As signing day approached and the attention of college football fans collectively turned toward news of where the latest batch of four- and five-star recruits would sign to play college football, I found myself more interested in a group of less heralded high-school seniors: Nebraska high schoolers who have acccepted the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to "walk-on" to the Nebraska football team.
All the talk
Aside from my immediate family, my walk-on experience at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has impacted me more than any other person, event, or experience in my life. Normally I am not one to waste valuable column space talking about my own football career. Heck, considering I only played in three games in my entire Husker career, never played more than two snaps in a single game, never attempted a pass in an actual game, and my definining moment came in the 2003 Red-White Spring Game when I was on the receiving head of a vicious hit by Stewart Bradley that knocked off my helmet—there is not much to talk about. But my experience as a Cornhusker is worth sharing because it symbolizes the opportunity awaiting future Husker walk-ons.
time served as the only criteria for judging a walk-on's success, my career
would be considered a failure. But
the Husker walk-on experience is about far more than playing time. It is about
the people I met. The life lessons
I learned. Being a part of
something much greater than myself.
And the connection I felt, and always will feel, with the state of
In comparing my experience to present and future Husker walk-ons, the specifics (teammates, coaches, and circumstances surrounding the program) inevitably will vary. Yet the general themes stay the same.
foremost, given the high-quality people that comprise all facets of
In my case,
it was teammates like Jammal Lord.
Jammal was raised in the rough-and-tumble Bronx area of
The same is
true of my former teammate and lifelong friend Chad Sievers. I will never forget
teammates like Josh and Daniel Bullocks, twin brothers who overcame humble
I was also
fortunate to learn about football and leadership under a number of great
coaches. Being the head football
coach at the
always remember Coach Solich's amazing ability to connect with his players on a
very personal level, inspire loyalty from his players, and instill toughness in
his team. On a more personal note,
I will be eternally grateful to Coach Solich for giving me the opportunity to be
As for Coach
Callahan, I wish more Nebraskans had known him like I did. He is one of the hardest working and
most intelligent individuals I have ever encountered. He is a life-long learner who was always
eager to learn from others and improve himself. Coach Callahan may not have won enough
games or connected well enough with the fan base to keep most Nebraskans happy,
but he should be remembered as a fundamentally good man who gave
I spent only
one short year with Coach Pelini in 2003, but that was more than enough time to
develop an appreciation for his unique combination of charisma, intellect, and
ability to connect with people.
Political pundits often talk about the "it" factor. "It" is some combination of a personal
charisma and intangible qualities that inspires and motivates others. John F. Kennedy had an abundance of
"it." Ronald Reagan had "it"
too. These days Barack Obama
appears seems to have more of "it" than any other politician. As far as football coaches go, Bo Pelini
has more of "it" than anyone I have ever encountered. Unlike Kennedy or Reagan whose charisma
could be detected after watching just a few moments of a speech, Coach Pelini's
"it" factor cannot be easily measured or identified from the outside looking
in. But "it" is readily apparent to
anyone who has ever spent a significant amount of time around Coach Pelini. "It" is in the way he treats people on a
daily basis. "It" is the confident
swagger with which he conducts his daily affairs. "It" is in the way he builds
confidence in young men.
Do not let
all this talk of my high profile teammates and coaches confuse you; my walk-on
experience was influenced just as much, if not more, by people working behind
the scenes. Every fan reads about
the well-known coaches, players, and high-level administrators. For every one of those individuals,
there are 10 people working behind the scenes in and around the Athletic
Department. People like my academic
counselors: Keith Zimmer, Dennis LeBlanc, Alvin Banks, and Katie Zimmer. Seth Ristow the director of the
student-athlete's computer lab.
Jerry Weber the long-time head athletic trainer. Kristi Reetz the director of the ticket
office. Bev Sundeen, the optimistic
and energetic hostess at the "Training Table." Art McWilliams who—as head chef at the
Training Table—gave me four years of great food and fatherly advice. Mel Ulrich, the charming retired farmer
In addition to the wonderful people I met, I learned so many simple, yet valuable, life lessons during my time as a Husker. I cannot pretend to say that I learned all these lessons as I experienced them. Like any college kid, I was young and foolish and made my fair share of mistakes. But these life lessons have become perfectly clear to me as I look back on my walk-on experience and its impact on me.
