Westerkamp Easily Has ‘Play of the Day’ Again

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Video: Jordan Westerkamp’s Behind-the-Back Catch

Video: Westerkamp Describes another Masterpiece

By Randy York

Life, especially in football, can be stranger than fiction.  While driving to Memorial Stadium Saturday morning, I had my radio tuned into something I can never get enough of – the Huskers Sports Network.  The conversation was about Jordan Westerkamp and how he was once interviewed and never once asked about The Catch … you know the one I mean … the Hail Mary Catch that took the air out of Northwestern and sent the Wildcats home on an airplane before they could catch their own breath.

The humor in the Westerkamp discussion had a point: Who would ever ask Jordan what his most memorable catch was when most of the country already knows?  Well, guess what?  That little discussion had an ironic twist to it Saturday.  Mike Babcock and I were talking in the press box when we watched Westerkamp pull another football rabbit out of a hat with a behind-the-back catch that simply defies imagination.

We looked at each and instantly, almost in unison, called it an unbelievable catch.

Not just any catch, a spectacular one. While officials were seeking to confirm what their eyes were telling them, I mentioned the radio discussion to Mike.

We agreed the odds would be prohibitive to make another catch that could fit into the same elite category. 

Saturday’s Catch More Remarkable than Hail Mary

“I think that’s a more remarkable catch than the Hail Mary, don’t you?” I asked Babcock.

“I think it is,” Mike said.

“I’ve never seen a catch like that ever, have you?” I asked Babcock.

“No, I never have either,” he said.

We both shook our heads, knowing that Westerkamp’s eyes locked in on the Hail Mary last year while his soft hands finished the work in a perfectly timed jump in Memorial Stadium’s South end zone.

This time, we couldn’t believe what we’d just seen … a behind-the-back butt catch that required even softer hands and incredible equilibrium.

In his press conference, Bo Pelini joined the crowd, saying he’s never seen anything like Westerkamp’s catch Saturday.  Defensive coordinator John Papuchis called it “the greatest catch I’ve ever seen in my life.”

ESPN’s Saturday night/Sunday morning college football analyst team joined the chorus, labeling Westerkamp’s catch/balancing act as “easily the play of the day” in college football.

And yes, such accolades came his way less than one year after Westerkamp’s “once in a lifetime” Hail Mary catch.  The 16-yard perfectly juggled reception, we also should point out, was just one of seven catches in a 125-yard day for the Illinois native.

Within minutes of the astonishing catch, Mike and I were shown how Westerkamp reached behind his back to use his behind to trap the ball and secure it at the same time.

Hail Varsity magazine publisher Aaron Babcock froze the photo he’d just shot and shared it via social media in the same amount of time it takes to visit the rest room.

In other words, Hail Varsity, the magazine, had something in the same elite category with Hail Mary, Westerkamp’s middle name for the past year.

Maybe someone will come up with a new name for next Saturday morning’s pregame drive time.  Since the kickoff against McNeese State will be nearly four hours before the season-opening kick against Florida Atlantic, Matt Davison has plenty of time to come up with a gem.  In the meantime, I’m going to butt out of this one.

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HOF Husker’s Grandson Seeks His Own Path

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Charles Bryant walked on at Nebraska before receiving a scholarship in 1952.

Season Opener Special for Florida Atlantic Player

Charles Bryant was Two-Sport Husker Letterman

By Randy York

One of the greatest things about college football are the stories with inherent twists and turns that reflect imagery and irony you never otherwise would think possible.  Take Brandin Bryant, a two-year defensive line starter for Florida Atlantic University, Nebraska’s season-opening opponent at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in Memorial Stadium.  Brandin is the grandson of the late Nebraska football Hall-of-Fame inductee Charles Bryant, who was a true trailblazer as an All-Big Seven Conference guard on a 1954 Husker team that lost to Duke in the Orange Bowl.  Bryant and Jon McWilliams were the first two black athletes to letter at Nebraska in the modern era. That is not a misprint.  It’s a fact.  Those two Husker teammates were the first black lettermen at Nebraska in 40 years, dating all the way back to Clint Ross in 1913.  No wonder Brandin Bryant grew up in North Omaha hoping one day to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps.

Brandin wanted to walk on and give Nebraska his best shot, just like his grandfather did in 1951 before earning a scholarship from NU Head Coach Bill Glassford.  The ‘54 Husker team defeated Iowa State, Oregon State, Colorado, Missouri, Kansas and Hawaii.  Bryant was one of three All-Big Seven players on the Huskers’ first-ever Orange Bowl team, joining fellow Nebraska natives Don Glantz, a tackle from Central City, Neb., and Bob Smith, a fullback from Grand Island.  Having attended several Omaha Black Sports Hall-of-Fame banquets, I know the pedestal upon which Charles Bryant stood before his death 10 years ago and even today as his grandson prepares to compete against the program he grew up worshiping. 

