A member of Northwest’s family and former Bearcat football linebacker D.J. Nader died at the age of 29 Feb. 24.
No official details of his death have been released, but head football coach Rich Wright confirmed the loss of the former defensive leader he called a “warrior” in a tweet Feb. 24.
“One of our players left this Earth today far too young,” Wright said in the tweet. “Our hearts break for his family, but I promise (former defensive coordinator Scott) Botswick met him at heaven’s gate. RIP DJ.”
Wright said he remembers when Northwest recruited Gnader from Lewis Central High School in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in 2009.
Wright said as soon as Gnader traded in his blue uniform for Bearcat green, he was no longer a football player but part of a family and culture that would come to appreciate him just as much as his love for the game.
After his redshirt season in 2009, Gnader quickly became a leading tackler and overall defensive leader for the team.
Playing for the Bearcats for six years during a phase of rebuilding and growth, Gnader became a driving force for the defense, recording 100 tackles in his first full season.
In his second full season, Gnader was named second-team all-MIAA, started in all 13 games and recorded a team-high 96 tackles.
With Gnader on its side, the Bearcat football team won its fourth National Championship in 2013. That year, Gnader received Don Hansen Third Team All-America honors as a linebacker and first-team all MIAA that team’s 15-0 season
His senior season in 2014, he was named once again all-MIAA.
However, the statistics don’t show how climbing the ladder of success at Northwest wasn’t always easy for Gnader. Wright said Gnader had some hip issues, including a torn labrum, that sidelined him for a year.
Watching Gnader work through the injury to become the kind of player he was for the team is something Wright said he will continue to remember.
“He was a kid that did a tremendous job of uplifting people around him,” Wright said.
University President John Jasinski’s son was roommates with Gnader while attending Northwest. Jasinski said many in the Northwest community were touched by Gnader and his family, and that the University sends its condolences to those grieving.
“We wish to uplift Jodi, his mother, his entire family,” Jasinski said. “He touched so many of us. … He impacted so many of us on levels that were focused on passion and being a Bearcat and caring for your brothers and sisters.”
Wright also said when coaches are doing a good job, players become an extended part of their family.
“(Gnader) has been at dinner at my house,” Wright said. “We kind of look at this almost like they are our own kids.”
Gnader was known by his coaches and teammates for having a charismatic way about him, always wanting to find ways to engage the crowd at football games, as well as people he was with off the field.
Wright stood up in his office with his hands in the air motioning to an imaginary crowd filled with Bearcat fans.
“I’ll always remember him doing this,” Wright said. “That’s who he was — bigger than life.”
The Gnader family will hold a visitation from 2-5 p.m. Feb. 29 at Cutler-O’Neill Meyer-Woodring Funeral Home & Crematory in Council Bluffs, Iowa. A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. March 1 at River Arena on the Iowa Western Community College campus, 2700 College Road.
Samantha Collison contributed to this report.