Aquinas' Tad Naiberk, center, signs his letter of intent to play football at Nebraska Wesleyan earlier this season with his parents Don, left, and LaDonna Naiberk. 

Game days are always the reward. Fans are in the parking lots early, tailgating, cheerleaders and band members look perfect in their uniforms, ready to show off their latest routines and delight the crowd with stadium favorites and a long week of practice for those on the field culminates under the Friday night lights.

No matter what walk of life the participants come from, those three-plus hours together at the end of the week are seen by many as the reward for the day-to-day grind.

Yet, for Aquinas Catholic senior Tad Naiberk, it's in that daily grind where he found true joy, discovered his true identity.

"Everybody loves playing football games, but you have to love trying to get better in practice for you to really love the sport," Naiberk said in a recent interview discussing his signing to play football at Nebraska Wesleyan. 

"You have to work harder than the other guy if you want to be better. Sometimes you work harder than the other guys, and you may be the hardest worker in there, but you may not be the best. It's just the way it is. I just figured I'd work as hard as I could and see where it got me." 

Naiberk, who started playing football, in third grade, found his passion for offseason work and preparation in between sophomore and junior year. 

In order to improve, he would work out at the weight room four days a week during the season and six days a week the other eight to nine months of the year. During the summers, Naiberk, who worked construction would sometimes lift before and after work. 

That dedication paid off for Naiberk, who was recognized by his teammates with postseason honors. 

Naiberk received the Black and Gold Teammate Award given to the best teammate, the Hustling Teammate honor given to the hardest work and tied for the Best Blocker and MVP with fellow senior Zach Chromy. 

Naiberk was a fixture on the offensive line for the Monarchs the past two seasons, closing his career by being part of a program that went 7-4 and earned a playoff victory over Doniphan-Trumbull. 

Naiberk decided Wesleyan was the right fit for him after visiting the campus on junior day and again during the last game of the Prairie Wolves' season.

Wesleyan finished the 2018 season with a 3-7 record, including a win in the season finale over Buena Vista. 

Brian Keller is the head coach for the Wesleyan and one of the main reasons Naiberk mentioned for selecting the Prairie Wolves.

Keller and the coaching staff has indicated to him that he could possibly used in his normal position up front or even a blocking back in the backfield.

"It would be kind of fun to be a blocking back," he said. "I love playing offensive line, and I think Ican get up to the size they need me at either position. I think it's just a matter of what the coaches think is best."  

Naiberk did have one carry as a Monarch when he took a handoff for two yards against Twin River - an Aquinas tradition to give its hog mollies up front a chance to carry the ball at least once in their senior season.

Though he wasn't part of it, he'll likely leave his varsity career looking back most fondly on his freshmen year when Aquinas won its eighth state championship. 

"It was a great group of seniors, and I learned a lot from them that I tried to implement in my later career" Naiberk said. 

Other favorite moments include a second-half comeback against Shelby-Rising City in the the regular season finale that saw the Monarchs win 31-14 after outscoring S-RC 42-0 in the second half, and a 28-21 defeat against Centennial on Sep. 21 that Naiberk said was one of the most well-played games by the Monarchs. 

Now he's ready to make new memories. Some of those include finding his way to the top of the depth chart as a junior and season, and helping the Prairie Wolves win a conference championship.

Once his playing days are over, perhaps he'll be patrolling the sidelines like his legendary Monarch coach Ron Mimick, who Naiberk credited with somehow always being one step ahead.

He'd like to find a way to duplicate Mimick's years of success, though he's not sure even he can do it like his famous coach.

"He knows what the other team is going to do, it seems all the time, because he's been around so long," Naiberk said. "It's almost like he knows what they're going to do next before they know."

Nate Tenopir contributed to this report.

Peter Huguenin is a sports reporter for The Banner-Press. Reach him via email at DVDsports@lee.net

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