Chuck King, a sportswriter in Boca Raton, Fla., wrote an interesting story on Brandin Bryant, describing how he once attended football games and football camps at Nebraska, and how he yearned to be a preferred walk-on candidate.  When that didn’t happen, he went to Fort Scott Community College before he ended up playing at Florida Atlantic for Carl Pelini.  In his first two seasons at FAU, Brandin has played in every game.  The first Nebraskan ever to play for Florida Atlantic recorded six sacks last year. King said Bryant, a redshirt junior, is a “darkhorse All-America candidate” in the eyes of his defensive coordinator, Roc Bellantoni.

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Bryant Also Lettered Three Years in Wrestling

Whoever said irony is the form of paradox has to admit that paradox can be good and great at the same time.  It’s good that Brandin Bryant found a Division I college football home, and it’s great that his first game coming off a season-ending injury will be against the program that inducted his grandfather into the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame 27 years ago. 

Generally regarded as the first African-American player in modern Husker history 63 years ago, Bryant didn’t just play football at Nebraska.  He also lettered three years in wrestling (1953, ’54 and ’55).  In 1962, Bryant became the first black to earn a head coaching job in the Omaha-Council Bluffs area when he took over the Thomas Jefferson High School wrestling program.  He ended up teaching 23 years in the Omaha Public Schools system, and was hired as an assistant principal at Omaha Benson in 1973.  He moved to Omaha Bryan High School in 1977 and served as athletic director.

Brandin Bryant has estimated that 100 family members and friends have tickets to Saturday’s game and even though almost all of them are Husker fans, he has asked them to wear blue to support the visiting team.  To him, this is one of those rare exceptions to a loyalty rule, and when you think about his grandfather as a career educator, you can’t help but harken back to your own high school English days and a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.  Charles Bryant was a pathfinder for Nebraska, and I’m sure his grandson – win or lose on Saturday – is seeking his own path so he can leave his own trail. 

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Historic Capstone: Legacy Statue Back Home

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By Randy York

Thursday morning was a meaningful moment for Nebraska football, its rich history and everything it stands for, including the Blackshirts, who earned their reputation as a swarming, brother-to-brother defense that diagnosed, tracked down, and then attacked offensive opponents with a hard-hitting, single-minded purpose.  The Husker Legacy Statue returned home, moving back to the place where it belongs – outside the East Memorial Stadium entrance that has greeted Nebraska fans since 1923 and has included the Legacy Statue anchor since 1997, the final season of Tom Osborne’s legendary coaching career.  The two-ton statue, encased in bronze, originally was placed near the street loop off Vine Street that leads to the stadium. From 1997 to 2011, it stood in that familiar place until East side expansion triggered a temporary move to Memorial Stadium’s northwest corner.

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Artist Fred Hoppe sculpted the statue as a tribute to Nebraska tradition, depicting six Husker defensive players tackling a Kansas State player.  Hoppe modeled the statue after a 1995 Richard Voges photograph for the Nebraska Athletic Department.  Hoppe said the statue “represents the whole attitude of Nebraska football” while “emphasizing the teamwork and dedication that Nebraska football symbolizes.”  Welcome back, Legacy Statue, and here’s hoping you also become a symbol for our special 125th anniversary season.

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The N-Sider’s Five Favorite Bo Pelini Quotes

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Pelini on Captains, Defense and More

Abdullah on Captains’ Communication

Armstrong on Mental, Physical Maturity

Mitchell on the Difference a Year Makes

Cotton on a Special Father-Son Moment

By Randy York

Monday was Bo Pelini’s first official game-related press conference of the season and The N-Sider has a new format – Five Favorite Bo Quotes for those who live in the fast lane and don’t have time to be a Husker sponge.  Let’s start from No. 5 and work our way up:

5) On playing a potential neutral site game in the future: “If the schedule sets up right, we’re not opposed to it. We’ve actually had that conversation with Shawn (Eichorst). We’re not going to shy away from playing anyone, but it has to fit right with the schedule.” Personal opinion: I like the idea of finding the right foe and the right place where Husker fans can show the world why there’s no place like Nebraska.  Anyone remember a full Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City when Nebraska and Oklahoma State played?  Fun.  Powerful.

4) On I-back Ameer Abdullah’s improvements: “He worked his tail off like he always does in the off-season. He’s stronger and maybe a little bigger. He’s probably more explosive than he was.”  Personal opinion: Ameer more explosive? Talk about getting shot out of a cannon. One can only imagine the bonus points for the Heisman.

