Lauren Brendel officially made captain in the Air Force last week. The ceremonial pinning of the captain bars was scheduled for last Saturday, but she had somewhere else to be.
She stood side by side with her brother, Jake, at the Rose Bowl that evening.
It was UCLA’s Military Appreciation Day, but Lauren Brendel was there for another reason. Jake, the starting center for UCLA’s football team, was being honored along with other seniors during halftime.
He had a brotherly greeting ready: “Way to catch up with me as a captain.”
Jake has been a UCLA team captain for three years.
Lauren’s retort: “Yeah, like a football team has a lot of lieutenants.”
That’s how it has been since childhood.
Jake Brendel, 23, has started a school-record 49 games and is the Bruins’ commander in chief on the field. When someone needs to be dressed down, Brendel does it. When someone needs a lift, Brendel is there.
Lauren, 26, entered the Air Force after graduating from Wisconsin. She did a six-month tour in Afghanistan. The days spent in a war zone were made better by conversations with her brother and the occasional chance to watch a UCLA game.
Their different kind of “captain, my captain” moment at the Rose Bowl, in front of 70,000 fans, was special for both.
“It was great to have her there, especially being Military Appreciation Day,” Jake said. “She loved every single aspect of it.”
Bill Brendel, their father, enjoyed it for a different reason.
“It was unique having them both in the same place,” he said. “That doesn’t happen a lot anymore.”
Most of Jake and Lauren’s upbringing took place in Waunakee, Wis., where the family participated in community theater.
“We did ‘Annie’ once, where I played Daddy Warbucks, Lauren was an orphan and Jake was a street urchin,” Bill Brendel said. “In our family, my wife was the musical director, Lauren the auditioner — she has nerves of steel — and Jake was the dancer. The kid could dance and sing.”
There were less artistic pursuits as well, one called the fumble game.
“We’d lie on the ground, dad would spike the ball and we’d tackle each other trying to get it,” Lauren said. “Jake would never admit it; I always beat him.”
Well, until he grew.
“One day, she realized she couldn’t mess with me anymore,” Jake said.
Lauren played softball. Jake’s size pushed him toward football and the line.
“It was a pretty simple game in those days,” he said. “You just ran at the guy in front of you.”
The siblings’ relationship was altered when their parents divorced. They became tighter than ever.
“We had to be close,” Jake recalled. “She was kind of another parent for three to five years.”
Jake eventually went to live with his mother in Texas and became a standout at Plano East High.
UCLA was the next step. After sitting out the 2011 season as a redshirt, he moved into the starting lineup to stay.
Brendel has been a key building block for four seasons. When he arrived, the offensive line was a weak spot, but the Bruins have now produced the Pac-12 Conference’s leading rusher two of the last three seasons.
Against Colorado last month, Brendel manhandled the defender he was assigned to block on a play, then looked up to see running back Paul Perkins breaking free. So he got all 6 feet 4, 305 pounds of him to top speed, racing upfield to plant a defensive back as Perkins flew by for a touchdown.
That’s called leading by example.
“He demands perfection; that was the thing that helped the offense when we were really young,” guard Caleb Benenoch said. “One of my first days as a freshman, I messed up on a play. Jake grabbed me by the collar, pulled me close and said, ‘You really suck. Get it together.’ It was a wake-up call. I realized people were counting on me.”
The velvet glove came after practice, when Brendel took Benenoch into the film room and went over technique.
“It starts with Jake,” Coach Jim Mora said. “He is the unquestioned leader of that group.”
Lauren moved to Texas as well, but by a different path. She was in the Air Force ROTC program at Wisconsin, where, she recalled, “There were more people in my lecture halls … than my high school graduating class.”
After graduating in 2011, she received a commission and was assigned to Randolph Air Force Base outside of San Antonio, where she became a personnel officer.
UCLA played in San Antonio in the 2014 Alamo Bowl, but there was no reunion. Lauren had volunteered for overseas duty and been deployed to Afghanistan.
During a recent interview, she declined to talk about her assignment, but she did say one of her joys was getting to watch UCLA when games were made available.
“I would have to be up at 2 a.m. to watch,” Lauren said. “I had one of his UCLA shirts that I would secretly wear underneath my uniform. It kept me grounded.”
Jake kept in contact via text messages and video chats and tried not to worry.
“She was there to do a job and got up every single day and did it,” he said. “You couldn’t get caught up in thinking that there was stuff being blown up and people shooting beyond the fence. It would drive you crazy.”
After six months, Lauren returned to Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio and began physician’s assistant school, an intensive 29-month program.
As UCLA’s Senior Night approached, Lauren made the decision to skip the pinning ceremony.
Jake was ecstatic, knowing UCLA was also honoring the military that night.
The Bruins wore the Navy SEALs’ “bone frog” decal on their helmets for the game.
“I don’t think she understood the magnitude of it being the Armed Forces game,” Jake said.
Actually, Lauren said she did understand the magnitude of the evening. That’s why she was there.
“My feeling was, I’ll be pinned for major, the next promotion, and then my family can be there,” Lauren said. “Senior night was a one and only type thing for Jake.
“I couldn’t miss that ceremony.”