This story appeared in the St. Louis edition of the October ESPN RISE Magazine.
Timberland (Wentzville, Mo.) football coach Craig Collins was putting his team through practice four years ago when he saw the Wentzville South Middle School cross country team running around the high school. It wasn't a bunch of kids training that caught Collins' attention. It was the 6-foot-4, 220-pound eighth-grader leading the pack who stood out.
Collins heard there was a big athlete walking the halls of Wentzville South. He just didn't expect that the first time he saw Nick Demien, it would be watching him running a 5K.
"We definitely did a double take," recalls Collins.
Collins was pleasantly surprised to see Demien not only competing with but beating much smaller runners. And he couldn't wait to get him in a Timberland uniform.
Now a 6-6, 300-pound senior offensive lineman at Timberland, Demien has won over plenty of observers with the passion he puts into any activity, whether it's knocking a defender flat on his back or raising steers (we'll get to that soon).
The enthusiasm Demien brings to the gridiron is part of the reason the left tackle and Missouri recruit is rated the state's No. 1 player in the ESPNU 150. That, and the fact that he's highly competitive and isn't afraid to work.
"If I'm doing something, especially when it comes to sports, I want to be the best," says Demien.
He learned the value of hard work on his grandmother's farm and at the construction company owned by his uncles. On the farm, Demien built strength by hauling 50-pound bags of cattle feed and bales of hay weighing 50 to 75 pounds. He can now bench press more than 300 pounds.
"This guy already looks like a college lineman," says Collins.
In addition to getting country strong on the farm, Demien has also raised steers since middle school. This summer, he spent seven days a week feeding and caring for one, which he ended up selling for nearly $3,000 at the St. Charles County Fair.
"It was a great experience learning how to raise it and learning about responsibility," he says. "You put so much time and effort into it, you want that paycheck."
Demien has brought that same dedication to the gridiron. After playing on the freshman team his first year at Timberland, he earned a starting spot at left tackle on the varsity his sophomore season.
He learned the ins and outs of playing on the line from upperclassmen like Kurt Kutter (now at Missouri State) and Ian Hanson.
"When I started out, I really didn't know what to expect," says Demien. "I definitely had some people around me who made sure I knew what I was doing. They put down a pretty good base for who I am today."
Demien earned All-Conference honors that season, but he also cracked the scaphoid bone in his right wrist in a 28-12 loss to Parkway Central in the Class 4 state quarterfinals. The injury forced him to miss half of wrestling season, yet he still returned to place fifth in the 285-pound weight class at state.
But coming back to wrestle ended up hurting Demien. The pain in the wrist lingered after wrestling season, and when he had it checked out, doctors found part of the scaphoid bone had died. So in June 2008, Demien had to undergo a surgery in which doctors took bone from his right hip and placed it in his wrist along with five pins to hold it all together.
A week after surgery, he was leg pressing and running with the team.
"We kind of expected it because that's the kind of kid he is," says Collins of Demien's arrival in the weight room. "It didn't surprise us. I think everybody here knows he's a serious competitor."
Demien's junior season proved that. Because of the surgery, he was forced to wear a cast for eight of the Wolves' 11 games. For the first three games he had a plaster cast, which he broke too many times to count. He then wore a removable cast wrapped with a quarter-inch pad that made it look like a club.
If the cast was a nuisance, it didn't show in his play, as Demien helped pave the way for an offense that racked up nearly 5,000 total yards and set single-season school records for rushing yards (3,913) and points scored (485). Demien didn't allow a sack and also cleared lanes for star running back and current Wisconsin freshman Montee Ball, who finished his career as the St. Louis area's all-time leading rusher with 7,109 yards.
Demien was selected to the Class 5 All-State first team and to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch All-Metro first team as Timberland went 10-1 and lost to McCluer, 35-28, in the regional round of the Class 5 playoffs.
Despite the accolades, Demien felt he didn't play to his potential.
"People gave me compliments that I had such a good junior year," he says. "To me, I felt like I could have played a whole lot better if I didn't have [the cast]."
Demien is a perfectionist on the field. He takes great pride in making sure he nails each assignment, preferably capping it off with a pancake block. Last year against Fort Zumwalt East, he drove a player downfield for nearly 20 yards before finally knocking him to the turf.
"It was like a boa constrictor swallowing a little mouse," says Timberland offensive line coach Tom Papez.
"If he can dominate you, he will dominate you," adds Collins.
With a devastating combination of size, power and athleticism, Demien tends to stand out to whoever is watching.
Jon Mahoney covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.