"The Count of Monte Cristo" is an adventure novel by Alexandre Dumas. The story conveys themes of hope, justice, vengeance, mercy and forgiveness...everything one looks for in a compelling and inspiring book.
For former Nebraska quarterback Monte Christo, that book is more than just a "good read." Not only was he named because of it, but he can relate his football career at NU to it.
"I love the book…it is a very complex book with a lot of different characters and storylines," Christo said. "Looking back on my career at Nebraska there is certainly some similarities, because it involves a guy who faced a lot of adversities and with things stacked against him, was able to overcome some tough times and in the end everything worked out well for him.
"That was kind of the way it was for me in terms of the injury bug. Every time I got a chance to move up the depth chart and make an advancement I would always get hurt, but I just kept plugging away and things worked out okay."
With the name Monte Christo, the similarities became noticed, not only by friends in college, but by the media, especially when he started to gain playing time at Nebraska.
"I heard ‘Count of Monte Christo' a lot in college," Christo said. "But in high school I didn't, because most didn't read that book or know anything about it. But once I started playing at Nebraska and people in the media picked up on the name, they called me ‘The Count'. It wasn't something I shied away from or was embarrassed about it. It didn't bother me at all."
So why did Christo's parents name him after a popular novel?
"My grandmother on my mother's side was a teacher and that was one of her favorite stories. When I came along she put the pressure on mom and dad to name me Monte because we have such a unique last name and she thought that would be pretty neat," Christo said.
So with a catchy name and an opportunity to play quarterback as a true freshman on a team that went on to win the national championship, Christo became a household name among Husker fans.
He was expected to redshirt his first season (1994), but with a need for QBs due to Tommie Frazier's blood clots, Brook Berringer's cracked ribs and deflated lung, and third-stringer Matt Turman's separated shoulder (in the Missouri game), Christo was thrust into action to finish the MU game.
But Christo didn't play by default. He impressed coaches with a good fall camp by having a good knowledge of the offense, along with the ability to execute. That came from his high school playing days at Kearney High.
"We ran an offense very similar to Nebraska's," Christo said of his high school program. "The terminology and concept were pretty much the same, which made it easier for me to transition to college. Our head coach patterned what we did on offense off what Coach (Tom) Osborne did at Nebraska."
Christo was an all-state performer at Kearney High. He played safety and quarterback, and attracted recruiting interest from Nebraska and Iowa State, as well as Division II schools in Nebraska, South Dakota and Kansas.
"I was strictly recruited by option-based teams because I was an option quarterback," Christo said. "The biggest things that I brought to the table were a good understanding of the offense, good quickness with average speed, but my biggest asset was toughness. I think the coaches appreciated my ability to break tackles and keep the play going. And if I got injured or knocked down, just to get back up and keep plugging away."
According to Christo, it really came down to a scholarship offer from a Division II school or being a preferred walk-on at Nebraska. Growing up in Kearney, it was Christo's dream was to play for the Big Red.
"I was always into sports, and I can remember from a very young age going into the back yard and turning on the radio and listen to Kent Pavelka and players like Turner Gill, Irving Fryar and Mike Rozier," Christo remembered. "Many times I wore the number 12 jersey, barking out signals like Turner Gill. Ten years later, there I was under the direct tutelage and guidance from Coach Gill in the film room and on the practice field."
So Christo accepted the walk-on offer from NU, but he wasn't a normal walk-on.
"Back then they didn't have the grayshirt opportunity; they called it a preferred walk-on and would take one or two kids and in writing tell you that after two years you would be put on scholarship. In my class it was I and Joel Makovicka," said Christo. "But things got expedited for me, because when I came in, there was a scholarship quarterback, Jon Elder, whom I beat out the first week, and he ended up transferring and we had a lot of injuries that year at quarterback. So Coach Osborne put me on scholarship the second semester of my freshman year."
Thus began the career of "The Count," a walk-on who played quarterback as a true freshman for a national championship team. Sounds like the beginning of a story that could rival The Count of Monte Cristo, huh?
But Christo's story became one of frustration as he began to battle injuries. It started his freshman season with a torn ligament in the thumb of his throwing hand. Then he missed all of spring practice in 1995 after having lower back disk surgery, and the season with a knee injury. But he gained a medical redshirt, saving a year of eligibility. He continued to have nagging injuries throughout the ‘96 and ‘97 seasons, and played sparingly.
