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Baseball: UL’s Conrad back where he belongs

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, February14, 2015


MAIN ul practice.jpg

UL second baseman Brenn Conrad (13) participates in a baseball team practice Wednesday at M.L. "Tigue" Moore Field. (Photo: Paul Kieu/The Advertiser)



He is doing what he feels was destined.

He’s back where he belongs, on a diamond.

He was UL’s Opening Night starting second baseman on Friday, taking over the bag left vacant by an older brother.

Brenn Conrad has managed all that, however, only after navigating a long road peppered with curves and obstacles from Lafayette to Williamsport to Council Bluffs and back: the shadow cast by an All-American from the same household, a stint out of school, a dear friend’s unexpected death.

How he’d feel if he hadn’t set out to reclaim everything that once was snagged firmly in his glove, only to slip from his grip, is something the Lafayette High product can only imagine.

"I’d probably be a little depressed and unhappy about my situation," Conrad said, "because I’ve been playing baseball since I was 4 years old, always had success, went to the Little League World Series.

"People know me and my family for baseball. So I’d probably be a little bit upset, and sad about it. But luckily I’m playing again."

The fact he is amounts to a product of perseverance, encouragement and learning the hard way just what matters most.

"He was kind of meandering through everything for a while," said Hans Nelson, who became a confidant for Conrad following the 2013 death of his adopted stepson – and Brenn’s close friend and high school teammate – Christian Nelson.

"I think he was not sure if he was sold on baseball, not sure if he was sold on going to school, and not sure if he was sold on where he was in his life in any way.

"All of those things just kind of came together," Nelson added, "and he at some point had an epiphany."

It came one year and one day ago, on a Friday night at M.L. "Tigue" Moore Field. But it was a decade or so in the making.

In 2005, Brenn and his brother Jace Conrad were teammates on the Lafayette club that advanced to the U.S. semifinals of the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.

Mike Conrad, Brenn and Jace’s father, coached the team, which locally was toast of the town at the time, and Brenn was the baby on a roster of 11- and 12-year-olds.

"I remember watching him on the Little League team, not knowing him then," Nelson said. "But he was the little brother, and he was the youngest one – and I knew then, man, that kid’s got to be an overachiever if he could hang with all those kids."

He was, and continued to be after taking his game to Lafayette High. The Little League trip set the groundwork, and from high school he followed Jace’s footsteps to UL.

That first season as a Ragin’ Cajun, however, Brenn played sparingly, appearing in 18 games and starting one, but getting just 16 at-bats and hitting .188.

"I haven’t normally sat the bench my whole, entire life," he said.

"But my freshman year, just watching all these guys hit the ball like they did and play defense like they did – it was actually kind of special, to be able to watch from the dugout."

The Cajuns flourished as a team, and in late May, having qualified for the NCAA Tournament, they headed to Baton Rouge.

Brenn Conrad, however, didn’t play in any Regional games. He was back home, where tragedy had struck.

Christian Nelson was a Lafayette High freshman the same year as Brenn Conrad.

The two met then, quickly becoming part of a tight-knit group of buddies drawn together by humor, taste in musical and of course sports.

"It was kind of an instant friendship deal," said Hans Nelson, who with his wife Jenn hosts a local FM morning radio show (he’s a.k.a. Fast Eddie from Fast and Jenn on KYBG 102.1).

"They just hit it off right away," added Nelson, who also works as public-address announcer for UL football and men’s basketball games, "and they were very, very close throughout high school."

The day before UL opened the Baton Rouge Regional, however, Christian Nelson fell in a workplace accident and died.

Two days after the Cajuns were eliminated with a loss to LSU, Nelson – who now has an organ-donation promotion foundation, Christian’s Legacy Fund, named after him – was laid to rest in Crowley.

"He was devastated," Hans Nelson said of Conrad, one among a group of friends who served as pallbearers.

"It just affected all of them, and particularly Brenn. He was distraught. He was almost in disbelief for a while. He called me at least once a week within the first 6-to-8 weeks, and I could hear it in his voice.

"I didn’t know how it would affect him long-term," Nelson added, "but I knew it was devastating to him for short-term, for sure."

It was.

"I gained about 30 pounds, just from being depressed and stuff like that," Conrad said. "I felt like the best thing for me was to get away and find myself."

He did, eventually.

As the middle brother of three – oldest brother Grant Conrad is now a minor-league baseball umpire – Jace Conrad is the nearest sibling in age to Brenn.

He can tell when his little brother is hurting, and Brenn was.

"It was tough, man," said Jace, now a minor-leaguer selected by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 13th round of last year’s Major League Baseball Draft.

"As an older brother, it’s always tough to see your little brother struggle – whether it’s something serious like that, or something tiny. So, all I could really do was have his back – tell him everything’s gonna be alright."