3) On any plan for backup quarterbacks Ryker Fyfe or Johnny Stanton to see the field when a game is on the line: “We’re going to play to win the football game. We’re going to do what we need to do.”  Personal opinion: Nebraska has triple-deck depth at quarterback.  Tommy Armstrong Jr.’s back-ups are solid athletes and promising prospects.  Remember Bruce Mathison, a quarterback from Superior, Wisconsin?  He lettered at Nebraska in 1981 and ’82 and was a career third-team QB who ended up playing seven years in the NFL.  Fyfe and Stanton have the same kind of character, and they will be just as persevering as Mathison, who never let a depth chart minimize the faith he had in himself or his teammates.

2) On specialist Sam Foltz accelerating his skills and developing into a prominent punter: “Well, I know one thing. I’m not coaching him because I don’t know much about punting.”   Personal opinion: So much for the “Bo Knows” crowd which gives Pelini folklore status in knowledge and toughness.  Of course his self-deprecating comment drew a laugh from the media, and I couldn’t help connecting the comment to his cat, which has softened Bo into saying things we thought we’d never hear.

1) On Bo’s Bob Devaney/Tom Osborne-like red coat attire:  “You know, it’s the 125th year (of Nebraska football) and I wanted to pay my respects to Coach Devaney and Coach Osborne.”  Personal opinion:  Bo quipped that he was trying things on for game day and didn’t have time to change. He admitted he likes the look.  Who knows what his next move might be?  With a more outlandish Bo, anything’s possible.

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Even a Scrimmage = High Intensity Volleyball

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Volleyball Tickets, Time, Top Ten Poll

By Randy York

You’re a devout volleyball fan who watches Nebraska on television or follows the Huskers on radio.  You’ve always wanted to experience the action live, but 200 consecutive home sellouts block your entrance.  What do you do?  Well, why not be among the first to see the fully renovated Devaney Center Saturday night in Nebraska volleyball’s annual Red-White scrimmage?  Don’t discard the idea.  Unite Tonight is the team’s theme and if you’ve been tracking John Cook’s comments, even a Saturday Night Live scrimmage will push this team to the highest level of intensity.

See the speed train at the top of this blog with Huskers waiting to board?  That’s how they traveled in China, and they haven’t taken their feet off the accelerator since their return.  “We’ve upped the intensity and the pace of it all because of our experience in China,” said Cook, beginning his 15th year as Nebraska’s head coach.  “They’ve seen how hard the Chinese and Japanese train, and our expectations for how we train have been raised a lot.”

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Senior Pollmiller NU’s Speed Conductor

Setter Mary Pollmiller is the only senior on Nebraska’s roster, and she’s the most persuasive conductor on the Huskers speed train.  “The attitude and mindset of our team is really good,” Cook said.  “Even in the dog days of summer, they really get after it in two-a-days.  They’ve been upping the ante every day.  They look at it and say ‘Let’s bring it on and get it done.’  That’s why they call themselves The Redshirts.”  For the Huskers, Unite Tonight applies to a preseason scrimmage every bit as much as it relates to Florida State and Stanford next weekend or to Penn State, Wisconsin and Texas down the line. 

Yes, John Cook is a master motivator who wants competitive fire and chemistry in the same fireworks package.  He’s told his players that the Red-White Scrimmage should feel like a regional final for them.  Unite Tonight not only will determine who gets on the court next weekend, but what system will prevail when the real fireworks begins.

The Huskers may be competing against their own teammates, but one thing is guaranteed. Their effort will be fast and the action will be formidable, so join more than 5,000 Big Red fans who can’t wait to see a team launch the 2014 season after bonding in sand volleyball, becoming a family in Asia, hitting the weight room, and making every day in the off-season count for measurable improvement.

Team Applies Lessons Learned in China

A couple days ago, after practice was over, the entire team did a drill that took an hour to complete.  “I feel like this group really loves challenges and I feel I can put them in situations to be challenged,” Cook said.  “They can handle the big workload.  They’re always flexible.  Their retention from China has been great.  We debrief every day about one of the five things we learned there.  They want to apply the lessons learned.  They get it and they embrace it.”

Cook admits a couple have “hit the wall big time”, but teammates pick ‘em up and find a seat back on the fast train.  “Our older kids get it; they understand it, and I think they really enjoy it,” he said.  “We tell them that the only easy day was yesterday, so they know it’s going to get tougher.”

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Kelsey Robinson Will Be in the House

Pollmiller, Kadie Rolfzen and Cecilia Hall help Cook gauge when to back off, agree on a place to eat dinner and find the right movie, so everyone can hit the reset button.  This is a team that thinks every competitive night is the night that sets the tone for the rest of the season.  That makes Saturday night a good time to get a legitimate preview of the nation’s seventh-ranked volleyball team, even if it is “just a scrimmage”. 

