The high jumper jogging on the soccer field didn’t have a name when he was born.
His parents couldn’t decide on one. His sister, 13 months old and just learning to talk, could choose one: Gusie.
“My relatives were like, ‘OK, we’ll call him Gusie until we figure out a name,’” he said, “and my dad was like, ‘No. We’re not naming our kid Gusie.’”
Eventually, Gusie’s dad decided on Grant, a name chosen in honor of longtime Minnesota Vikings coach Bud Grant.
But Gusie stuck. In third grade, around the same time he started high jumping, he altered his nickname.
“I was like, ‘I’m going to drop the I-E, become a man and just be Gus.’”
A decade and a half later, Grant Gehlen warms up on the grass infield of the track at Ed Weir Stadium. He jogs with long, bounding strides from one end of the field to the other, stopwatch in hand. He glances at it after every pass.
Nebraska’s track and field practice is just getting underway, and Gehlen chats with teammates on each end of the field between laps. But he jogs alone, leaning sideways into a stiff wind, thinking about an old coach, a lost mentor who taught him respect and humility, who told him and his old teammates to tip generously with their meal per diems, leave cash on their hotel beds and call their mothers.
He jogs alone, thinking back to the best two years of his life.
The Gold Squad
It’s the first night of this year’s NCAA Tournament. Gehlen watches a second-round matchup between Saint Louis and North Carolina State in his apartment. Throughout the first half, he sends texts to SLU guard Dwayne Evans, a teammate during Gehlen’s basketball days, and other Billiken players for them to see after the game. Things such as “And one” and “That was a bad call.”
“Usually they just laugh,” Gehlen said. “Because that’s the same stuff that I was doing at the end of the bench.”
The end of the bench. That’s where Gehlen watched Saint Louis basketball games during his two years with the Billikens.
When he was a junior at Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul, Minn., Gehlen – an all-state high jumper – stopped competing in track to focus on basketball. He started practicing every morning, popping 3-pointers in the school gym until he made 100 before showering and going to class. An injury his junior year set him back. When he came back his senior year, he only got scholarship offers from Division II schools. But he wanted to go to a Division I program, even if he had to walk on.
Then a friend’s dad told him about Saint Louis coach Rick Majerus.
“He was like, ‘You’re going to learn more about basketball in two years than you have in your entire life playing,’” Gehlen said.
So he walked on at Saint Louis. He redshirted his first year and spent the season on the scout team.
“We called it ‘Gold Squad,’” Gehlen said.
The Gold Squad would arrive early to practice and learn opponents’ plays before simulating them for the big-minute players. Whichever assistant coach scouted the opponent would teach the sets.
Oftentimes, that meant Gehlen worked with Chris Harriman, formerly an assistant at Saint Louis and currently an assistant at Nebraska.
“You didn’t have to tell him plays multiple times,” Harriman said. “Once you taught him something one time that a team was doing, it was right there. He was smart in that sense. But he was a guy that always gave our scholarship players a really good look.”
When the Gold Squad played defense against the top offensive units in practice, the coaches didn’t impose any foul limits. The scout team grabbed and pulled at jerseys to keep up with the starters.
“We were kind of hacks,” Gehlen said.
Then after practice, Gehlen would stick around in the gym – not to shoot around, but to work with his teammates, defending them and rebounding with them. Harriman said he didn’t think many players could come out of high school and handle the work load. But Gehlen could, and it paid dividends for the team.
“His second season we started out undefeated and were ranked in the top 25,” Harriman said, “so we had a hell of a team.”
A season after redshirting, Gehlen’s role didn’t change much. He knew he wasn’t going to contribute much on the stat sheet.
Still, he did get playing time early that season – the only time on the court he would see in his two years at Saint Louis. His career totals: 4 games, 9 minutes, 1 rebound, which he snagged in the final five minutes of a 30-point win against Alabama State in Dec. 2011.
In the little time Gehlen was on the court, his teammates on the bench would yell at him to shoot. But he wanted to make an impact in different ways, setting screens, moving without the ball.
“And I didn’t want to take that shot and miss,” he said.
Just being able to play at the end of a blowout win was enough of a reward.
“I could see my work pay off through the scouting team when guys would intercept passes,” Gehlen said. “I was like, ‘Hey, they knew that because I was scouting there.’”
Saint Louis’ 2011-12 season ended at the NCAA Tournament, where the team won its first game against Memphis as a 9 seed. As Saint Louis pulled away, Gehlen watched from the bench.
“I was the classic, you know, white boy on the end waving the towel,” Gehlen said.
But Saint Louis lost in the round of 32 to 1 seed Michigan State. With the Spartans up by only 4 with two minutes left, Michigan State guard Keith Appling, then a sophomore, rattled in a 3-pointer from the corner to put the game out of reach.
“I remember him hitting it,” Gehlen said. “It bounced off the rim probably four times.”
