DeKALB – Me'co Brown never misses an opportunity for a laugh.
The Northern Illinois running back noticed fellow running back Chad Spann had left his traditional pregame glass of grape juice unattended before a game last season.
That's when one of the Huskies' top practical jokers struck.
"He had left to get some more food and I just poured his drink with a whole lot of pepper," said Brown, Northern Illinois' fleet-footed leading rusher. "If I would have put salt in, sometimes salt stays at the top, so I used pepper and stirred it up.
"He spit it all up."
Spann recalled the spicy grape juice incident with a smile, still shaking his head at Brown's ingenuity and since has kept an eye on the juice before games.
"I drank the whole thing before I realized that there was pepper in there," said Spann, a bruising running back who has scored nine rushing touchdowns for the Huskies. "We do stuff like that all the time. He was getting me back for something. I probably pulled out his chair."
Inside the Northern Illinois locker room, Brown and Spann are known as the two who keep things loose in the high-pressure world of college football and yet keep everyone, including each other, on their toes with their quick wits and practical jokes.
"Especially with Me'co, he's a jokester," quarterback Chandler Harnish said. "He's a really laid-back type of player and Chad is a hyper-type guy. He's a lot of energy. I think that's what complements them so well on the field. They're pranksters and they have a lot of fun doing it."
Brown, a sophomore, and Spann, a junior, have helped propel NIU's rushing attack, which leads the Mid-American Conference with 201.4 yards a game.
How NIU coach Jerry Kill would use his running backs was a major question before the season.
Going back to spring football, Kill challenged his running backs to play better, and Spann (284 yards as the Huskies' primary back in the red zone) and Brown (465 yards, three touchdowns) have been the ones to respond. Brown usually sets things up with a long run or two and Spann has been efficient inside the opponents' 20.
But Thunder and Lightning? It's a lot closer to Laurel and Hardy.
This year, it's nicknames and celebrity lookalikes on the Huskies. Safety David Bryant is Predator, from the movie, and defensive lineman Nabal Jefferson is Carl Winslow from the TV show "Family Matters."
"That's his nickname, everybody calls him Carl Winslow," Spann said with a laugh. "He looks exactly like him."
The lookalike photos are down now but the smiles Spann evokes from teammates on a regular basis contribute to what players and coaches consider a healthy atmosphere around the Huskies.
"Chad's kind of a funny young man," Kill said. "The players enjoy being around Chad and I don't think he has a lot of bad days. He's a pretty loose kid."
The same is true of Brown, who proved he can get as good as he gives when he wore almost an entire can of shaving cream on his head, courtesy of Spann, during the photo shoot for this story.
Brown seemingly never stops smiling. Asked about a fumble after the Western Illinois game this season, Brown's first inclination was to laugh when it was pointed out at the postgame news conference. Not because he turned over the ball, but because it's his natural reaction to adversity. It's the same reason why players are able to relax when they're around him.
"You've got to enjoy it," Brown said. "Football can be so stressful at times. You've got to have as much fun as you can on and off the field. "
Brown says the friendship he's developed with Spann has allowed them to grow as running backs on the field, leading to what has been a prolific year for NIU's running game even though the two compete for carries every week in practice while enduring the constant commands and critiques of coaches.
"Chad knows what I can do. I know what he can do," Brown said. "He'll see some holes that I don't see during the game. Afterward he'll say, 'You know, you could have hit that hole right there. Sometimes you've just got to hit it.' It works out to be good."
Spann said that improved field vision has helped him the most this season.
"You start seeing cutbacks that you didn't used to see," Spann said. "And you have a better feel for the game. You've got to get north and south right now rather than try and break a million tackles. It's a different thing than what we've learned from before and it's improved my game a lot, I think."
Those conversations carry over off the field as well and go deeper than an A or B gap.
The night before every game, the running backs and fullbacks eat dinner as a group and share stories from their past. Brown said fullbacks Kyle Skarb and Connor Flahive have a great sense of humor and running back Ricky Crider is kind of quiet but laughs a lot.
More important, it's built great camaraderie among the running backs.
"We have some amazing conversations, not the day of the game, but the night before the game, before we go to sleep we have dinner and we talk about everything," Brown said. "Anything you could possibly think of, we talk about it and laugh."
Brown said recently the topic of conversation was most embarrassing moments. Brown counts his as when he dropped a wide-open pass downfield while his team trailed by three points late in the game as a high school sophomore.
"I ran a flag route, the ball was just coming pretty and it slid right through my hands," he said. "I just dropped to the ground and went 'Oh my God.' They started laughing and they told their most embarrassing moments. It's just stuff like that, little small conversations."
It's those little moments and the big jokes that have put Brown and Spann in the position to learn and grow this season.