From hockey and skiing to the NFL: The unique paths of Packers' top picks Van Ness, Musgrave

Luke (left) and his brother, Colt, followed in their mother's footsteps, becoming competitive ski racers at an early age. Courtesy of Amy Musgrave

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Forget everything you thought you knew about how players make it to the NFL. A pair of Green Bay Packers rookies have proved that.

First-round pick Lukas Van Ness did not start out as a Herculean pass-rusher, and second-round pick Luke Musgrave wasn’t always a smooth-striding tight end.

Before they wore shoulder pads, they donned ice skates and skis.

You don’t just have to imagine what a 6-foot-5 Van Ness looked like in the rink.

There’s video evidence:

And lest you think skiing didn’t come well before football for Musgrave, who came from a football family, then ask his mother -- a former member of the U.S. developmental ski team herself as a teenager.

“At 2 years old, I got him on skis, and at 5, he started racing,” Amy Musgrave recalled. “He didn’t start Pop Warner until age 7.”

And these weren’t just hobbies.

They were lifestyles.

Van Ness played hockey all the way through his senior year of high school and was a key member of the 2019-2020 Barrington (Illinois) club hockey team that reached the state semifinals before the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the rest of the season.

Musgrave was still entering downhill races until his sophomore year of high school in Bend, Oregon.

PACKERS GENERAL MANAGER Brian Gutekunst thought about it but couldn’t come up with an answer.

“I'd have to go back and kind of look through stuff to see if there were any hockey guys,” he said when asked if he’s ever scouted a player with a hockey background.

For Van Ness, the hockey player, physicality was his game, and he accumulated the penalty minutes to prove it, even though he believes that was more because of his size -- he estimated that he stood 6-8 on skates -- than anything nefarious.

“Honestly, a lot of it was unfair, I believe,” Van Ness said.

“I always believed I was a very clean player, but unfortunately due to my size and the physicality I played with and the [smaller-sized] guys on the other side of it, the refs didn’t like it too much.”

Van Ness didn’t get serious about football until late in middle school, and when he got to high school, Barrington coach Joe Sanchez kept him on a traditional developmental path.

As a freshman, he played on the freshman team.

As a sophomore, he was on the sophomore team.

He did not play a varsity snap until his junior year.

“It wasn’t for a lack of a talent -- he was big, tall, long and athletic,” Sanchez said. “I think it was a blessing because he got the opportunity to continue to learn the game but also be with his friends.

“And that friend part, you can’t underestimate that. I think a lot of that is what kept Lukas in football and maybe not choosing just to focus on hockey because so many of his best friends were playing football.”

Sanchez wasn’t just OK with Van Ness continuing to play hockey, he encouraged it.

“We’ve had boys who played football and hockey, but they haven’t been linemen,” Sanchez said. “They’ve been defensive backs, a running back, a linebacker. But never a lineman, never anyone that big.”

And he kept getting bigger.

“He wasn’t in the weight room as much as he could’ve been, and understandably so, because he was a two-sport athlete,” Sanchez said.

Because of his late start in football, Van Ness’ early scholarship offers were from Ivy League and smaller Division I programs until he went to a camp at Lindenwood University in St. Louis during the summer between his junior and senior years.

Then the big schools came calling, and Van Ness chose Iowa.

But he wasn’t quite done with hockey yet, and the Iowa coaches were just fine with that, even if that was a two-sport combination that was foreign to them.

“Through this process and sitting down with all these coaches and interviews, they’ve said I’m one of the first people they’ve ever come across who has played both hockey and football growing up,” Van Ness said.

Van Ness hasn’t laced up his skates since high school, but to this day, he believes it was crucial to his football development.

“I saw so many translatable qualities and skills [from] hockey to football,” he said. “My speed, my balance, the quickness of the sport, conditioning, my motor, the ability to change directions. Hockey is a peripheral sport, where you have to be looking at the puck while making plays. That all translated directly into my game of football, helped me be quick on my feet, be smart, react to what I’m seeing, react to blocks.

“I truly believe I wouldn’t be the player I am without the game of hockey. But since I started playing this game of football, I fell in love, and I knew that this was what I wanted to do.”

While he never started a single game at Iowa, he thrived to the point where he left after playing just two seasons following a redshirt year as a freshman. At 272 pounds, he recorded 13.5 sacks among his 19.5 tackles for loss over those two seasons and earned the nickname “Hercules” along the way.

It was enough for Gutekunst to use the 13th overall pick on him. In the most recent open OTA practice, Van Ness not only has moved into the No. 1 defense but has been showing off both his speed and power pass-rush moves.

HERE'S WHY THIS might be the perfect place and the perfect team for Musgrave:

“I’ve always told Luke,” his mother, Amy, explained, “‘You always tended to perform when the weather was most adverse. It is blowing, snowing sideways, and cold sleet up there today, so it must be a good day, because you always tend to get it done in those conditions.’”

Except she wasn’t talking about football.

“Up there” meant at the top of the mountain.

Amy, who was born in nearby Kenosha, Wisconsin, grew up on a mountain after her family moved out West during her childhood. She quickly took to downhill ski racing and made it a step or two away from competing for the Olympic team in the 1980s and early 1990s. Among her skiing contemporaries was gold medalist Picabo Street.

“I was a mom with two boys, and I knew they would probably play football because I married into a football family,” she said.

Her husband, Doug, played quarterback at Oregon in the early 1990s. Doug’s brother, Bill, is a football lifer -- a former NFL backup quarterback and a long-time coach who currently serves as a senior offensive assistant for the Cleveland Browns.

“My point to Doug was with skiing, you can start them young,” Amy said. “And if they’re going to play football, I’ll tell you something: What ski racing will give them is big, strong quads and a strong low back and really good glutes.”

Luke and his brother, Colt, both became competitive ski racers. They had success -- never to the level of their mother, but they might have if football had not taken over.

“I think I took it pretty far,” Luke said of skiing. “As far as I probably could.”

By sophomore year of high school, he gave up skiing.

But it wasn’t because of football.

Ski season began to interfere with lacrosse.

“The nice thing is football is a clean break from a fall sport to move into ski racing,” Amy said. “But ski racing, the season starts to go long and all the things you’re working for all season -- all the nationals and big events -- they’re in March.

“And Luke is like, ‘I can’t do it. I’ve done it. I’ve checked the boxes, but I have a responsibility to the lacrosse team and I can’t not start the season when it starts.’ So he stepped away.”

He stayed close to home to play football at Oregon State. Despite missing most of the 2022 season because of a knee injury, Musgrave’s size (6-6, 253) and speed (4.61 in the 40 at the combine) helped his draft stock soar, and the Packers picked him in the second round at No. 42 overall. So far in OTAs, he’s been a popular target for new starting quarterback Jordan Love.

He doesn’t think much about skiing these days -- he hasn’t snapped in his bindings since his sophomore year of high school -- but, like Van Ness with hockey, he believes it’s a part of his football success.

“If you’ve ever skied, it’s kind of a quad burner,” he said. “So I attribute my leg strength to it a little bit, kind of being able to stick my hips in routes and get out of breaks. I truly do believe ski racing has helped me.”

And his cold-weather experience should come in handy this winter at Lambeau Field.

“We’ve watched all those snowy, cold games on TV,” Amy said. “It should be perfect for him.”