For Nebraska fans wanting autographs, Neil Smith is a popular target.
By Randy York
Wednesday became a snow day for Lincoln and other schools across southeast and south-central Nebraska, and as I drove from my neighborhood to catch Highway 2 on my way to work, I couldn’t help but smile while remembering what happened to one of Nebraska’s most legendary football recruits on his first-ever snow day … an unforgettable experience for an eventual team captain, first-team All-American, first-round NFL draft choice, six-time Pro Bowler and two-time Super Bowl winner – something he will never forget.
I give one of my favorite legends a call and was surprised to find him in the passenger seat of a New Orleans-bound car driven by his 30-year-old son, Josh. They were headed to the Super Bowl and the hometown of Nebraska’s most famous recruit from Louisiana. “We decided to drive,” Neil Smith said, “so we could spend some time together just talking about New Orleans, the restaurants and getting to see a game where one brother will win and the other one won’t.”
I tell Smith I called because today’s weather reminded me of his first snow day in Lincoln, and if he still remembered it. Smith needed a few seconds to answer because he had to quit laughing first. “You know I’ll never forget that day for the rest of my life,” he said.
He Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow
It was a January morning nearly three decades ago when Smith, a college freshman, woke up, looked out his dorm room window and was absolutely astonished. “I opened the curtains and saw something I’d never seen before in my life…snow,” he recalled. “I looked beyond the Harper-Schramm-Smith dorms. Everything was just blanketed in a deep, white snow. The parking lots, the train tracks…everything.”
It was a blizzard, Smith thought to himself. That means no classes, no meetings. “I was excited just thinking about going back to sleep, so I did,” he said. A few hours later, there was a rather loud knock on his dorm door. Smith opened it and was shocked to see Tom Osborne standing there, and he was not smiling. “Neil, if you’re not going to class and if you’re not going to meetings, you’re at the wrong university,” Smith remembers Osborne telling him to “make sure you make it to my office…today!”
One can only imagine how fast Smith’s heart was beating. Even though he and close friend Lawrence Pete led the Nebraska freshman team in tackles that season, Smith didn’t feel like a future superstar.
First One-on-One Meeting with Osborne
“It was my first one-on-one meeting with Coach Osborne,” Smith said. “He was very stern and yet very clear about what he expected from me. He told me everything he wanted me to do, so I could become a better person, a better student and a better football player - in that exact order.” Smith, of course, adjusted his sails that day and still considers the experience a positive one, mostly because Osborne was there to help him understand what he’d done wrong and to explain what he needed to do so it didn’t happen again.
“I never had a father around when I was growing up,” Smith said. “Coach Osborne was the first real father figure I ever had. He described what accountability is and why it mattered. He helped me learn more about life than football, and he showed me how those lessons were connected. It helped me understand that Nebraska had enough trust to give me a scholarship, and now it was up to me to show that I deserved that trust.”
Smith took a circuitous route to a legendary career. Nebraska was looking at the quarterback on Smith’s high school team in New Orleans when Jack Pierce, a Nebraska assistant coach at the time, kept seeing Smith show up on film as a tight end, a linebacker, even a defensive tackle – the position he played in college before playing defensive end in the NFL.
Smith Preferred Basketball over Football
“To be honest, I was more interested in playing basketball at a smaller school,” Smith recalled. “At that time, I wasn’t really all that serious about football.” Pierce, who works for the Huskers Athletic Fund, laughed Wednesday when he hears about Smith’s fond recollection of his first snow day. Since this is the stretch drive for Nebraska football recruiting, I ask Pierce if he remembers any other snow stories connected to recruiting southern players.
“I remember one involving extreme cold, and it happened when we used to fly in recruits on private planes,” Pierce recalled. “We started with two recruits in Louisiana before flying to Houston to pick up two more. On the plane, every recruit had a story about a southern coach who told them they might freeze to death once they got to Lincoln.”
Once he heard the negative expectations, Pierce asked the pilot to tell him what the temperature would be in Lincoln when they landed and to check for any possible snow. “They told me no snow, some sun and a temperature of about zero,” Pierce said, “so I asked the pilots to taxi into a heated hanger, so we could step off our heated plane and pile into a heated van.”
An Opened Door Brings an Arctic Blast
Before the driver pulled out, Pierce asked him to drive directly to the back entrance of the Cornhusker Hotel. “When we landed, I told everyone ‘Look, the sun’s out, just like I expected,’” Piece said. “That night, it was below zero, so I asked if we could borrow some full-length coats so they could wear them on the way to the stadium. They all put those warm coats on, and everything was going just fine until the driver didn’t drop us off at the right place. He jumped out of the van and opened the door, and you should have heard those guys when that cold air hit ‘em right in the face for the first time. It was no big deal, though. Two of those guys ended up committing to us. No wait … it might have been three.”
I can’t help but ask Smith if Nebraska’s snow toughened him up and prepared him for his stellar college career and his 13-year run in the NFL. “Yes it did,” he said, acknowledging that he and his son left Wednesday for New Orleans when the snow was still falling in Kansas City. “I played in the snow for the Chiefs and the Broncos and learned a big lesson that first Snow Day,” Smith said. “I can still see Coach Osborne standing there, and I can still remember how loud that knock was. It’s inside my head … forever.”
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