Santiago and Oliveira: Brothers in football, faith

GRAND FORKS — Growing up, University of North Dakota running backs coach Malcolm Agnew was close with his older brother, Ray.
“Where there was Ray, there was Malcolm,” Agnew said.
He sees that connection with UND standouts John Santiago and Brady Oliveira.
“You get one, you get both,” Agnew said. “They’re actually like brothers.”
Santiago and Oliveira will be the senior centerpiece for the UND football team in the fall, but the four-year battle for carries and workload hasn’t driven a wedge between the two. Instead, it has produced a tight bond of football and faith, which was on display a few weeks ago during their mission trip to El Salvador.
“You’d think we would talk a lot about football, but we talk a lot about how we want to live our life,” Oliveira said. “Faith is big in our lives and being brothers in Christ.”
Both came to UND in 2015 — Oliveira from Winnipeg with eye-popping prep numbers and a reputation for a punishing running style; Santiago from Andover, Minn., with a wild highlight film but questions about what position he should play.
In the fall of 2015, Oliveira and transfer Ja’Won Arrington were hurt in camp, forcing UND’s hand to move Santiago from wide receiver to running back, where Oliveira showed him the ropes.
Santiago caught on quickly, rushing for 148 yards and two touchdowns in his collegiate debut at Wyoming, where UND claimed its only FBS victory in the Division I era.
Santiago was almost immediately tagged as the future running back, slightly disappointing to Oliveira who had similar aspirations.
“I was all about myself as a freshman, young Brady at 18,” Oliveira said. “Another kid was playing over me. I was hurt a little bit, but then getting to know him and using him as fuel to build off each other … after our freshman year, with winter weights and workouts and meetings, our bond started to grow from there. From there, a truly amazing friendship was built.”
Said Santiago: “Having Brady in my life is one of the best things to happen to me. We push each other in so many different aspects.”
After Santiago’s dominant freshman season, a year in which Oliveira had to overcome a pair of injuries, the two became the best complementary duo in the league. Santiago had the blazing speed on the edge and Oliveira the crushing runs between the tackles.
Thunder and lightning was the easy nickname cliche to use.
Both Santiago and Oliveira received all-Big Sky Conference honors after their sophomore seasons in which UND finished 9-3 and made the program’s first FCS playoff appearance.
And despite UND’s struggles a year ago in a 3-8 season, Santiago rushed for 717 yards and a 6.0 yards per carry average, while Oliveira ran for 637 yards and a 5.7 average per carry.
Santiago already is in fourth place on UND’s all-time rushing list, only behind Phillip Moore, Shannon Burnell and Bill Deutsch.
“They’re both selfless guys,” said Agnew, who was a running back at Oregon State and Southern Illinois. “They want what’s best for the football team. They don’t care if John runs for 190 and two touchdowns or if Brady runs for 190 and two touchdowns. They care if the team wins or loses. They really care about each other.
“I’ve been part of position battles and that’s not always the case. What they have going on here is rare and special.”
During spring break in March, Oliveira and Santiago, as well as UND linebacker Donnell Rodgers, went on a mission trip to El Salvador through a Bible study group the players have been involved with on campus.
“It was life changing,” Santiago said. “I loved every second of it. It brought us closer as friends, teammates and sons of God. Everything I take away from that will change my life from now on.”
The UND teammates spent time in the 100-plus degree heat working construction and hanging out with the local community and host families they stayed with in the Central American country.
“The poverty there … we have it so good and there’s a lot of things we simply take for granted,” Oliveira said. “It makes us want to live a more simple lifestyle.”
If the two already didn’t spend enough time together, Santiago and Oliveira also have much of the same coursework. They’re both criminal justice majors and expect to graduate in December.
They’ll both likely field pro football interest, too, but there’s still plenty to accomplish in the 2018 season.
“Everybody wants that national championship,” Santiago said. “But I feel like we can’t focus on that. We have to focus on ourselves. (The championship) will come in time. We want to focus on building from practice to practice. We have a lot to work on but we’re making a lot of progress.”
Agnew said he’s pushing the two backs to focus on leadership and striving to not rest on past UND successes.
“I want them to act like seniors who have played a lot of games,” Agnew said. “I want them to stand out and be people others can look up to and depend on. I challenge them to do that every day.
“I want them to look at the big picture. They’re good here, but I want them to want to be the best in the conference, the best in the FCS, the best in the FBS — that’s the type of mindset you need when you train. I tell them they’re doing well, but there’s so much more you can achieve.”