In “Toy Story,” Buzz Lightyear immediately becomes the center of attention because of his physical prowess and likability.
So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the guy in the middle of the Carroll Kuemper defense — the one making all the plays and calling all the shots — is known as “Buzz” by his friends, family and teachers.
“I watched ‘Toy Story’ a lot, and I had a lot of the action figures, so my uncle just started calling me Buzz,” Taylor Niehaus said with a chuckle.
Now 6-foot-1 and 213 pounds, Niehaus earned first-team all-state honors last season at middle linebacker while leading Class 2-A with 167 tackles. He’s the anchor on a veteran Kuemper defense expected to be one of the best in its class again.
“He is the type of guy that epitomizes work hard, play hard,” Kuemper coach Chad Klein said. Klein said Niehaus likes to have a good time when the moment is right, but knows when it’s time to get back to work. Some might be surprised at how much of a student of the game he is, poring over hours of game film.
“He’s my voice on the field,” Klein said. “When the offense is on the field, he’s right next to me and we’re talking about what needs to be done.”
Like all outstanding middle linebackers, Niehaus loves to hit. But that’s far from the only thing he loves about the position.
“Just being the captain of the defense, controlling everything, knowing what everyone’s got to do,” he said.
It took the Knights all of one half to realize Niehaus was meant for the position. On opening night of his sophomore year, he moved into the spot in the second half and has been there ever since.
“We had no fear of putting him in there because he liked the contact,” Klein said. “He wasn’t going to shy away from it.”
Last season, Niehaus piled up 69 solo tackles, including 11 for losses, and 98 assists, as the Knights finished 12-1 after a 17-10 semifinal loss to eventual champion Spirit Lake.
Niehaus attended camps at Iowa State, Northern Iowa and Northwest Missouri State over the summer. He plans on playing somewhere, and Klein said it doesn’t matter that he doesn’t run a 4.4-second 40. He’ll make plays for someone.
“He’s football fast,” Klein said.
Klein said this year’s seniors already have set a terrific example. They’ve led the four-times-a-week, 6 a.m. weight and conditioning workouts, and about half of those days, they’ve stayed around an extra hour or so without most of the coaches present, tutoring the younger players and getting in extra lifting and running.
Klein said they often put in 2 ½- to 3-hour sessions.
“They do that on their own, and you don’t see that very often,” Klein said. “Just wanting to be around each other, wanting to spend the time to get better.”
For the seniors, it’s about leaving nothing to chance. The memory of the Spirit Lake loss lingers.
“That’s really made them hungry, knowing how close we were,” Klein said. “It really motivated them and really got them to try to find guys that are going to fill the spots we’re losing.”
Said Niehaus: “I think about it like every other night. We all have the same goal this year, and that’s a state championship.”