Kelsey Robinson, the 2013 Big Ten Conference Player of the Year and Pollmiller’s former teammate at both Tennessee and Nebraska, will not be in uniform.  But she will be in the house, watching every player on the floor seek her level of intensity.  It’s a meaningful benchmark, and just to make sure this team understands Nebraska’s high standards, nearly two dozen volleyball alumni will be woven into the welcome mat. The Devaney Center’s new, dazzling street-level south entrance is lined with their trophies, jerseys and sweat equity.  Unite Tonight is on the launch pad with a team ready to carve its own niche in Husker history.

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Tingelhoff: A Solid Senior Candidate for HOF

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Senior Committee Names Tingelhoff HOF Candidate

By Randy York

Anyone who’s been involved with sports anywhere knows that there is no such thing as a sure thing, but I have one possible exception. When I learned this afternoon that former Husker center Mick Tingelhoff is the single “senior” candidate to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame the day before the next Super Bowl, I can’t help going out on a limb. Tingelhoff is as good as gold. He’s solid as a rock and fits any other idiomatic expression you might have in mind. In fact, I am so certain that Tingelhoff will become Nebraska’s fourth player enshrined in the NFL’s hallowed hall, I will give up a month of Training Table lunches for Lent next year if he isn’t.

The NFL has a great system to honor the best. It announces 15 modern-day players as Hall-of-Fame finalists every year.   The day before each Super Bowl, the five highest vote-getters from 48 voters are elected to be inducted. The “senior status” Tingelhoff has earned is much simpler and infinitely more predictable. His entry into the Hall of Fame requires 80 percent approval from the same 48 voters. The best news is Tingelhoff is the only senior candidate up for vote this year, making him almost as automatic as a door lock.

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Mick Tingelhoff and Jim Marshall were longtime Minnesota Viking teammates.

What Are the Chances of Two Husker Inductees?

The interesting twist to Wednesday’s announcement is Husker fans having a rare opportunity to hit the daily double with – 1) Tingelhoff a likely shoo-in; and 2) legendary College Football Hall-of-Fame offensive guard Will Shields can somehow move on up in into the top five after being one of the 15 modern-day finalists three times. What a day it would be if two of Nebraska’s greatest-ever offensive linemen could join former Huskers Guy Chamberlin, Roy “Link” Lyman and Bob Brown in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, at the same time.

So circle Jan. 31, 2015 on your calendars – the day voting in Arizona will be conducted to finalize the five honorees from the yet-to-be-named 15 candidates. The HOF Committee also will select two “contributor finalists” to complete the 2015 Hall-of-Fame Class prior to Super Bowl XLIX. We are finally deep enough into this blog for me to acknowledge why I am so certain that Tingelhoff is on the front step waiting for the Committee to open the door and let him in.

First, read this detailed document on the Hall-of-Fame’s official website, so you can understand how the selection process for a senior nominee differs from the “normal” selection process.

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Peter King Presents a Powerful, Prevailing Point

Secondly, I invite any possible doubters to read this quote from Peter King, perhaps pro football’s most respected writer, who says: “Think of Tingelhoff’s greatest accomplishment: For the last 358 games of his 17-year career – 99 preseason games, 240 regular-season games, 19 postseason games – Tingelhoff started. He failed to start only once – the first exhibition game of his career for the Vikings in 1962. Amazing. He dressed for 359 games in 17 years, and started the last 358. “He never missed a practice either,’’ his onetime quarterback, Fran Tarkenton, said. He made first-team All-Pro seven times; no NFL center was voted first-team All- Pro more times. Back when the Pro Bowl meant something, a back playing behind Tingelhoff made the Pro Bowl 13 times.”

And here’s the real kicker. Chris Tomasson, who writes for the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, Minn., said: “Missing in Peter King’s well-argued case is the fact that none of those backs that made the Pro Bowl behind Tingelhoff’s blocking were considered Hall of Fame-caliber players.”

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Gordon Closes in on Major League Milestone

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Photos Courtesy of Kansas City Royals

Baseball-Reference.com: 112 MLB Players Born in Nebraska

By Randy York

If humor is the secret to surprise, then count me as shocked with some measure of awe thrown in.  When I received an email from Owen Thorsen, a retired Omaha policeman, via Sean Callahan, I couldn’t help but laugh after the semi-retiree tried to tell me that Alex Gordon is four home runs away from a major league milestone.

What milestone?

To set the record for most home runs by a Nebraska native in Major League Baseball history.

Yeh, right, I thought, before asking who holds the record Gordon was chasing.

“Wade Boggs,” I was told, and that’s where humor trumped surprise.

Still, I bit, asking Callahan to let me in on the hoax.

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This Fan Wants a Home Run Ball in a Trophy Case

A few minutes later, Thorsen’s view of impending history became a request to Dave Witty and Aaron Babcock, two Lincoln residents who are former Kansas City Royals employees. Thorsen’s goal was simply to find a tie to alert the Royals about something that would be meaningful to Kansas City’s growing list of Nebraska baseball fans.

