The presence of family has always helped Niko Ivanisevic thrive.
Early in life, both Niko and older brother Stefan Ivanisevic ’19 were brought into the wrestling room by their father, former collegiate wrestler Dan Ivanisevic. As will happen with competitive brothers, things would get “chippy now and then” and they would need to be separated, but for the most part the brothers pushed and inspired each other.
Niko capped his senior season by reaching the 2017 Illinois heavyweight state final, where he tried to thwart the attempted perfect season for future NCAA All-American and Iowa Hawkeye (University of Iowa). He fell short that day, but perfection would come Ivanisevic’s way soon enough.
And family would play a big role.
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Wrestling may have been the first sport that the two brothers played together, but football followed quickly enough. Niko, currently a senior captain and two-year starter on the Princeton offensive line, was too big to play within his age group, so he moved up and played with Stefan.
That started a beautiful pairing between the brothers, whose brief moments of competitive scrapping were far surpassed by the times they built each other up.
“I have always appreciated what he has done for me,” Niko said. “If he saw an area I could improve, he would always point it out to me.”
The pairing paused briefly when the oldest of the three Ivanisevic boys — youngest brother Marko is currently in high school — enrolled at Princeton and became the starting right tackle for the 2016 Ivy League champion Tigers. Stefan dealt with injuries throughout the season, but he helped lead the Tigers to eight wins and Ivy-best totals in points, yards and rushing offense.
Younger brother Niko, who was charting his path to the Illinois wrestling state final that same year, took note of both the team’s success and how much his brother was enjoying the experience.
“I could see what Princeton had been for him, and how great the culture was, so it was sort of a no-brainer for me,” said Niko, who joined his brother on the Princeton campus in the fall of 2017. “He was such a big help to me academically when I first arrived, and tried to figure out how to balance classes and football. I am incredibly grateful for his mentorship.”
By the end of his freshman year, Niko felt ready to thrive, and he knew he had one last chance to line up with his big brother. They didn’t waste that opportunity.
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Less than two years after Ivanisevic tried to block one perfect path, the two brothers helped the Princeton football team navigate another. Niko earned time as the backup center on the record-setting Tiger offense that ripped through the 2018 fall for the program’s first perfect record since 1964. Stefan battled back from another injury-plagued 2017 season to also be part of the line rotation.
“That was such a special experience,” Niko said. “He was #74, I was #75, so our lockers were right next to each other. He was there to lead me and push me along throughout the season. It was incredible.”
Family has always inspired Ivanisevic, but for the first time in his life, he was not going to be sharing space with a member of his family when the 2019 season came around. That alone can be a daunting thought for anybody, but little did he know the experience would soon include a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.
What would he do without his immediate family? He didn’t have to worry about that. He had his Princeton family.
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Ivanisevic earned a starting position at left guard on the 2019 offensive line, and he looked ahead towards the 2020 season with plans of matching Stefan with a championship senior season. That goal temporarily went on the backburner when COVID-19 shut everything down, but Ivanisevic and his senior teammates had no plans to give up on that dream.
He lived with classmates Cole Smith, Samuel Wright and James Johnson that summer, and the quartet trained together and inspired each other to keep moving forward. It was the perfect set of roommates for Ivanisevic; he could train against both an All-Ivy lineman (Wright) and an All-Ivy linebacker (Johnson) to keep all of his fundamentals sharp, and he could watch film with Smith, the current starting quarterback, so the two could always be on the same page about what they were seeing on the offense.
Ivanisevic is quick to dole out the praise to his teammates, and point out how they helped make him better. It works both ways, though. Wright and Johnson improved through their sessions, Smith got a clearer understanding of the offense, and the 2021 veteran offensive line benefits daily from his skills and decision-making.
“Niko has done a terrific job on our offensive line,” said head coach and former Princeton center Bob Surace ’90. “He is strong, athletic, plays with excellent leverage and is like a coach on the field with his communication. Most of all, he is an excellent leader and competitor.”
Communication is especially important for a center. Before the snap, Ivanisevic is responsible for surveying the defense, setting protections and blocking assignments, and making sure he and Smith are on the same page. All those hours watching film together has paid off nicely through the first three weeks of the season, as Princeton has the ninth-ranked scoring offense in the league through three weeks.
Ironically, their least-productive offensive performance may be the one that is most inspiring moving forward. In Weeks 1-2, Princeton outscored its opponents 95-0 and was never challenged beyond the first quarter. Last week, the Tigers found themselves in a 10-7 Ivy battle deep into the afternoon against Columbia. It had been nearly two years since anybody on the team had faced gameday adversity, so it was a chance for the team to see if there was a crack in its foundation.
It was also a chance to see just how strong the foundation actually is.
“Columbia came out and played us tough,” he said of the 24-7 Tiger win. “It was a tough matchup for us up front. There was never any panic on the sideline. It goes back to our trust in each other. The early-morning hours, the sense of accountability. I can lean on them, and they can lean on me.”
Ivanisevic has always leaned on family, and he has been a presence for family to lean on. He’ll return to Chicago next year, where he has already accepted a position in investment banking, and where he can be close to his immediate family once again.
But he is not alone this year. He still leans on family, and family leans on him. He and his Princeton family pushed through one of the darkest times, and now they are ready to pursue one more perfect finish together.