveness of the sport, the aggressiveness of play in the trenches, and the rush and the excitement of the Friday night lights.
Everything happens for a reason.
Vanneman's search for a "reason" could have ended there, with those two coaches' conversations having led him into football, which led him to a college scholarship, which allowed him the opportunity to compete for and win the Huskies' starting center position.
For Vanneman, though, life's "reasons" are far more complex.
When Vanneman was two years old, his parents divorced, eventually each starting their own families independent from each other. As the only child of his parents' marriage, Vanneman found himself the lone connecting factor between the two families, the sole binding force connecting all of those that he loved to each other.
"I am the oldest out of all the kids," says Vanneman. "I have two siblings, Brian and Blaire, from my mom's side, and three -- Casey, Timothy and Kelley -- from my dad's side. I also have an older stepsister, Missy, from my step-father's first marriage. I lived with my mom in Issaquah, with Brian and Blaire, and I would visit with Casey, Kelley, and Timothy, with my dad and step-mother whenever I could."
As he became an emerging star on the football field at Issaquah High School, Vanneman found that the two sides of his family came together on Friday nights, cheering in unison for the brother and son that they each loved equally.
"I want them to come to the games," he says. "I want them to be proud of me when I am done. I want them to look at what I do on the field, and have a sense of pride -- every single one of them. Football has been the focal point to bring the two families together, which has been great. And that is what I think football and athletics does. It brings people together."
For Vanneman, uniting the two halves of his family is a more motivational and inspiring outcome of his move to football than any personal accomplishments he could ever achieve.
"I have a great relationship with every single one of my brothers and sisters," says Vanneman. "I love them to death, and they have been awesome through this. I believe they look up to me, and it definitely drives me to succeed, and to make them proud. There is a conscious effort on my part to try and be their role model, to guide them in the right direction. I certainly don't have all the answers, and they know that, but I try my best to be that older brother they can look up to."
While it is Vanneman who has found himself as the center point of his two families, much of the credit for bringing the two sides together goes to the senior's parents, Mike and Lori, who went out of their way to create a healthy family atmosphere for all the kids, encouraging them to spend time together and form strong sibling relationships.
"They have been incredibly supportive throughout this entire process, despite being separated," says Vanneman. "Many times the kids would stay at each other's houses. My parents have done a great job communicating, and despite having their own families, have always made me a priority at certain times, especially during football season. I appreciate it so much."
Everything happens for a reason. Perhaps Brad Vanneman could have been the next Larry Bird. For now, though, there isn't a thing he'd change about the course his life has taken.
"I have met the best friends of my life through football," he says. "I have learned a lot about myself -- my strengths, my weaknesses. I have many great memories that I can take with me after I move on. I don't think I would have experienced anything like this if it weren't for football."
One final season as the Huskies' starting center ahead of him, his family united in the stands cheering for him proudly, Brad Vanneman needs no one to tell him that everything happens for a reason. He already has all the proof he needs.