That loss was in Gehlen’s head as he watched his new school, Nebraska, upset the No. 9 Michigan State on the road in February.
After his second year at Saint Louis, expensive tuition, a stagnant role on the team and a long distance from his family piled up. Harriman departed for Nebraska. And Majerus took a leave of absence for health reasons.
Gehlen decided to transfer, and he thought a return to high jumping could be an option. So he got his name out to some Big Ten schools, and Nebraska was the first to respond. He made Lincoln his first visit.
“I was like, ‘I don’t even need to go anywhere else,’” Gehlen said.
He moved to Nebraska in 2012, trading sneakers for jumping spikes and hardwood floors for polyurethane tracks. Dusty Jonas, Nebraska’s volunteer jumps coach and a former Husker, heard about Gehlen from a friend and talked to head coach Gary Pepin about letting him onto the team.
“I told Pep, ‘I want to give him a chance,’” Jonas said.
Getting His Chance
Fall 2012. Gehlen had just arrived at Nebraska when he saw a familiar face in the practice facility at the Bob Devaney Sports Center.
“Harry!” Gehlen yelled.
Everyone at Saint Louis called Harriman by his nickname. But at Nebraska, everybody seemed to call him Chris. Gehlen thinks his old assistant was surprised when somebody in Lincoln yelled his pet name, and Harriman wasn’t even aware Gehlen had transferred to NU.
“I didn’t even know until I was at Nebraska,” Harriman said, “and I was walking through the practice facility, and he was screaming out my name.”
By pure coincidence, Gehlen and Harriman had ended up at the same school.
“It’s awesome because it’s another Billiken at heart that’s now a Husker,” Gehlen said.
And Harriman wasn’t the only one adjusting to being called a different name, either. Gehlen’s nickname, Gus, also caught on in Lincoln.
“I didn’t even know his name was Grant until like two months after he was even here,” Jonas said.
That winter, before Gehlen’s first competition for the Huskers, Majerus died at 64. The coach who taught his players to leave generous tips on road trips and win games with team defense was gone. Gehlen still thinks about him.
“A classic thing that he would always say is, ‘I don’t like ya; I love ya,’” Gehlen said. “And he was a big-hearted guy. But he definitely cared so much about the game. He could see 10 players on the court at a time, and he could tell when one player was just an inch off.”
In his first season at Nebraska, Gehlen competed in nine meets, re-immersing himself in high jumping. Jonas didn’t know what to expect from his new jumper.
“Basketball, you’re always with the same guys, same small team; it’s really close knit,” Jonas said. “And a track team is so big. So I didn’t know how that would translate, but I think he’s kind of taking that team vibe with him here.”
As a walk-on junior for Nebraska’s track team, Gehlen is beginning to contribute. He finished sixth at the Big Ten Indoor Championships in February, tying a personal best jump of 2.05 meters (6-8.25 feet).
“He’s contributed well as a teammate, as a student, ultimately at our conference meet,” Jonas said. “He scored points. You don’t ever expect your walk-ons to score points.”
He cleared the height for the first time outdoors at the Arkansas Spring Invite on April 5. When Gehlen went up, he nicked the bar, and he pleaded for it not to fall.
Jonas said watching Gehlen’s personal best was exciting. The junior still has a long way to go, but he has potential.
“He always shows up to work,” Jonas said. “He always wants to be better. He always asks questions. You put all those things together, and it’s usually a pretty good formula.”
Harriman remembers Gehlen’s work ethic himself.
“He’s the kind of guy that I’m sure is doing a great job for their staff over there in the way he conducts himself and his performance,” Harriman said. “So I’m happy for him. I’m glad he’s here. He seems like he’s really enjoying himself. He’s found his calling.”
A few weeks after his high finish at the conference championships, Gehlen sat with new teammates in his apartment and watched old teammates play in the NCAA Tournament. He watched his Billikens go down by 16 with eight minutes left.
“I’m not going to lie,” Gehlen said. “I lost a little bit of faith.”
But then he watched Saint Louis rally, not making any mistakes as North Carolina State missed free throw after free throw.
The Billikens won in overtime.
“I’m always happy to see them succeed because I have a personal connection with them,” Gehlen said. “It was like a family.”
Another day, another practice.
Jonas sets up three high hurdles in a tight line for his jumpers. They leapfrog the hurdles from standing starts – jump, jump, jump – then take off into a short sprint after landing past the third hurdle. Gehlen clears all three with ease, bounding upward, lifting his knees toward his chest and rowing his arms through the air.
“He has insane hops off two legs,” Jonas said.
On the way back for another rep, Gehlen encourages a teammate.
Then Gehlen goes again, springing off both feet. Jump, jump, jump, sprint. Another teammate is going through the drill as he returns to the line.
Jonas explains something to Gehlen, craning himself onto his toes and pulling up his chest. The jumpers talk a while as the practice winds down. Then Gehlen does the drill once more. This time, one of his teammates cheers him.
“Atta boy, Gus!”