Nebraska's "Walk-On" Experience

Garth Glissman walked onto the Husker program and competed for time from 2001 through 2004. During that time, the former Husker viewed the program through the tenures of both Frank Solich and Bill Callahan. His perspective is unique, and comes to you straight from the pages of Big Red Report magazine. Enjoy Garth Glissman's walk-on perspective.

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 of Nebraska's publicly renewed commitment to its walk-on program got me thinking about my own experience as a walk-on quarterback.  What it meant to me.  How it forever changed the trajectory of my life.  What it means to the young men who will share the same experience in the years to come.  What it means to the Nebraska football program.  And what it means to the entire state of Nebraska.




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.


If playing 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 Nebraska.


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.       


First and foremost, given the high-quality people that comprise all facets of Nebraska's football program, the walk-on experience provides an unparalleled opportunity to meet, connect with, and learn from, fascinating people from all walks of life.


In my case, it was teammates like Jammal Lord.  Jammal was raised in the rough-and-tumble Bronx area of New York City, and his father was murdered when he was a young child.    I grew up in a two-parent household on a small farm 10 minutes north of Lincoln.  Despite our dramatically different backgrounds, Jammal and I formed an incredibly close friendship.  I will always remember Jammal as one of the most sincere, compassionate, and uplifting persons that I have ever met.  The greatest complement that I can give Jammal is that I am truly a better person for having crossed paths with him. 


The same is true of my former teammate and lifelong friend Chad Sievers.  I will never forget Chad's performance against Kansas in 2002.  Despite tearing his ACL on the opening kickoff, Chad played the entire game.  When I went to see him in the hospital later that same day, the doctors expressed amazement at how Chad finished game.  What modern medicine could not measure—but I knew full well having competed against Chad day-after-day on the practice field—was Chad's heart, toughness, intensity, and competitiveness.  Simply by being himself (tough, competitive, intense, and confident) Chad raises the level of energy and focus anytime he walks into room.   


And teammates like Josh and Daniel Bullocks, twin brothers who overcame humble beginnings in Chattanooga, Tennessee to fulfill their dreams of playing in the NFL.  Yet as good as they are on the football field, they are even finer people.  Both Josh and Dan are so thoughtful, so caring, so genuine, and so humble.  These are not the words a person typically uses to describe professional football players, but they are the first words that come to mind when I think about the Bullocks brothers.  Never did I pass Josh or Dan in the hallway or around campus without them stopping to have a meaningful conversation.


I was also fortunate to learn about football and leadership under a number of great coaches.  Being the head football coach at the University of Nebraska is the most visible and scrutinized position in the state.  Each of the head coaches that I encountered uniquely balanced the many facets of their job—a job that is actually many jobs (teacher, CEO, and politician) all rolled into one—yet still managed to make a personal connection with their players, even a little-used 3rd string quarterback like me.   


I will 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 a Nebraska football player.  And when I when I was frustrated with my status on the depth and made the foolish, selfish, and inmature decision to contemplate transferring to another school, I am eternally grateful that Coach Solich welcomed me back with open arms. 


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 Nebraska's football program his best shot.  


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.  Nebraska football's program is fortunate to have a coach with so much of "it."  


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 from West Point, Nebraska, who greeted me with a warm smile each day as I walked into the Memorial Stadium complex.  Boyd Epley, the legendary strength coach.  Chad Wade, the assistant strength coach who always let me borrow his Lynyrd Skynyrd CDs. These people and many more brought a smile to face each and every time I was fortunate enough to encounter them.  I have lived elsewhere long enough to know that there are good, friendly, and welcoming people wherever you go.  Nebraska just seems to have more of them.   


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 Michigan State.   


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. 


Politicans (albeit some more than others) and educators talk about diversity.  Corporate America holds conferences about diversity and creates new positions such as "Directors of Diversity."  Make no mistake: I applaud the intentions of those committed to promoting diversity in today's society.  But I cringe at what I consider to be "manufactured diversity." 


Far removed from this notion of "manufactured diversity", college football players experience diversity in its purest, most authentic form.  Nebraska's football roster consists of young men with backgrounds ranging from rural Nebraska to America's most crime-infested inner cities.  As teammates, you live together, hang out together, attend classes together, work out together, practice together, and compete together in high-pressure games with 80,000 fans in attendance. 


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"? 


Experiences 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 Nebraska farm-kid (like me) and a New York City kid of Panamanian descent (like Jammal Lord) or a black kid from the deep South (like Fabian Washington).  We liked different kinds of music.  We had different tastes in girls.  We had fundamentally different outlooks on life. 


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 Nebraska football team, it is easy to get lost in the everyday routine of being a Nebraska football player.  You go to class, go to practice, lift weights, study in the evenings, and have a game every Saturday.  It is easy to take for granted that more than 80,000 people, all dressed in red, show up for every home games.   When Nebraska football becomes part of your everyday life, it becomes easy to lose sight of the program's magnitude. 


No longer a player and back to being a regular fan, my appreciation for the Nebraska football experience has grown even more.  During the offseason, I (like fans from all walks of life) spend countless hours discussing how next year's team will be.  During the season, I spend all week leading up to the game discussing how we fare against our next opponent.  I hang out on ‘O' Street on Friday nights before home games.  I go to tailgate parties before the game.  I watch the game from the student section.  


It has been a nice contrast.  I was once a player.   Now I am back to being what I always have been: a fan. 


But my experiences as a walk-on continued to guide me.  Recognizing how much I benefited from the Nebraska walk-on experience, I am thrilled that an increased number of Nebraska kids will be given the same opportunity that I was afforded.  Not only is Nebraska's renewed commitment to its walk-on program beneficial for the young men who will have the opportunity to live out their dreams as Nebraska football players, it is good for the football program and the entire state. 


If you are a high-school kid hoping to walk-on at the University of Nebraska or you are a parent, teacher, or coach advising a young man contemplating his college options, let me reiterate that Nebraska's walk-on experience is one that we want our young people to have.


A young man who walks-on to play football at the University of Nebraska will be surrounded by great people.  He will have the opportunity to receive a first-rate education with the help of an academic support staff that is second to none.  He will have the opportunity to compete with and against some of the very best athletes in our country, and play at very the highest level of college football.  He will be challenged physically, intellectually, and emotionally.  He will have the opportunity to play for the most passionate and informed football fans in the country.  He will have the honor of representing an entire state whenever he puts on his helmet with the red ‘N' on the sides.  And, because being a walk-on football player at the University of Nebraska is an experience that leaves a lasting imprint on all those who experience it, he will emerge a better and stronger person.

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