They teased, provoked, cheered on and laughed at each other.
They teased, provoked, cheered on and laughed at each other.
But Bryce and Michael Peila, like most all brothers, never said, "I love you."
When Michael did say it to Bryce over the phone three years ago, the words crashed around Bryce's head all night.
"For him to say that, it touched me deep," says Bryce, a former Crater High football standout.
Michael, or Mikey, was 24. He hadn't seen Bryce, then 19 and a redshirt freshman at Western Oregon University, play in college until he watched the Wolves beat Azusa Pacific 27-6 on Oct. 24, 2009.
After the game in Azusa, Calif., Bryce met up with Mikey and the boys' mom, Georgia Ceniceros. When Bryce returned to the hotel where the team was staying, he answered a call from Mikey in the lobby outside his room.
"He said, "I love you Bubba,' and I told him I loved him too," Bryce recalls. "That was the first and last time saying, 'I love you.'"
Bryce asked Mikey to call or text him when he got home.
Mikey committed suicide four days later at the Central Point home where the two grew up.
And then life had to somehow go on.
A senior safety at NCAA Division II Western Oregon, Bryce has grown into a linchpin of his team's defense. The 6-foot-1 All-American needs three more interceptions to break WOU's all-time record — Jack Flitcraft collected 21 from 1969 to 1972 — and he leads the team in tackles with 7.7 per game. Bryce owns the Great Northwest Athletic Conference's record for interception return yards (382).
The problem is, offenses avoid Bryce after he picked off nine passes last year (which placed him second nationally). In an attempt to stay one step ahead of them, he dissects game tape with a coach's eye for detail.
"I look for tendencies," explains Bryce, who has four interceptions this fall. "For me to adjust this year, I'm really looking to run around and wreak havoc, practice faster and play faster. Anything to help us win."
In a 34-10 victory over Simon Fraser last year, Bryce had three takeaways that helped lead a 21-point surge in the fourth quarter. He recovered a fumble and returned it 30 yards to set up a touchdown, then intercepted a pass two plays later and returned it 48 yards for the score. Bryce wasn't done. He snagged a second pick and took it back 42 yards to seal the win.
"He could have had three touchdowns in a matter of three minutes," says father Mike Peila, who was flooded with pride as he walked onto the field to embrace his son that day.
This year, Bryce's two interceptions against Central Washington helped him break the league record for interception return yards.
Western Oregon (4-3, 4-2 GNAC), which has won four straight, plays Simon Fraser in Canada on Saturday, and Bryce's college career will soon be coming to an end.
There have been good days and bad days without Mikey, Bryce says. The best are often Saturdays, when he can lose himself in the game.
"Bryce plays a little possessed," Mike says. "He has an extra motivation. Mikey gave him a little more."
Says Bryce: "I just honor Mikey in the best way possible. For me that is just giving everything I've got. That is what he would want."
Mike has a stockpile of eight-millimeter film showing Bryce and Mikey at various ages. He wants to transfer it onto CDs. The footage offers a glimpse of two exceptional athletes growing up.
Bryce always tried to keep up with Mikey and his older friends, says Georgia.
"He would come in crying," Georgia recalls. "I'd say, 'You don't have to play football with them.' He has always challenged himself."
Those competitions extended to the basketball court, where Mickey and Bryce played until dusk. When it became too dark, they'd connect a portable light to an extension cord, clamp it to a nearby chain-link fence and play late into the night.
"We had battles," Bryce recalls.
Mike and Georgia separated when Mikey was in the eighth grade and Bryce in third grade.
"With all guys, we watched ESPN together and I took Bryce to all Mikey's games," recalls Mike, who played tailback in high school in southern California.
Mikey was like "a bull in a china shop," who "didn't care if there were 15 people in front of him," as a standout running back at Crater, Georgia recalls. He once rumbled for more than 300 yards in a game, Bryce remembers.
Georgia made a deal with Mikey when she gave him his first cell phone, a Nokia with a Miami Hurricanes face plate. She agreed to pay for it and the service only if Mikey answered the phone every time she called. Her phone calls never went unanswered.
Mikey went on to work as a surgical technician at Rogue Valley Medical Center.
"He was a real down-to-earth guy, real outgoing," Bryce says of his brother. "He was always cracking jokes and loved to have a good time. He was very loyal to me. He wasn't perfect but he pushed me in the right direction."
Bryce is typically quiet and laid-back. Growing up, he was always concerned with proper mechanics, Georgia says.
"I try to be nitpicky on little details," Bryce adds.
When Bryce pulls on his jersey, Mike says, "it's like 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.'"
"Bryce is always around the football," Mike says. "When something happens, he is there."
Mikey died on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2009.
Mikey's passing was confirmed in an emotional meeting with WOU head coach Arne Ferguson and Mike, who quickly drove to Monmouth. Before their gathering, Bryce had received a text message during a defensive backs meeting from Georgia asking if he had heard from Mikey. Bryce's heart sank when he got it because Georgia and Mikey talked almost twice a day. Georgia said Mikey had not responded to several of her messages.
One of Mikey's close friends then sent Bryce a text message expressing sorrow. Bryce excused himself from the meeting. He called Georgia.
Bryce later met with Ferguson and his father.
"It was about handling it the right way," Ferguson says of the meeting. "Anytime someone has a major tragedy, you worry about them. Those two were best friends."
The day, Bryce says, was the worst of his life.
An hour passed between the meeting and practice. Bryce then took the field like a ghost to the sky.
"Going to practice that day I felt lost," Bryce recalls. "I felt like a part of me left. My best friend was gone."
But Bryce says he knew what Mikey would tell him if he could.
"I felt in my heart it was right for me to practice that day and continue moving forward," Bryce says. "That is what he would want me to do. Intentionally or not, having that brotherly love put me in a place to keep moving forward and being strong."
After the shock wore off, Bryce says anguish and confusion devoured him. Counseling eventually helped.
"It was difficult to make decisions," he says. "It's not that I didn't know the difference between right and wrong. I was lost. I didn't know how to make decisions."
Losing Mikey reinforced his father's desire to always be there for Bryce. Mike, who has worked at Medford Fence since 1988, hasn't missed a game in three years. He's traveled as far as Illinois to see Bryce play.
Mike says he is most proud of the fact that Bryce will be the first in the family to graduate from college. Ferguson also praises Bryce's academic focus.
"That is why I don't miss a game," Mike says. "Life is short. I can enjoy Bryce."
LIFE AFTER DEATH
Bryce majors in exercise science at Western Oregon. He'd like to pursue a Masters degree or extend his playing career. Bryce can see himself as a coach or athletic director someday.
"I think anybody growing up who is passionate about the sport and loves it as much as I do dreams to play in the NFL," he says.
Bryce sometimes wonders why he was dealt this hand. He strives for peace — "I try to be grateful for things on earth. Every day is a blessing," he says — but he has learned that hope and happiness are never promised.
Thankfully, Bryce says, he has stabilizers: His family, his friends and football.
And he's not ashamed to say he loves them all.
Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email firstname.lastname@example.org