Why?  “So Nebraska can get the home run ball to put in a trophy case or something,” Thorsen said, explaining that Gordon was “closing in on a home run record that is very important to Husker fans.”  I was semi-convinced until I noticed that Thorsen’s email is one of the most interesting ones I’ve ever seen … boknowsdef@cox.net, an address he secured when Frank Solich hired Bo Pelini as his defensive coordinator way back when, years before Bo had the most popular cat in the country.

I had to ask Callahan just exactly who Thorsen was, and the online writer/radio insider/TV analyst told me he had no earthly idea.  He was just a friendly guy whose only moniker was that Bo knows defense.

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Omaha Fan was as Incredulous as the Rest of Us

Somehow, I couldn’t resist.  I called Thorsen and learned that he discovered this impending milestone on his own. 

I cut to the quick.  “Wade Boggs was born in Nebraska?” I asked.

“I didn’t think so either, but he was,” Thorsen responded.  “I was just as skeptical as you are.  Maybe he was still in diapers when he left Nebraska but he was born in Omaha.”

Thorsen was right, directing me to BaseballReference.com to discover that fact for myself.  Since I’m not one of those baseball junkies like several friends of mine, I went online to verify facts, and the process helped me understand why so many get so immersed in baseball history.  It’s fascinating.

Here’s the deal.  Boggs has hit 118 home runs, the most ever by a major league player born in Nebraska.  Gordon, who was born and still lives in Lincoln, ranks second with 115.  Jackie Brandt is third with 112.

Not bad for a state that claims MLB Hall-of-Famers Richie Ashburn, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Sam Crawford, Bob Gibson and yes, Wade Boggs, who was born in Omaha, grew up in Tampa, Florida, and played 18 years in the bigs, primarily with the Boston Red Sox.  Boggs also played for the New York Yankees on a World Series Championship team and for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, with whom he recorded his 3,000th hit.  Did we mention that Boggs had 12 straight All-Star appearances, 10 more than Alex Gordon’s two?

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Maybe a Historically Charged Fan Will Be Benevolent

Who knows?  If and when Gordon ties and passes Boggs for hitting the most home runs by a Nebraska native in MLB history, maybe a friendly, historically charged fan will be benevolent.

“I would like to see some effort made by the Royals to retrieve Alex’s 119th home run ball,” Thorsen said.  “Hopefully, it’ll take place in KC and land in the bull pen or some other place where it can be retrieved.  The ball ought to go into a trophy case in Lincoln.  It would also be great to get the bat, but that would be up to Alex.”

Whatever happens and whenever it happens, Owen Thorsen deserves special thanks from Royals’ fans everywhere for his assistance in this historic quest.  Having won 22 of their last 27 games, may the force be with Alex Gordon and the Kansas City Royals as they contend for their first playoff berth since beating the St. Louis Cardinals for the 1985 World Series Championship.  I know this: Alex Gordon would be the last to care about the milestone ahead.  He was just one-year-old the last time the Royals made the playoffs, and the only home runs that interest him are the ones that get the Royals back where they feel they belong.  

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Nebraska Hall-of-Famer Nagle Dies at Age 90

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No. 20 Fran Nagle played for Montreal in the CFL before Johnny Rodgers did.

Nagle Guided Huskers to 6-2-1 Record in 1950

Obituary for Francis Joseph Nagle

By Randy York

Fran Nagle, who had never played football until after he was a prisoner of war in World War II, died last Friday in Madison, Wis.  His funeral and burial will be this Friday in Wisconsin’s Capital City.  Nagle was 90, and if you’re a Husker football fan trying to connect the dots, understand this – he was best known as the quarterback who kept handing the ball off to legendary Husker All-America halfback Bobby Reynolds in 1949 and ’50.

Ironically, on the same day Nagle died, the Lincoln Journal Star used a quote from his account of Reynolds’ 33-yard touchdown run on a fourth-and-1 play against Missouri in 1950.  “The whole thing took about five minutes,” Nagle recalled.  “That was one for the books. There was never anything like it again.”

After some quick research on Nagle, there will never be another quarterback like he was, and let the record show that he was inducted into the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame in 1992.  That means he did more than just hand the ball off to Reynolds so he could build a resume of dazzling touchdowns.  Nagle was a solid athlete, too.  He was, in fact, a decent passer and the All-Big Seven Conference quarterback in 1950.  Nagle also has to be one of the few collegians who played in three postseason all-star games – the Senior Bowl, the College All-Star Game and the East-West Shrine Bowl.

