It's a scene Oklahoma fans are intimately familiar with. Eleven men from each team, clad in helmets and pads, take the field to do battle on a striped gridiron.
The offensive linemen crouch into a three-point stance. The wide receivers check their alignment with the side judge. The running back settles into place behind the quarterback who stands tall and barks out the play call.
All the while the defense is a flurry of activity. Linemen hurriedly swap positions, hoping to confuse the offense. Linebackers rush to the line of scrimmage. Will they blitz, or drop into coverage? Is that slot corner going to bail out and play cover three or stick tight to his man?
There is much on the line in these contests and it is not uncommon to see the men in charge frantically yelling at and pleading with their players to make the right play.
But things are different in this case.
The men in charge aren’t coaches. They’re Sooner gymnasts Hunter and Tanner Justus, and the game being played isn’t real football. It’s a video game. Make no mistake, between brothers, competition is everything and for the Justus boys, “Madden NFL 17” is its highest form. You’re just as likely to see a thrown controller as you would see a thrown clipboard on an NFL sideline.
“We don’t want to lose to each other,” Hunter explained. “It’s different if I’m playing Madden with Levi (Anderson) or Yul (Moldauer). I don’t care if I lose to them, but if I lose to Tanner it’s so much worse.”
“There’s a lot of yelling and throwing stuff,” Tanner chimed in.
Tanner Justus celebrates a successful vault in the Sooners' win over Air Force. Tanner leads the nation in vault scoring.
Oklahoma head coach and 2015 USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame inductee Mark Williams knows a thing or two about having brothers on his squads. Since he took over the program in 2000, Williams has coached five sets of brothers, including 2007 NCAA all-around champion and current assistant coach Taqiy Abdullah-Simmons and his older brother Mubarak.
“Generally it’s a good thing,” Williams said. “They look after each other. One teaches the other the ropes since they’ve been there before.”
Williams also knows that to land one brother increases the odds of signing the other. In the case of the Justus brothers, that has turned out to be a very good thing for Oklahoma. A junior, Hunter Justus is a two-time All-American who has seen the Sooners win every single meet since he stepped on campus, including back-to-back national titles. Just a freshman, Tanner Justus has been impactful in his limited time with Oklahoma. The younger brother has been perhaps the best vaulter in the nation so far this season, having turned in three scores of at least 15.000 to lead the nation on that event.
Hunter Justus (bottom) and younger brother Tanner Justus (top) horsing around.
Hunter and Tanner grew up like most brothers, wrestling, playing and occasionally getting a little too rough.
“I used to kick him a lot. Fight a lot. We use to beat each other up and be in situations where one of us would go ‘don’t tell mom,'” Hunter remembered. But then his younger brother grew nearly two feet in just over a year and suddenly, a truce was called.
It has been gymnastics that has always bonded the brothers. Having participated for as long as they can remember, they spent many hours in the gym together. Often with little brother looking up to big brother. Once they both reached level 10, the highest level of junior gymnastics, they spent their high school years right alongside one another.
“At our old gym he (Hunter) was pretty much the best guy there,” Tanner recalled. “So I was expected to follow in his tracks. It was really hard, especially when I started growing. My body was going through a lot. I was hurting and I couldn’t do a lot of the stuff that I use to be able to do. So yeah it was really hard.”
“If I look back on it now I realize it’s actually a pretty cool thing to have a brother that wants to do the same things as you and wants to be like you,” Hunter admitted. “At the time when we were living together back home you don’t look at it that way. All you see is this little brother that wants to do everything that you do and you’re just like 'really dude? Why can’t I hang out with my own friends?' But looking back at it I wouldn’t change a thing.”
After high school, and with Hunter already at Oklahoma, Tanner had an easy choice when it came time to choose a school.
Hunter Justus brings energy back to the Sooner bench in Oklahoma's recent home win over Air Force.