But while Brenn was home in the rough summer of 2013, Jace – a unanimous All-American following his 2014 UL season – was off in British Columbia playing West Coast League ball.

"I checked on him constantly, texted him to see how he was doing, kept in touch with his friends, just tried to help him keep his head straight when he was going through such a tough time," Jace Conrad said. "But there’s only so much you can do. Something like that, you’ve kind of got to handle it day-by-day."

As hard as Jace may have tried to keep it still, Brenn’s head was spinning.

"Losing my best friend was probably the toughest thing that’s ever happened to me in my life," he said. "It took me a while to get over it.

"I went to Iowa for that reason. I needed to find myself, because I had lost a lot. Honestly, it still hasn’t completely gone away. I’m still working on it, and just trying to be happy and thank God every day for my life."

Near the end of that first summer following his first season at UL, and Nelson’s death, Brenn Conrad had a chance to go to Iowa Western Community College thanks to a coaching connection via his brother Grant.

Council Bluffs, Iowa, is quite a haul from Lafayette – 900-plus miles – but it was just the distance Brenn needed at the time, many involved seemed to agree.

With the way things perhaps were headed for Conrad, it appeared a respite from Louisiana could prove beneficial.

"I think, just personally, that threw him for a loop," Cajuns coach Tony Robichaux said of Nelson’s death.

Robichaux and Mike Conrad spoke.

"We thought it was a good plan for (Brenn) to go and try to grow up, mature," Robichaux said.

"We both felt it was probably gonna be a make-it-or-break-it for him – he was either gonna get everything in order, or stay out there wandering."

Playing somewhere he was so known, and behind a brother more known, was one thing.

Losing his pal was different altogether.

"He was in the shadow of Jace, which was certainly a lot of pressure," Nelson said. "He’s in his hometown. But those things, in my opinion, are a dream come true.

"Those weren’t negatives before, and what was the one thing that was different? It was that he lost, if not his best friend, one of his very closest friends – and was certainly grieving, and not seeing the world very clearly."

So off to Iowa it was.

The trip, however, didn’t last long.

During fall ball, Conrad suggested, something just didn’t feel quite right.

"The hitting coach tried to change everything up that I’d been working for for 16 years in my life," he said.

"I always had a leg kick, and that’s a timing issue right there. A hitter needs his timing. He tried to spread me out, be a toe-tap guy – not even a toe-tap; just lift up a heel, and put it back down.

"I just wasn’t comfortable," Conrad added, "and they were pretty much, ‘Either it’s my way or the highway.’ "

Conrad took the road straight back to Lafayette.

He didn’t return after Christmas break, and never did play a game for the well-regarded juco program.

Yet the semester away served its purpose.

"He needed that, because Christian was one of his best friends," Jace Conrad. "I think getting away helped him get his mind off of everything that was going on.

"It wasn’t easy for him to leave. He’s kind of a homeboy like myself. But getting away definitely helped clear his head."

It didn’t, however, make his future any less foggy.

Not right away.

After leaving Iowa Western, Conrad didn’t enroll in school. He did say he "prayed, and friends and family helped out."

"I feel like if you find the right people to talk to, no matter what they say it’s always gonna help," Conrad said.

But he still didn’t have a plan when Robichaux summoned him well before the 2014 season got under way.

Even then, the mind was somewhat clouded and the ears somewhat closed.

"Coach (Robichaux) called me into his office, because he heard I wasn’t going back," Conrad said, "He was like, ‘Look, Brenn; we want you to come redshirt for the spring.’

"I was like, ‘Coach, I don’t know if I want to do that. You know, I just lost a love for the game, as of right now. And he was like, ‘Well, look, if you ever change your mind give me a call … and we’ll talk.’ "

The Iowa adventure, while beneficial in dealing with his loss, really did sap his spirit.

"It made me really not like baseball at the time," Conrad said.

Unsure what to do, or where he was headed, he took a job at a local sporting goods store.

"I was fine until Day 1 of the season," Conrad said.

"I saw the lights come on at The Tigue, and the atmosphere and all that, and I was like, ‘Man, this is what everybody practices so hard for; this is what everybody prepares for.’ I just missed it so much."

Conrad sat behind the plate with his dad and watched Jace man second base.

UL, which went on to finish the season 58-10 with an NCAA Super Regional appearance, actually lost that first night, to Eastern Illinois.

It didn’t matter.

"The following game, same exact feeling," Conrad said. "The Alabama games, LSU game – it just takes a toll on you. I just felt like I couldn’t watch it."

Conrad knew what he needed to do. He’d have to face Robichaux, and the music.

But he didn’t know how to go about it, and it took him about 10 games into the year.

"I needed to figure out exactly what to say to him," Conrad said. "I wanted him to kind of get going into the season. I didn’t want to come just barging in too early."

He had to work up the nerve, in other words.