Four-Year Starter with No Previous Experience

All of those accomplishments are impressive, but consider this: Nagle attended the University of Massachusetts-Fort Devans, and even though he’d never played football, he wound up the starting quarterback in 1947 and ’48.  Then he followed his coach to Lincoln and started two years for the Huskers.  Drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, Nagle opted to play one season of pro football for the Montreal Alouettes before injuries and a desire to be closer to his family ended his athletic career.

A devout Christian, Nagle led an active, faithful and humble life, according to his obituaries published in the Lincoln and Madison newspapers. The father of 11 children, he made Madison his longtime home, teaching physiology for many years at the University of Wisconsin before co-founding and directeding the Bio-Dynamics Lab on UW’s campus, where he encouraged cardiac patients to enhance their recovery with exercise.  Throughout the years, he also mentored graduate students.

Perhaps his full life, which included two years coaching football at Doane College, was the ultimate benefit before football entered the picture.  After joining the Army Air Corps in WWII, Nagle’s plane was shot down during his first mission as a radio controller on a B24 Bomber.  He was a prisoner for the last three months of the war, and his camp was liberated by General George Patton himself.

After reading that, you have to think handing the ball off to Bobby Reynolds was a smart and pretty safe strategy and one that I’m sure he would do all over again.

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Huskers Help Honor the Past, Inspire Future

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Shane Swanson, Mark Blazek, Anthony Steels. Wymore Arbor State Photos

Finally, a Hometown Hero for Husker Legend

Grassroots Efforts Elevate Guy Chamberlin

Blue Springs’ Own Guy Chamberlin Story

Video: Anthony Steels

Video: Shane Swanson

Video: Mark Blazek

By Randy York

Blue Springs, Neb. – Anthony Steels, Shane Swanson and Mark Blazek Saturday received a history lesson that has been three decades in waiting.  Nebraska Guy Chamberlin Trophy winners in 1981, 1984 and 1988 helped commemorate a hometown monument here for Chamberlin, one of only two players in Nebraska history enshrined in both the College Football and Pro Football Halls of Fame.

The celebration comes 103 years after Chamberlin graduated from Blue Springs High School and is the result of a grassroots effort led by City Councilman “Radar” Reedy, Blue Springs native Jan Morris, and Kane Hookstra, a fourth-grade teacher.  Feeling strongly that it is never too late to correct a major oversight, Hookstra suggested that one of the greatest college football players in Nebraska history – and one of the greatest players and coaches in NFL history – deserves his own place on the hallowed ground of the school he once attended.  Hookstra pleased Nebraska Wesleyan at the same time he honored the University of Nebraska.  A Methodist, Chamberlin played his first two years of college football at Wesleyan, Hookstra’s alma mater.

Kane Hookstra came up with the idea to honor a true hometown hero.

A staunch believer in honoring the past to inspire the future, Hookstra was a catalyst at Saturday’s unveiling of a monument that includes a mobile phone application that will give anyone standing next to it a captivating version of the Guy Chamberlin Story.  Steels and Swanson went beyond that.  They spent an hour before the ceremony planting their feet on the same 880 premium acres of farmland where Chamberlin grew up and then came back to farm after his NFL career ended. 

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Guy Chamberlin was a grand uncle to Nick Savener (with wife Sherry).

Chamberlin Award Gets to Heart and Soul

“When you get an award and you’re only 22 years old, you don’t connect with Guy Chamberlin,” Swanson said.  “You don’t really know who he was and what he stood for.  Today, I understand and appreciate what the Guy Chamberlin Trophy means more than ever.”  Steels and Blazek made that observation a unanimous opinion, and The N-Sider uses this valuable space to educate all previous winners and future prospects, plus their teammates and all Big Red football fans.

In 1932, Chamberlin returned to Blue Springs to become a farmer, stockman and businessman.  A well-known authority on football, he also became a popular public speaker and radio broadcaster.  He died in Lincoln on April 4, 1967, the same year the Guy Chamberlin Trophy was born.  The names of Nebraska players who have won that trophy are all legendary in their own way because they represent Chamberlin’s contributions, his qualities and his dedication to enrich tradition.

Nebraska has honored 47 Guy Chamberlin Trophy winners and the list is a treasure chest of All-Americans and All-Spirit individuals who willed their way into achieving the honor.  What a roster of legends who have won the award in the past half century: Jeff Kinney, Rich Glover, Dave Rimington, Will Shields, Trev Alberts, Grant Wistrom, Mike Brown, Eric Crouch, Barrett Ruud, Ndamukong Suh, Alex Henery, Lavonte David. 

The Guy Chamberlin Award gets right to the heart and soul of a Husker who gives his level best and inspires his teammates to do the same, and the three who drove to Blue Springs Saturday are among my personal favorites in the 47 years that I have been a professional writer.  They are not household names, but each carved his own niche in Husker history.