"It seemed like when I was ready to make a move up on the depth chart, something would come up," Christo said. "I ended up having four or five surgeries, and there were times when it crossed my mind to just hang it up and be done. But after talking to my dad and coaches, they wanted me to keep going and persevere."
The tale of ‘The Count' ended with a happy ending. In Christo's final season (1998), he was finally healthy for the most part, and he saw the most game action of his career.
That action first came on the road against California. After starter Eric Crouch went down with a hamstring injury, Christo came in and played the entire second half. He completed nine of 12 passes for 106 yards and a touchdown, and also rushed for 32 yards.
"It was the first time I got into a meaningful game," Christo said. "I threw my first touchdown and got us a win."
But "The Count" was not done. He came back later in the season to rally the Huskers for a come-from-behind win against Missouri. With NU behind 13-6 at halftime, Christo replaced the injured Bobby Newcombe and rushed for a career-high 67 yards on 20 carries, with two rushing touchdowns, to give Nebraska a 20-13 win.
He made three other appearances after that. He made his first and only start against Texas, then came in against Iowa State, running for a 16-yard touchdown. He also played against Arizona in the Holiday Bowl.
Christo was a part of three national championship teams, something few people can say. What made his teams and the Nebraska football program so great?
"You have guys coming from all parts of the country, all different kinds of backgrounds coming to Lincoln, Nebraska," Christo explained. "For some of those guys, this was the first time they have been around an environment or atmosphere where they see these small-town kids and how much the program really means to the state.
"Those guys identify that early on and understand how important this thing is for this state. They embrace the small-town kids and develop relationships with them. There were kids that walked on from small towns in Nebraska who were in direct competition with scholarship athletes from Texas or Florida, and so the out-of-state kids realize very quickly that they are not going to be handed a position and that they are going to have to work for everything that they get. It elevates the play of everyone at every position."
Christo's career stats aren't eye-popping (536 yards of total offense, five touchdowns) but given his injury situation and the way he stuck in and finished his career with a satisfying final season, this Nebraska kid can be proud of his effort.
"The experiences I had and the people I met, I wouldn't trade that for anything," Christo said. "I don't think there was any doubt I could have gotten more playing time at a smaller school, but having a chance to sit in a room with Coach Osborne and Coach Gill for two to three hours a day for five years, be a part of three national championship teams and make some of the friends that I did, I don't think there is any way in the world anyone would trade those things."
Christo also wouldn't trade where he calls his hometown. Being one of the first Kearney kids ever to play for the Nebraska football team really gave Christo a sense of pride.
"In 1994 and '95, during those championship seasons, even though I wasn't playing a lot, people in the community certainly recognized that I was a part of the team," Christo said. "I remember coming back after those seasons and going to the elementary school which I went to and doing a Husker Day. Having the opportunity to sit in front of the kids and share my experiences with them and see their faces light up is something that I'll never forget, and a pretty cool moment for me.
"The city of Kearney and the way they support their high school teams, Kearney High, Kearney Catholic and UNK, is second to none. It was a great place to grow up, and I always thought I would go back to Kearney, but we got settled here in Omaha."
Today "The Count" is writing another chapter in his life.
"I have been a practicing anesthesiologist here in Omaha at a company called Anesthesia West for the past three years," he said. "On a day-to-day basis we are dealing with patients who are having surgery, and our job is to provide the anesthesia services for them, so we put them to sleep, take care of them while they are sleeping and watch their vital signs, and maintain a sense of normalcy while they are having their operation, and then waking them up at the end. We also deal with pain injections with patients who have chronic pain, and ladies who are having babies and C-sections." Christo became interested in this field as a medical student, when he was exposed to a lot of different areas of medicine.
"We are dealing with a diverse patient population, from babies who are having surgery to 85-year-old people who are having heart by-pass surgery to pregnant women. So we see a lot of different patients and get to help them in a lot of different ways."
On a personal side, Christo will celebrate 10 years of marriage to his wife, Jill, this coming July. They have four kids, twins who are eight years old named Drew and Sydney, a five-year-old daughter named Courtney, and their two-year-old son Ian.
So, I had to ask the question: "Did you administer any anesthesia to your wife when she was having any of your kids?
"No, I did not, but I was in the room when my partner was there during my wife's C-section," laughed Christo.
Just like he was when he was playing at Nebraska, ‘The Count' was there if needed.