Rob DemoskyESPN staff writer7 minutes of reading
GREEN BAY, Wis. — Forget everything you thought you knew about how players get to the NFL. A pair of Green Bay Packers rookies have proven that.
First-round pick Lukas Van Ness didn’t start out as a Herculean pass rusher, and second-round pick Luke Musgrave wasn’t always a smooth-stepping tight end.
Before they wore shoulder pads, they put on skates and skis.
Don’t just imagine what a 6-foot Van Ness looked like on the rink.
There is video evidence:
And lest you think skiing didn’t come well before soccer for Musgrave, who came from a soccer family, just ask his mom — a former member of the U.S. Development Ski Team as a teenager.
“When I was 2 years old I got him skiing, and at 5 he started racing,” Amy Musgrave recalled. “He didn’t start Pop Warner until he was 7.”
And it wasn’t just hobbies.
They were lifestyles.
Van Ness played hockey all the way through his senior year of high school and was a key member of the 2019–2020 Barrington (Illinois) club hockey team that reached the state semifinals before the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the rest of the season.
Musgrave still participated in downhill races until his sophomore year of high school in Bend, Oregon.
PACKERS GENERAL MANAGER Brian Gutekunst thought about it, but couldn’t come up with an answer.
“I would have to go back and look through things to see if there were any hockey guys,” he said when asked if he’s ever scouted a player with a hockey background.
For Van Ness, the hockey player, physicality was his game, and he accumulated the penalty minutes to prove it, though he believes it was more because of his size — he estimated he skated 6-8 — than anything malicious.
“Honestly, a lot of it was unfair, I think,” Van Ness said.
“I always thought I was a very clean player, but unfortunately because of my size and the physicality I played with and [smaller-sized] the guys on the other side of it, the refs didn’t like it too much.”
Van Ness didn’t get serious about football until late in middle school, and when he got to high school, Barrington coach Joe Sanchez kept him on a traditional developmental path.
As a freshman, he played on the freshman team.
As a sophomore, he was on the sophomore team.
He did not play a varsity snap until his junior year.
“It wasn’t for lack of talent – he was big, tall, long and athletic,” Sanchez said. “I think it was a blessing because he got the opportunity to continue learning the game but also be with his friends.
“And that twist, you can’t underestimate that. I think a lot of that is what kept Lukas in football and maybe not just choosing to focus on hockey because so many of his best friends played football.
Sanchez wasn’t just OK with Van Ness continuing to play hockey, he encouraged it.
“We’ve had guys play football and hockey, but they haven’t been linemen,” Sanchez said. “They’ve been defensive backs, a running back, a linebacker. But never a lineman, never someone that big.”
And he kept getting bigger.
“He wasn’t in the weight room as much as he could have been, and understandably so, because he was a two-sport athlete,” Sanchez said.
Because of his late start in football, Van Ness’ early scholarship offers were from the Ivy League and smaller Division I programs until he attended a camp at Lindenwood University in St. Louis during the summer between his junior and senior years.
Then the big schools came calling, and Van Ness chose Iowa.
But he wasn’t quite done with hockey yet, and the Iowa coaches were fine with that, even though it was a combination of two sports that were foreign to them.
“Through this process and sitting down with all these coaches and interviews, they’ve said I’m one of the first people they’ve ever come across who played both hockey and soccer growing up,” Van said Ness.
Van Ness hasn’t laced up his skates since high school, but to this day he believes it was crucial to his soccer development.
“I saw so many translatable qualities and skills [from] hockey to football,” he said. “My speed, my balance, the speed of the sport, conditioning, my motor skills, the ability to change direction. Hockey is a peripheral sport where you have to look at the puck while playing. It all translated directly to my football game, helped me be quick on my feet, be smart, react to what I see, react to blocks.
“I really think I wouldn’t be the player I am without hockey. But since I started playing this game of soccer, I fell in love and I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
Although he never started a single game at Iowa, he thrived to the point where he left after playing just two seasons following a redshirt year as a freshman. At 272 pounds, he recorded 13.5 sacks among his 19.5 tackles for loss over the two seasons, earning the nickname “Hercules” along the way.
It was enough for Gutekunst to spend the 13th overall pick on him. In the most recent open OTA practice, Van Ness has not only moved into the No. 1 defense, but has shown off both his quickness and power pass rush moves.
HERE’S WHY THIS IS could be the perfect place and the perfect team for Musgrave:
“I always told Luke,” explained his mother, Amy, ““You always tended to perform when the weather was most unfavorable. It’s windy, snowing sideways and cold sleet up there today, so it must be a good day, because you always get it done in those conditions.’”
Except she wasn’t talking about football.
“Up there” meant on top of the mountain.
Born in nearby Kenosha, Wisconsin, Amy grew up on a mountain after her family moved west during her childhood. She quickly took up alpine skiing and made it a step or two away from competing for the Olympic team in the 1980s and early 1990s. Among her skiers was gold medalist Picabo Street.
“I was a mother of two boys and I knew they would probably play football because I married into a football family,” she said.
Her husband, Doug, played quarterback at Oregon in the early 1990s. Doug’s brother, Bill, is a lifelong football fan – a former NFL backup quarterback and longtime coach who currently serves as a senior offensive assistant for the Cleveland Browns.
“My point to Doug was with skiing, you can start them young,” Amy said. “And if they’re going to play soccer, I’ll tell you something: What skiing will give them is big, strong quads and a strong lower back and really good glutes.”
Luke and his brother, Colt, both became competitive skiers. They were successful – never at the level of their mother, but maybe they could have been if football hadn’t taken over.
“I think I took it pretty far,” Luke said of skiing. “As far as I could.”
After the second year of high school, he gave up skiing.
But it wasn’t because of football.
Ski season began to interfere with lacrosse.
“The good thing is that soccer is a clean break from a fall sport to go into skiing,” Amy said. “But skiing, the season starts to get long and all the things you work for all season — all the nationals and big events — they’re in March.
“And Luke says, ‘I can’t do it. I’ve done it. I’ve checked the boxes, but I have a responsibility to the lacrosse team and I can’t help but start the season when it starts.’ So he walked away.”
He stayed close to home to play football at Oregon State. Despite missing most of the 2022 season with a knee injury, Musgrave’s size (6-6, 253) and speed (4.61 in the 40 at the combine) helped his draft stock rise and the Packers selected him in the second round at No. 42 overall. So far in OTAs, he has been a popular target for new starting quarterback Jordan Love.
He doesn’t think much about skiing these days — he hasn’t snapped his bindings since his sophomore year in high school — but like Van Ness with hockey, he believes it’s part of his football success.
“If you’ve ever skied, it’s kind of a quad burner,” he said. “So I credit my leg strength a little bit, kind of being able to stick my hips into routes and get out of breaks. I really think skiing has helped me.”
And his cold-weather experience should come in handy this winter at Lambeau Field.
“We’ve seen all the snowy, cold games on TV,” Amy said. “It should be perfect for him.”