Lessons like: Only focus on the things under my control.
Given all the uncertainy surrounding the Husker football program following Coach Solich's firing, this was a favorite saying of then-interim-Coach Bo Pelini in the days leading up to the 2003 Alamo Bowl. We could not control the fact that our beloved head coach had been fired in route to a 10-3 season. We could not change the past. We could not control what was being said in the media. Nor could we impact Steve Pederson's coaching search.
But we could
control our preparation, our focus, and our performance. So we focused on the next meeting, the
next practice, and ultimately our bowl game. By focusing only on things within our
control, we were able to block out countless distractions in route to an
impressive victory over
Admittedly, the concept of focusing only on the things under our control and how it applies to one's life varies from person-to-person. But each of us faces challenges—perhaps at work, in relationships, financially, what others say about us, or overcoming past hardships—that are largely beyond our current control and would bog us down if we let them dominate our thoughts. Controlling one's thought process is never easy. But we can all make a commitment to focusing on things within our current control: the way we treat people, our work habits, our focus, our determination, and our ability to overcome adversity.
I also learned that: Football—like life—frequently knocks you down. Success depends on whether you have the courage, strength, and perseverance to get back up each and every time life knocks you down.
My time as a Husker helped me learn this lesson both literally and figuratively.
Literally, because as a scout-team quarterback, each day in practice I played against the likes of Chris Kelsay, Adam Carriker, Ryon Bingham, Demorrio Williams, Barrett Ruud, Scott Shanle, Fabian Washington, Trevor Johnson, and Josh and Dan Bullocks (all of whom still play on Sundays). Never have I been hit so hard and so often. Yet I was able to earn a measure of their respect, and not because I was particularly talented. Rather, I earned their respect simply because I always got back up.
Symbolically, because the walk-on experience is a microcosm of life: it is full of ups-and-downs. My walk-on experience had some great times, some not so great times, and just about everything in between. Human nature makes it easy to be excited about practice when you are playing well or just got promoted on the depth chart. It becomes harder to carry on with a positive attitude when you are buried on the depth chart, your self-confidence is in the tank, and you just broke up with your girlfriend.
No matter what the circumstances, you learn that the sun will always come up the next morning. Each day, you go meetings. You go to practice. You take your lumps and move on. You keep working. You keep fighting. Always believing that when your next opportunity comes, you will be more prepared to seize the moment.
Another invaluable life lesson that I learned was embracing diversity in its purest form.
(albeit some more than others) and educators talk about diversity. Corporate
from this notion of "manufactured diversity", college football players
experience diversity in its purest, most authentic form.
Your teammates, regardless of their background, become family. And you learn to embrace the opportunity of learning about their varied backgrounds. For example, without my Nebraska football experience (and more specifically without being assigned by the professor to help my teammate Fabian Washington on a paper he was writing for our Multi-Cultural Education Class)—how else could I have co-authored a paper entitled: "The Differences Between Being a Black Man in Bradenton, Florida versus Lincoln, Nebraska"?
like these taught me not to walk on "egg shells" around people of different
colors and backgrounds. I learned
not to pretend like there are no differences between a white
But, more importantly, I learned that—white or black, city-kid or farm-boy, rich or poor—something deep within our soul unites us all: the desire to love and be loved by the people in our lives; and the desire to work hard and overcome adversity in hopes of making our tomorrow brighter than today.
Since I last put on my Husker uniform and as I reflect on how my walk-on experience impacted me, my appreciation for the Husker fooball program and what it means to the state has grown exponentially.
As a 19, 20,
and 21 year-old kid on the
No longer a
player and back to being a regular fan, my appreciation for the
It has been a nice contrast. I was once a player. Now I am back to being what I always have been: a fan.
experiences as a walk-on continued to guide me. Recognizing how much I benefited from
If you are a
high-school kid hoping to walk-on at the
A young man
who walks-on to play football at the