The pingpong table — a Christmas present from Mom — is covered in books. Physics. Anatomy. Organic chemistry.
It's mid-May, 2˝ months from the test Jake and Spencer Long have targeted since they enrolled at Nebraska — before Husker football fans had ever heard of them.
Teammates will spend the summer balancing workouts with part-time jobs or classes or video games. The Long twins run and lift weights at Memorial Stadium, then exhaust five, six hours in the basement of their Lincoln house, Jake on one side of the net, Spencer on the other, speaking only when one has a question or needs a pep talk.
Let's go. One more hour. Let's just get through this.
They grew up in a family obsessed with science. Dad's a neurosurgeon, Mom's a chemist. Both grandpas were doctors. Aunt Bev is a world-renowned researcher. The MCAT is one step toward a larger medical goal.
What they didn't count on coming out of Elkhorn High School was college football. Neither made all-state in Class B. Neither received a Division I scholarship offer. Now they're both seniors on one of college football's best offenses. Jake is a tight end. Spencer is an All-American candidate at guard — a team captain.
Nebraska has a rich walk-on tradition, but underdogs like this don't come around often. Especially with GPAs in the high-3s.
The study sessions continue through May and June. The days get hot, their buddies fire up the grills and hit the golf courses, but Jake and Spencer stay at the pingpong table.
Finally, the last Friday of July, they walk into a testing center in Sioux Falls, S.D., sit down at adjacent cubicles, run a few tricky equations through their heads one last time, turn to each other and reach out a hand.
Jeff Stevens is a UNL psychology professor who teaches “Evolution, Behavior and Society.” In the fall of 2012, Jake and Spencer Long enrolled in his class.
He “Googled” them and was impressed — academic all-Big Ten, scholar-athlete honor roll, etc.
A few weeks later, Stevens was introducing a lecture on emotions. It was the first class after Nebraska's second-half comeback over Wisconsin, so he put together a collage of game photos showing a range of emotions.
One was a picture of Spencer holding up his helmet before the game. Another was Jake giving a chest bump to Taylor Martinez.
There were 50 students in the classroom, many of whom did a double-take.
“It was actually quite funny,” Stevens said, “because some of the students clearly didn't know that Jake and Spencer were football players.”
College football gets bigger and more popular every year. As fans, it's not easy to come to grips with the idea that the big guy in line at the grocery store is the same guy chasing quarterbacks every Saturday. It's even harder to grasp that the player who scored the game-winning touchdown is taking an economics test Monday morning.
But the Long twins have always identified more with the science geeks than the star athletes.
Ann Long remembers dinner-table conversations about moon phases and meteor showers. She remembers an elementary science project — a volcano — that erupted beautifully at home. Then Jake got greedy and added another touch of vinegar at school. Dud.
Academic failures were few and far between. Mom and Dad didn't need threats and rewards. The twins pushed themselves — and each other.
Jake was a little more introspective — self-analyzing. Spencer was more gregarious — engaging. Jake was a little better in physics. Spencer was better at writing a paper. But they moved at the same pace. And by the time they graduated from high school, they knew someday they'd take the MCAT. It was only a matter of where.
UNO recruited them for football, and they almost accepted scholarships. But Nebraska invited them as walk-ons. Pretty enticing for two boys who grew up with season tickets in the North Stadium.
Their father, Doug, walked on for Tom Osborne in 1975 and made the first tackle of the spring game. But he quit after one year to pursue medicine, a decision he regretted occasionally over the years. On a tour of the NU football facilities, Doug told his boys, you'll always wonder if you don't give it a shot.
They did, jumping into the not-so-glorious world of walk-ons, where the chances of never playing a single down exceed the chances of starting.
But coaches will always take merit over reputation. And the Longs not only had Division I talent, but also extraordinary intangibles. Intelligence. Work ethic. Discipline. You didn't have to tell them something twice.
Spencer started out at defensive end but moved to offense and rose quickly up the depth chart.
During warm-ups for the 2011 season opener, Jake looked up at the Memorial Stadium big screen as the public address announcer rattled off the starters. His heart was pounding. He wasn't gonna miss this.
At right guard, No. 61, Spencer Long.
If his Nebraska career ended right now, Jake said recently, that might be the best moment.
Jeremiah Sirles, a Husker classmate, lives in the same house as that messy pingpong table. He's been around Jake and Spencer long enough to engage in a few arguments. Sirles knows he's in trouble when it veers into science.
“I just kind of back away and say, 'All right, you know more than I do.' ”
As the Long twins have become more prominent on Saturday afternoons, their academic focus hasn't waned. Every time Jake shadows a doctor or visits a hospital with Husker teammates, it reinforces his career choice.
Julie Masters, professor of gerontology, taught the twins in a “Death and Dying” class. She marveled at their discipline and people skills.
A Holocaust survivor spoke to Masters' students one day. As the classroom cleared out, Jake stuck around and thanked the man for coming.
Excelling in football and pre-med requires intense daily concentration, Masters said. But it also requires long-range perspective on what's important. A big win or loss — a good or bad test score — isn't everything.
“They have to have vision,” Masters said. “To see beyond what's going on today.”
The future is more cloudy than it used to be. The National Football League is a possibility, especially for Spencer. Med school was his No. 1 goal entering college, he said. “It's still where my heart is.”
But he'd probably wait a few years if an NFL team drafts him.
Most likely, the two men who came into the world the same day, played on every team together, went to every class together — even shared a car until a year ago — will soon be splitting up.
There are a few milestones still to be shared.
Wednesday — after almost five weeks of waiting — Jake and Spencer received their MCAT results. In December, they'll graduate.
And tonight, for the first time, they'll be in the starting lineup together, two native sons, season-ticket holders and walk-ons, striving for Nebraska's first Big Ten championship since they were 9.
How did all this happen? Hard work — at the pingpong table or on the practice field — tends to create opportunities, Doug Long says. And if you take advantage, another door opens. It reminds him of an old quote from a famous scientist.
“Luck favors the prepared mind.”