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Notre Dame-Air Force Family Affair

Discipline and following a positive regimen is highly valued in Don and Kim Niklas’ family in Fullerton, Calif. This is why Austin is a junior linebacker at the United States Air Force Academy, while freshman Troy is enrolled at Notre Dame.

Freshman Troy Niklas renews his "rivalry" with older brother Austin this weekend.

For the past two years, Scot Prohaska, the owner of EKAWA fitness in Huntington Beach, Calif, also has trained the younger Niklas. Professional athletes from the NHL, NFL, MLB, CFL, USA Track & Field, Canada Track & Field, USA Bobsled & Skeleton and Division I sports programs have made the trek to EKAWA. Prohaska’s program centers not merely on intense training but nutritional excellence.

“I try to eat right and put the right fuel in my body so I can perform at the highest level,” said Niklas, whose 6-6 1/2, 250-pound frame has about only seven percent body fat, earning Niklas the nickname “Hercules” from Irish junior linebacker Manti Te’o. “You’re going to have a well functioning body when you do that … Scot really instilled in me how important it is to put the right fuel in your body.”

However, while growing up and competing with older brother Austin, discipline sometimes took a back seat to their competitive battles in myriad sports, including one they called “bed wrestling.”

“There was this bed, king-sized, it was kind of like ‘King of The Castle,’ just knock the other guy off the bed,” the younger Niklas explained. “It used to get pretty rough, lamps flying … one time he picked me up and slammed me on the couch and broke the couch.”

Those battles began in elementary school and through junior high, but the last episode — when Austin was already a freshman at the Academy and Troy was a rising junior high school football star — was one that made them “retire” the sport.

“It was mainly in elementary school and junior high, but there were a couple of matches in there in high school,” Niklas recalled. “My mom always used to kind of flip out whenever we’d start up, because things would break. We’re big people.”

Competition is a way of life when you grow up in an athletic family like the Niklas’. Their uncles, Bruce Matthews and Clay Matthews, were long-time NFL mainstays and Pro Bowl selections, and several cousins also star in football, most notably Clay Matthews III for the Green Bay Packers.

This Saturday it takes on a special dimension when the brothers will be lined up on different sidelines in Notre Dame Stadium. It will be the first time they’ve competed against each other in a team sport after attending well-renowned Servite High. A 6-2, 230-pound linebacker for the Falcons who wears No. 42 (his father’s college number), Austin recorded 41 tackles last season as a sophomore and has eight so far this year in a backup role — the same number as Troy.

Meanwhile, the younger brother has started on special teams since this year’s opener, and even got the starting nod at Dog linebacker versus Michigan State when sophomore Danny Spond was injured and starter Prince Shembo had to attend to a family emergency.

“I’ve been trying to call, but he doesn’t call me back,” said Niklas with a smile on trying to communicate with his older brother this week. “I guess we’re going to talk after the game. It’s his team and they’re coming to battle us.”

With the passage of time, their heated competition now has become a mutual admiration society built on respect.

“I know he busts his butt every day and I’m really proud of him for choosing to go to Air Force and to serve our country,” Niklas said. “Just his work ethic, how he attacks every day because as you know, it is the Air Force Academy and it's not easy to play football and have a large course load.

“He was always there for me growing up but we were very competitive. If there’s ever an activity or some kind of sport, we’d always butt heads. A lot of times he would get me. Sometimes I’d get him. Overall, I’d say we’ve got a very good relationship … we communicate well with each other and share personal feelings and through that I kind of feel we lift each other up.”

Niklas valued the input from his older brother on the ins and outs of recruiting, and Austin felt the same surge of pride when his sibling made his decision to enroll at Notre Dame.

“He was happy for me,” Niklas said. “He knows how prestigious this university is and I think he was proud that I was able to make a decision to get away from California and experience something different.”

He’s been thrown into the college football fire quickly, but Niklas said that has already facilitated his mental preparation for games.

“It was a pretty big step in really understanding the defense and getting out there and trying to help out this university,” said Niklas of his start at Dog linebacker versus Michigan State in which he was credited with three unofficial tackles.

“It’s a learning process. As a freshman you’re going to make those mistakes. It’s just about what you do after and just responding to those mistakes and not letting them get to you. It gives you something to concentrate on during the week, making sure you know the calls and all the different formation sets.”

This Saturday, the already highly motivated Niklas might take it up a notch.

“It will be a great afternoon for the family because they are going to go home winners,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly of the Niklas’.

On both sides of the field.

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