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Tom Novak’s Son Sees Dad’s Similarities to Chamblerlin

Former Nebraska basketball player Terry Novak, above, is the son of the late legendary Tom “Train Wreck” Novak, and he spoke at Saturday’s Guy Chamberlin unveiling. “Train Wreck and Guy really did have a lot in common besides being great football players,” Novak said. 

“Both came from very special tight-knit communities.  My Dad came from South Omaha at a time when everyone was really close, and I’m sure Blue Springs was and still is the same way,” Novak said, acknowledging “Train Wreck” living in South Bend, Ind., the summer before his freshman year of college.  “He got homesick and decided to come back to Nebraska instead of stay in South Bend and play for Notre Dame,” Novak said.  “Reading about Guy, it looks like he felt the same way about Nebraska after his playing and coaching days were over.  The monument looks great.  This whole town should be proud!”

Only Player to Sing National Anthem in Memorial Stadium

Steels has the distinction of being one of Nebraska’s three international walk-ons.  He played his high school football at the U.S. Air Force Base in Zaragoza, Spain, where his Dad was assigned.  He became a 3-year letterman and 2-year starter.  As a junior in 1980, he was on the field 411 minutes, more than any other Husker on a team that finished 10-2.  The next year, Steels started on a team that lost to Clemson, 22-15, in a national championship Orange Bowl.  In his final home game that season, Tom Osborne asked Steels to sing the National Anthem.  Thirty-three years later, No. 33 is still the only Husker player ever to sing the National Anthem inside Memorial Stadium.

Swanson’s story is equally compelling. Growing up near Hershey, Nebraska, he rode a horse to attend a one-room schoolhouse with an outdoor toilet.  His Dad was part of the pro rodeo circuit for more than 40 years, and his Mom ran the family farm until 2009.  Shane competed in professional rodeo into his mid-40s and admits he still dabbles in it.  Saturday, he confirmed that Tom Osborne was the one who convinced him to give up steer wrestling to accept a football scholarship at Nebraska.  After being the backup to Irving Fryar, Swanson started on Nebraska’s 1984 team, and his 49-yard punt return touchdown helped the Huskers rally to beat Oklahoma State.  That 1984 team went on to beat LSU by three touchdowns in the Sugar Bowl.

Blazek was a walk-on who found a unique way to chase his collegiate dream.  He joined the Army National Guard and went to basic training during his redshirt year, helping him develop into a two-time CoSIDA Academic All-American in 1987 and ’88. In his final season, he was named the Toyota Leader of the Year for his combined academic and athletic efforts.  With a 3.957 overall GPA, he went on to graduate from UNL’s College of Law before switching careers to become president of a bank in his hometown of Valparaiso, Neb.  A safety, he is best remembered for his interception and bizarre 75-yard touchdown return of a Troy Aikman pass at UCLA. Unfortunately, that was one of two losses for the 11-2 Big Eight Champion Huskers that season.  The other was to Miami in the Orange Bowl.  Blazek also started on Nebraska’s 1987 team that finished 10-2 and lost, 31-28, to Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl.  In his two seasons as a starter, he had 85 tackles and eight interceptions.    

Steels, Swanson and Blazek each won a Guy Chamberlin Trophy, an award that is so important, presentations are now made annually at the Outland Trophy Banquet in Omaha.

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Blue Springs native Jan Morris helped make the Chamberlin monument a reality.

All-Time Guy Chamberlin Winners

1967 - Marv Mueller, S
1968 - Ernie Sigler, QB
1969 - Dana Stephenson, DB
1970 - Guy Ingles, SE
1971 - Jeff Kinney, HB
1972 - Rich Glover, MB
1973 - Maury Damkroger, FB
1974 - Ritch Bahe, SE
1975 - Bob Martin, DE
1976 - Clete Pillen, DB
1977 - Ed Burns, QB
1978 -  Rick Berns, IB
1979 - Tim Smith, SE
1980 - Jarvis Redwine, IB
1981 - Anthony Steels, WB
1982 - Dave Rimington, C
1983 - Dean Steinkuhler, OG
1984 - Shane Swanson, WB
1985 - Jim Skow, DT
1986 - Chris Spachman, DT
1987 - Jeff Jamrog, DE
1988 - Mark Blazek, FS
1989 - Gerry Gdowski, QB
1990 - Pat Tyrance, LB
1991 - Pat Engelbert, DT
1992 - Will Shields, OG
1993 - Trev Alberts, OLB
1994 - Terry Connealy, DT
1995 - Aaron Graham, C
1996 - Jared Tomich, RE
1997 - Grant Wistrom, RE
1998 - Joel Makovicka, FB
1999 - Mike Brown, ROV
2000 - Dan Alexander, IB
2001 - Eric Crouch, QB
          Tracey Wistrom, TE
2002 - DeJuan Groce, CB
2003 - Demorrio Williams, LB
2004 - Barrett Ruud, LB
2005 - Sam Koch, P
2006 - Zac Taylor, QB
2007 - Bo Ruud, LB
2008 - Nate Swift, WR
2009 - Ndamukong Suh, DT
2010 - Alex Henery, PK/P
2011 - Lavonte David, LB
2012 - Rex Burkhead, IB
2013 - Jeremiah Sirles, OL

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Kids Help Donovan Vestal Believe in Himself

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Donovan Vestal receives Nebraska Life Skills Hero Award from Tom Osborne.

