Former UND all-conference defensive lineman remembered as quiet off the field, fierce on it
Brennan was a first-team all-North Central Conference defensive lineman for UND in 2005.
One late-1990s summer day, veteran West Fargo football coach Jay Gibson pulled into the school parking lot and saw one of his players -- Ross Brennan -- pushing a Jeep.
The Jeep had four large football players in it. Ross was pushing the Jeep from one end of the parking lot to the other.
"It was pretty amazing," Gibson said. "They were just doing that as a workout. I'm pretty sure his brother Steve stepped on the brake a couple of times to make it more difficult, too."
Brennan, who died in his sleep at his home Oct. 23, in Frazee, Minn., at the age of 40, is remembered by his football coaches for his kind personality off the field but his physical prowess and fierce competitiveness during games.
Brennan was a first-team all-North Central Conference defensive lineman for UND in 2005. In 2010, he was named to the all-Alerus Center team to recognize the first 10 years of the venue.
Ross' brother Steve was a standout linebacker at UND in the mid-2000s.
"Those two guys ... I'm sure they went at it in the house every once and a while and that's two big boys tussling," Gibson said. "They had natural strength. They have wonderful parents. They just had a really good upbringing. They were respectful but so tough on the field."
UND head coach Bubba Schweigert, who was defensive coordinator for UND from 1997 to 2003, remembers recruiting Brennan, who picked UND over North Dakota State and Montana State, according to a 2000 Herald story about his commitment.
"He was the top guy in the state at that time," Schweigert said. "He was a really tough, hard-nosed football player. He was very talented and when we got him we thought we had a premier defensive lineman. That held true. He was big and strong for us in the middle.
"He had a quiet demeanor but was a different guy on the football field -- aggressive and hard-nosed. I still remember the double team he was taking on when he was injured against South Dakota State at the Alerus Center."
As a redshirt freshman, Brennan started the first five games on the defensive line during UND's 2001 national championship season before suffering a season-ending injury.
He returned the following season to record 38 tackles including 2.5 for loss.
A 2000 West Fargo High School graduate, Brennan was the 1999 AAA North Dakota Player of the Year. He earned first team all-state honors as a junior and senior in helping the Packers to back-to-back 12-0 state championship seasons.
Brennan set a school record for rushing yards and touchdowns as a junior and finished with 30 career prep touchdowns.
Gibson, who was neighbors in West Fargo with the Brennans, said Ross is the best nose guard he's ever coached.
"Strength, size and speed are all really good traits for a football player," he said. "He had all three. When he was a senior, he was 270 pounds and we clocked him in the 40-yard dash at 4.65 seconds. He got the same time three times in a row. He wanted to keep going. He was so competitive that he wanted to get it lower.
"He would have for sure two people blocking him on every play and sometimes three. He had 14.5 sacks one year and 21 overall ... and that's from a nose guard. I've gone two or three years in a row without a nose guard getting a single sack, much less having him destroy people up front and putting that pressure on the quarterback."
Gibson recalls a game against Devils Lake in which the 6-foot-1 Brennan was facing off against a 5-foot-6 center.
"He's ultra-quick off the ball, so Ross hurdles him and the quarterback drops back and is going to run a draw," Gibson said. "Ross didn't know whether the quarterback or the running back had the ball so he tackled both of them."
A rare high school combination of nose guard and running back, Brennan was also a load to tackle.
"He was just a brute," Gibson said. "We were playing Mandan and our quarterback broke his collarbone, so we were going to hand the ball off. We were at the 30. Almost every person on Mandan's team had a chance to tackle Ross. He shook off a defensive lineman. Then a linebacker. Then a corner. The free safety. The strong safety. No one could tackle him and he ran 30 yards for a touchdown. He came off the field, and I wanted to go congratulate him and he just ran by me wheezing to get his inhaler because the kid had asthma.
"He was a quiet leader. The other kids' level of play went up because of him. We didn't lose a game for two years."
Friends of Brennan have set up a GoFundMe page to assist Brennan's wife and two boys .