"It was," Nelson said, " ‘What am I gonna do? Am I gonna give up on the dream that I’ve had since I was a very small child, or am I gonna give it one more go?’ And, ‘If I give it one more go, I’ve got to give get everything in order.’

"One day, after rolling it around in his head, he put all of that together, and called me around the same time, and said, ‘Mr. Hans, here’s what I’m gonna do; what do you think?’

"I told him, ‘You only live once; to have a second chance, you need to talk to Coach (Robichaux), and you need to get yourself ready, because it’s gonna be a hard fight to get back to where you were before you left.’ "

Nelson sees Robichaux as a father figure to many in the community, so he advised Conrad to listen more than he spoke.

"Brenn called me after, and he said, ‘Well, this is what he told me,’ " Nelson said.

"I said, ‘Are you gonna be able to do everything he said?’ He said, ‘Absolutely, without a doubt.’ That was it. He was sold 100 percent, and has not wavered since that day."

It started with education.

But it didn’t end there.

Nelson said Robichaux essentially told Conrad, "There are no promises, there are no guarantees. You can come out and show me what you’ve got, once you’ve got all of that stuff done, but that doesn’t necessarily mean … you’ll make the team."

"Brenn had to prove everything – that he was dedicated to school first, and to playing baseball again," Nelson said.

"He got back in school, took a few (summer) classes, started working on his swing, and defense, and going to the gym, and all of the things I think he felt he needed to do probably; changed his social pattern a little bit, less with buddies and more with teammates, and I think it is reaping rewards for him right now."

Robichaux gives much credit to Conrad’s short time at Iowa Western.

"That road for him was good," the Cajun coach said. "His academics are in order now, his own personal life is in order for him now, and he’s done a great job for us."

Conrad had a GPA above 3.0 last semester.

"That road was healthy," Robichaux said. "Did it give him a lot of game experience? No. But what it did do was it helped him grow and mature, so Brenn’s in a lot better place now than when he first arrived.

"He really, really got everything in order. … He’s totally different now than when he first got here as a freshman."

Conrad apparently has put whatever negative influences he might have had behind him, and teammates can tell.

"He’s very different," junior shortstop Blake Trahan said. "That boy right there – you know, he ain’t worried about all the stuff off the field. That boy just loves getting in between the lines and playing hard. He’s gritty, he’s a grinder and he’s ready to go.

"I’m glad he got away from all that, and this is the place he needs to be. He’s a brother to me. I love him, and we’re ready to go and fight."

Jace Conrad sees it too.

"He kind of lost track of what he wanted in life," the older brother said, "but he got back on track and he figured it out. He’s at the right place now.

"He told me he made a mistake. He knows he did. He should have never left in the first place. You’ve got to do sometimes what you’ve got to do, though. It’s not always about what other people want. It’s about what makes you happy – what makes your life better.

"I think going to Iowa kind of changed his path in where he’s headed," Jace Conrad added, "and I think that’s probably one of the better things that’s happened to him."

Just having a bat back in his hands, Jace believes, is important for his brother.

"When you don’t have anything to do, you get in trouble," he said. "You sit around, you’re not in school.

"(Sports) helps kids keep their head on straight, and it helps them hang out with the right crowd. You don’t have too much time on your hands, so it keeps you busy and around people that can be positive in your life."


Conrad, likely to share time at second base this season, had one hit and scored two runs in three at-bats UL’s Game 1 loss at Texas-San Antonio on Friday.

On Saturday, he came off the bench and delivered a two-run triple in the ninth inning of the Cajuns’ 8-2 run at UTSA.

"I’m just here to play baseball," Conrad said. "I’m not trying to out-compete Jace and the way he played last year, because obviously that’s a tough thing to do.

"I just want to contribute to the team any way I can. I don’t expect to be an All-American like my brother and all that – I’d love to, but in reality it’s probably not gonna happen. But I just want to help my team win, get to a Regional and see where we can go from there."

He can now, all because he mustered the courage to ask Robichaux for a second chance.

"I basically just told him how much I miss it, and I told him it wasn’t because of winning and all that," Conrad said. "I just missed being a part of a team, missed being a part of Ragin’ Cajun baseball.

"I just couldn’t keep on watching it from the stands, you know? I just needed to be out on the field. I was born to play baseball, I feel."

Christian’s Legacy

Christian’s Legacy is a fund founded in honor of UL second baseman Brenn Conrad’s late friend, Christian Nelson.

Run through the Community Foundation of Acadiana, it promotes organ donation awareness and recently granted $2,500 to the Louisiana Organ Procurement Agency.

More information can be found online at http://cfacadiana.org/fund_highlights/Donor-Advised-Funds/Christians-Legacy

Nelson, a Lafayette High graduate, was an organ donor when he died from a workplace accident in May 2013.