By Randy York

Twelve Nebraska student-athletes will graduate Saturday morning at Pinnacle Bank Arena, including seven football players, three of whom are juggling the important event with fall camp workouts – Zaire Anderson, a Child, Youth and Family Studies major from Philadelphia; Jake Cotton, a History major from Lincoln; and Kevin Williams, a Management major from Holland, Ohio.

Four Husker football players who will graduate have completed their football careers at Nebraska – Harvey Jackson, a Construction Management major from Fresno, Texas; Tobi Okuiyemi, a Psychology major from Maple Grove, Minn.; Andrew Rodriguez, an Ethnic Studies major from Aurora, Neb.; and Donovan Vestal, an Ethnic Studies major from Arlington, Texas.  Vestal will be the keynote speaker at Saturday’s  Nebraska Student-Athlete Graduation Reception inside Memorial Stadium.

“I want to talk about the differences in everybody’s experiences at Nebraska,” Vestal told me Friday afternoon.  “We all didn’t all have the same experience, and I’m eager to talk about mine, what I did to get through college, and how it can relate to others who went through some of the same disappointments I did.”

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Barney Cotton and Mitch Krenk help present Donovan Vestal his first varsity N.

Life Skills Helped Sharpen Vestal’s Vision

From a purely football standpoint, Vestal fell short of his own expectations athletically.  “There are standards and when you don’t meet some, that doesn’t mean you can’t meet other standards, which can be even more important for the rest of your life,” he said.

Even when he wasn’t getting much playing time on the field, Vestal stayed positive and stayed focus on earning his degree.  “I will be going back home to Texas and will be a probation officer for juveniles,” he said.  “Life Skills kind of made me who I am as an adult and inspired me to go where I wanted to go with the rest of my life.  Life Skills put me in one-on-one situations at schools that really needed a role model.  Since I didn’t think things were going all that well for me personally at the time, I wondered how I could help those kids.  When I looked into their eyes, I figured something out.”

Vestal finally realized his calling, what he wants to do for the rest of his life.  “It’s kind of ironic,” he said.  “Life Skills helped me change when I didn’t really believe in myself,” he said.  “It pushed me hard to believe in myself, so I could help those kids believe in themselves.”

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At a Nebraska Hero’s Breakfast, Donovan describes how a kid inspired him.

Zimmer: Donovan Engaging, Charismatic

Keith Zimmer, Nebraska’s longtime Associate Athletic Director for Life Skills, noticed how Vestal handled his blessings.  “Donovan found his identity helping others,” Zimmer said.  “He’s a very engaging guy, and he has a charismatic personality.  Kids who were around him love the guy.  He’s so positive.  Even when football wasn’t going like he planned, he never sulked.  He just made sure he found something that could motivate him for the rest of his life.  I can see Donovan helping kids take on the positive nature he has.”

Vestal’s family envisions the same thing, reserving 23 places at Saturday’s reception. “My mom and dad will be there from Texas,” he said.  “I have cousins coming in from Georgia, more family and friends from Texas and my fiance’s family from Waverly.  We’re excited.”

Kevin Williams’ family made 18 reservations, Jake Cotton’s family 15, Zaire Anderson 14 and Ariel Weech’s family 12.  Weech’s family will travel the greatest distance to get to Lincoln, coming from Nassau in the Bahamas.  She’s a member of Nebraska’s swimming and diving team.

Gymnasts Aycock, Hedval Set to Graduate

Two members of the men’s gymnastics will graduate Saturday – Wyatt Aycock, a Biological Sciences major from Orlando, Fla., and Zach Hedval, a Political Science major from Santee, Calif. 

Husker basketball player Mike Peltz, a Business Administration major from Alliance, Neb., will graduate Saturday.  So will Maggie Maher, a track-and-field student-athlete from Kearney, Neb., majoring in Special Education-Mild/Moderate 7-12.

Dennis Leblanc, Nebraska’s longtime senior associate athletic director for Life Skills, will open and close Saturday’s Student-Athlete Graduation Reception.  Zimmer will talk about career commitments, and Katie Jewell, associate director of academic programs, will formally recognize all 12 Husker graduates.  

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