Nebraska forward Wilhelm Breidenbach uses competitive spirit to fuel return to the field

Nebraska men’s basketball player Wilhelm Breidenbach explains how the team has a defense-first mentality.

LINCOLN — Wilhelm Breidenbach made the call from the Nebraska locker room. Her father, Jeff Dorsz, responded from the car outside his daughter’s basketball practice.

Breidenbach, who keeps his late mother’s last name, could not walk on his right knee. He had heard a pop after attempting a layup against Michigan last December.

He knew before the x-rays came back, “It doesn’t look great.”

Dorsz felt the frustration through the phone. Only months had passed since Breidenbach had finished nursing a meniscus injury in the same knee. He had done everything right, he told his father. He had followed every doctor’s orders. Only to re-injure the same knee 10 games into his debut season.

“You are doing the right thing, the right thing is supposed to happen, isn’t it?” Dorsz told the World-Herald. “And in this case, well, something we know as adults, the right thing doesn’t always happen.”

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However, Breidenbach did not let this misfortune sap his spirit on the phone. “I know that doesn’t make for a good story,” Dorsz said, but Breidenbach never cried, moaned, or called for mercy. If you ask Breidenbach, who will play his second exhibition this preseason Sunday in Colorado, he never felt the need.

He started planning his comeback from the moment he landed awkwardly.

“I think it’s just me,” Breidenbach said. “That’s kind of how I’ve always been. The way I look at it is I hurt my knee, I need to have surgery, whether I’m upset or happy or anything in between. I have to go through the same process. So I might as well go through the process looking forward to the next step rather than being frustrated and disappointed.

Competitive spirit

Dorsz tells a different story, and it starts before his son’s teams score the points.

Breidenbach hated losing. No, he couldn’t stand it.

Even at six years old, playing in a basketball league just for fun, he hated it. The “games” lasted 60 minutes – 30 for training, 30 for a scrum. Low stakes, no scoreboard.

But Breidenbach mattered, and if his team missed, “his weekend was ruined,” Dorsz said. “It was devastating.”

The same attitude extended to football, to soccer, to a bad test score. When Breidenbach fell below his level, “it felt like the world was falling apart,” he said.

Silence filled the car driving home. Breidenbach didn’t speak, his family didn’t ask. The tension emanated from the “fiercely competitive” toddler.

“His will is almost tangible,” Dorsz said. “If he is not happy, the rest of us are not happy.”

His youth coaches disagreed. When Dorsz suggested that Breidenbach needed help honing his competitive spirit, they told Dorsz it was neither possible nor necessary. They considered Breidenbach’s passion “a coach’s dream”.

“Yeah, well, you don’t have to live with him,” Dorsz was saying.

“A lot of it, of course, is just maturity and being so young,” Dorsz said. “But he always had that competitiveness.

“He’s a perfectionist, and he puts himself down. I felt he needed tools to be able to deal with stressful and competitive situations.

So Dorsz started taking her son to different sports psychologists. And around the ninth grade, they found one they liked. The one who helped Breidenbach center himself through meditation.

Inhale, count to five.

Exhale, count to seven.

“I’m calming down,” Breidenbach said. “Getting to a peaceful space.”

The psychologist also assigned worksheets on which Breidenbach wrote down his goals — stats he was looking for, mistakes he hoped to avoid. If he couldn’t fulfill them, he hoped the plans he was manifesting would help keep a positive outlook.

Breidenbach saw a ‘noticeable difference’ in his first season at Mater Dei.

The Breidenbach elder focused on missed jumpers, silly fouls and turnovers – “I would dwell on that too long,” he said. The new one knew how to breathe – in five, out of seven – and refocus. If the monarchs lost, no worries. Breidenbach channeled that frustration into post-match practices.

“Now it’s a little sharp,” he said. “I recover quite quickly and move on to the next game.”

Recovery plan

Breidenbach never felt comfortable on crutches. He had never used them before and no one had taught him.

“I just put them down and started jumping around,” he said.

Doctors said he would jump for 6-8 months, but he didn’t understand how long it lasted until he lived it. During the first three, he couldn’t move his leg. He could only stretch it back and forth, hoping to rebuild the strength he had lost.

“There are a lot of hot days,” Breidenbach said in August. “Often you want to play but you can’t.”

Watching last year’s Huskers wade through without hurting him. He waved towels on the bench and fetched water during down time. “But I wanted to help,” he said. He could not.

He could, however, contain these frustrations. Dorz calls it “putting things in a box.”

“If he doesn’t want to deal with it, he puts the lid on it and pushes it aside,” he said. “It’s not a problem for him.”

This is how Breidenbach fought through the scorching days. That, his breathing and a schedule. He liked having checkpoints – what could he do six months later? Seven?

“His dramatic roots are coming to the surface and he needs a plan,” Dorsz said.

“He has to understand what the schedule is and what is going to happen from start to finish. When it is presented in front of him, he is, he is fully.

Once he had the plan, he set his goals accordingly.

“Sometimes it’s a mental note,” Breidenbach said. “Sometimes I have to write it down.”

Sometimes the goal is simple. When asked last week what he was looking forward to before Nebraska’s showdown against Chadron State, which doubled as his opener, Breidenbach only wanted a win.

“As it always is,” he said.

Sounds like the stoic son of Dorsz, but dad knows better. As Breidenbach returned to practice, Dorsz heard from Nebraska coach RJ Pietig that Breidenbach looked “as happy as a pig in the mud.” He noticed a more cheerful tone in the texts.

He could even hear the joy through the phone.

“From the outside it’s hard to read it, but I can definitely hear it in his voice and text messages,” Dorsz said. “I can say he is happy to be back on the pitch, back competing with his friends. You can definitely tell the difference.

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