“I was already close to this place because my brother was here and I had a lot of former teammates who came here, so it kind of just felt like home,” Tanner said. “There were a lot of schools that I was looking at, but I had such a strong connection here.”
Now at Oklahoma the brothers are back in the gym together. As Tanner adjusted to life as a freshman he not only had to learn how to compete for a team, but a team that had not lost a meet in two years. Hunter was there to push him every step of the way.
“Tanner came in after being a little hurt and he really needed to step up his rehab and what he had been doing and getting back in shape,” Williams explained. “Hunter is a pretty tough kid and he really pushed his brother along. Everyone on the team was telling Tanner ‘you have got to start stepping it up and getting in better shape and getting through rehab so you can start contributing to the team.' He came in and earned his spot.”
“Being an upperclassman now, it is part of our responsibility to make sure these guys, especially these freshmen are on track, doing the right things,” Hunter said. “Freshmen are going to make mistakes and it is hard to go up to your own brother versus going up to another freshman like Matt (Wenske) and yell at them or try to point them in the right direction. It is a lot harder to do that to your own brother because there is always that brother tension that he may not want to listen to me as much as if somebody else was telling him that.”
Hunter (left) and Tanner (right) pose with a buck.
From early morning workouts to meet days, the team’s drive to remain perfect and to capture a third consecutive national title is something Tanner has learned to internalize, particularly with the help of his brother.
“I noticed it especially in the mornings, whenever we do morning workouts and stuff like that,” Tanner said of his brother being tough on him. “If I am ever his partner, it sucks. It is so hard. He just expects me to go handle all this stuff that he can do. I can do my best but he definitely pushes me harder from a strength aspect by doing more in the gym than just what the plan says. You have to do more to take people’s spots and do more for the team. I think that is one thing that I have learned being here.”
“I want him to try and fill my shoes one day,” Hunter said. “Hopefully next year I will be a captain, a leader of this team and I know that he has the same potential to do the same thing. Whether or not it looks like I am pushing him harder, it is only because I know that he can be a leader of the team and he can step up and do all six events for this program; those are the only reasons that I would ever be hard on him.”
As an assistant coach Abdullah-Simmons, who also competed at OU with his older brother, can relate perfectly to Tanner’s situation.
“It’s hilarious,” Abdullah-Simmons said of watching Hunter and Tanner interact. “I know what the younger brother feels like. Of course the older brother isn’t super appreciative of what his younger brother does so I can help Hunter know how to approach his brother so he will listen to him more. It’s just a funny atmosphere to be training in. They are learning how to work together a lot better. I’m happy to see that.”
"Whenever I am doing a routine, in the gym or in the competition, I can always hear his voice the loudest."
-Freshman Tanner Justus
If Hunter is harder on his brother than his other teammates, perhaps he makes up for it by being even more invested in Tanner’s success.
“Whenever I am doing a routine, in the gym or in the competition, I can always hear his voice the loudest,” Tanner explained. “Usually, I do not really hear the outside voices because I am so focused but I always just hear him screaming. It is pretty cool. It is hard to explain; if you do not have a brother it’s really hard to explain how it feels. I think that it definitely brings out the best in us.”
“It is tough but I would not trade it for the world, it is probably the coolest opportunity that I have ever had to be able not only to go to college but to be on the same sports team as your brother,” Hunter said. “How many people get to do that? Seeing him his first meet really set up on vault and floor, I was very proud. It was a great feeling, I cannot describe it.”
With the conference championship and NCAA finals just around the corner, the brothers are narrowing their focus even further.
“He always talks about how the last thing that we wants to do is lose, even though he has not experienced it,” Tanner said. “At the beginning, I wanted to be a national champion, but as the season grew and I see how much work he puts in, there is nothing that I want more than to win.”
“I do not think words could describe it,” Hunter, who has already experienced two national titles said. “It’s not just him winning a national championship or me winning a national championship, but the fact we can win another as a team and three-peat--I don’t know if it can get any better than that."