FOOTBALL

Justin Brent's unique road from Notre Dame Stadium to the Sweet 16

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Eric Musselman’s voice was strained and his shirt was long gone.

But his message was clear.

“Nobody quit,” Nevada’s third-year head basketball coach said on Sunday after being bombarded with emptying water bottles, the NCAA equivalent of a champagne shower. “Nobody quit.”

Musselman said it twice, because they showed it twice. Minutes earlier, his Wolf Pack erased a 22-point, second-half deficit to down No. 2 seed Cincinnati. Two days before that, the South Regional's No. 7 seed closed a 14-point second half gap before defeating 10 seed Texas in overtime.

“Guys, guess what?” the 53-year-old journeyman coach continued. “We are going to the Sweet 16!”

The room erupted once again. Musselman turned, his right hand clutching a towel, and the first person he hugged was Justin Brent.

Yes, that Justin Brent.

NOBODY QUIT. NOBODY QUIT.#BattleBorn#TheHunt#MarchMadnesspic.twitter.com/8wZ24JxqJP

— Nevada Basketball (@NevadaHoops) March 19, 2018

The same Justin Brent who was recruited to play both collegiate football and basketball at Speedway (Ind.) High School, near Indianapolis. The same Justin Brent who enrolled early at Notre Dame in Jan. 2014 as one of the most highly touted wide receivers nationwide.

The same Justin Brent who played in just nine games in his Irish career, all of them coming in his freshman season. The same Justin Brent who drifted from wide receiver to running back, but failed to record a carry or a catch.

The same Justin Brent who graduated in three and a half years with a degree in liberal arts, and who wouldn’t trade his time at Notre Dame for anything.

“I went to Notre Dame and I did what I came there to do, and that was get my degree, and I’m thankful for it,” Brent said on Monday. “I would do it again, and I learned a lot. I just wanted to bring that here.”

The idea may sound improbable, that a kid from central Indiana would choose to spend his final two seasons of collegiate eligibility in Reno, Nev. But the 6-foot-2, 220-pound wide receiver-turned-safety was impressed by Wolf Pack head football coach Jay Norvell’s college and NFL pedigree. In the 2017 season, Brent appeared in six games and caught one pass for 21 yards.

Then, his offseason was cut short by a unique opportunity.

“Unfortunately one of our guys late in the year got injured and they needed an extra body, and coach Muss had known that I was recruited for both (sports) out of high school and asked me to join the (basketball) team,” Brent said. “It was kind of a no-brainer for me.”

On Feb. 19, Brent — who hadn’t played organized basketball since his junior year of high school — announced that he had joined the Wolf Pack basketball program.

On March 19, he boarded a bus to Atlanta for the Sweet 16.

“It is crazy that this is happening,” Brent said in a phone interview with the Tribune during the bus ride from Nashville, where the program played its first two NCAA Tournament games. “This is going to go down in history, coming back from down 20-plus points in the second half. You don’t really look at it now, but in the future it’s going to be something to remember.

“I’m just happy I get to bring my son into the locker room and have him around all this, because I want this for him one day — playing two or three sports in college and getting a great education. I just want him to do the same things I did and for him to be able to experience it and be around the guys. It’s very meaningful. It’s definitely something that I’m happy I did.”

Brent’s son, Braxton, was born on Aug. 11, 2016 — Justin’s 21st birthday. He has been at every NCAA Tournament game, and that won’t change when Nevada meets 11-seed Loyola-Chicago at 7:07 p.m. EDT on Thursday.

Realistically, he won’t remember any of this.

But Brent’s making sure Braxton can still relive it.

“There’s so many things that you see on TV and you’ve always witnessed in March, and for us to be living it — game-winning baskets and mobbing on the court and throwing water all over the place and celebrating — just to be in it, there’s so many things that I’m glad that I captured on video and I’ll have for the rest of my life and be able to show my son and he’ll be able to have,” Brent said. “It’s been crazy. It definitely has been.”

WE'RE GOING TO THE SWEET SIXTEEN!!! ATLANTA HERE WE COME!! #MarchMadnesspic.twitter.com/ohmJJsFDKb

— J.B. (@JustinBrent) March 19, 2018

In three games, Brent has played a total of five minutes and scored two points, via a twisting layup in a regular-season win over UNLV on Feb. 28.

You won’t hear him complain … but you better believe you’re going to hear him.

“If someone gets into foul trouble, coach Musselman always tells me he’s coming to me,” said Brent, whose father also played college basketball at Kentucky State. “So I just try to stay ready and bring energy and enthusiasm and keep it live on the bench and be the best cheerleader I can be and help the guys and keep them up, because it’s tournament time and there’s a lot of highs and lows.”

For Brent, highs and lows are nothing new. But he hasn’t quit. Whenever basketball season ends, the Nevada safety will return to Reno and re-join the football team for spring practice. He plans on playing both football and basketball next season, while also earning a master’s degree in justice management in December.

But that’s all in the future. For now, Justin Brent isn’t done dancing.

Yes, that Justin Brent.

“I just try to be different, and I try to keep working hard and take advantage of any opportunity that’s given to me,” Brent said. “To be able to take advantage of this is amazing, because like I said, it’s a sport I love.

“It’s crazy how life works. Now I’m here and I’m playing both sports, and I thank God every day for it.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

574-235-6428

Twitter: @mikevorel

Former Notre Dame wide receiver and running back Justin Brent now plays on both the football team and basketball team at Nevada, where the basketball program has advanced to the Sweet 16 (photo courtesy Nevada athletics).