Big brothers, both Division I football players, instilled toughness in Kentucky's Noel

jtipton@herald-leader.comDecember 26, 2012 

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There was one too many brothers for games of one-on-one. So Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel and his older brothers improvised.

"Growing up, we always competed with each other in everything we did," said Rodman Noel, a sophomore linebacker at North Carolina State. "We'd always play each other two-on-one."

For a while, Rodman teamed with Nerlens against oldest brother Jim, who this fall finished his senior season as a defensive back at Boston College.

"Later on, it started being me at the one," Nerlens said of this roundball rite of passage.

Whatever the sides, the older brothers picked on Nerlens. They'd shove him. They'd foul him. They'd never give him the call. There was an ulterior motive beyond the pleasure that comes with putting a younger brother in his place.

"To make him tougher," Rodman said. "At first, he didn't like how we operated things with him. He always used to tell my mom and complain. Over time, he started to adapt to it."

Nerlens denied seeking justice from his mother. "Nah, nah," he said. "I'd never go to my mom. I was little, so I'd start whining and stuff. And I wouldn't give them the ball back till I got the call."

Nerlens, a tone setter as a freshman for UK, credits those games with his brothers for helping him learn to deal with contact and disappointment.

"It definitely taught me to always be ready for things like that," he said.

The Noels aren't the first three brothers to play Division I athletics. The Zellers (Luke, Tyler and Cody), the Plumlees (Miles, Mason and Marshall) and the Smiths (G.G., Saul and Brian) come immediately to mind.

"We always knew we had the ability," Rodman said. "We all thought we'd end up playing Division I basketball."

Basketball was the first sport they played. Football came later.

When asked why he and Rodman turned to football, Jim said, "For us, it was just the sport we were better at. For Rodman and me, all the schools were coming in for football."

Jim stayed close to home at Boston College. As a 6-foot-4, 200-pound defensive back, he started seven games this season. He was one of the team captains.

"I was a little too small for tight end," he said, "but too big for running back."

Rodman, who is 6-3 and 210 pounds, originally committed to play for Maryland. After that school fired its coach, he re-opened his recruitment and signed with N.C. State, in part, so he could play against Jim in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

"I came in as a defensive back," he said. "In the spring (of 2012), they moved me to linebacker, where they felt they needed me most. I was happy to make the move. Anything to help the team (and) just to get on the field and help my teammates."

The brothers can't explain why Nerlens grew to 6-10.

"A hidden gene somewhere in the family," Jim said.

"I guess he got the better of the blessing," Rodman said.

Nerlens played wide receiver in football through his sophomore year of high school.

"I think opposing teams were really scared of him," Jim said. "Because no one really wanted to tackle him. I don't know if his skills were really that impressive."

Everett (Mass.) High School emphasized football, so the older Noel brothers easily grew comfortable in the sport. For Rodman, this meant abandoning the sport of his namesake, Dennis Rodman.

The name comes from the Noels' mother being a fan of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.

"I think she thought 'Michael' was too common a name," Rodman said. "She wanted a unique name.

"Growing up, I used to not really like my name because of the things Dennis Rodman did. People always asked me if I acted like Dennis Rodman or was that where I got my name. I was never really comfortable."

The brothers credit their parents, who emigrated from Haiti, for instilling a work ethic in the children. A younger sister, Nashdah, plays basketball as an eighth-grader. "I'd say she's the best player around our area for her grade," Nerlens said.

The brothers follow each other's athletic careers. They speak on the phone or text each other regularly.

To ask how they think Nerlens is doing at Kentucky seems to return the older Noel brothers to those two-on-one competitions. The youngest brother still can't quite measure up.

"I think he's doing OK," Rodman said. "He just has to adapt to college and learn how to play at the college level. He'll be good further down the track."

Jim had much he same opinion.

"He's doing well," he said of Nerlens. Then he added, "He knows he can do better."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog:

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