Anatomy of an Era: Aaron Penland, Part 2
Excerpted from Chapter 73, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 2 by Paul Koch
Anatomy of an Era: Aaron Penland, Part 2
Q: Any memorable practice experiences?
Aaron Penland: (chuckles) Yeah, I’ve got many of those, but I don’t know if I want to share ’em. (laughs) I used to get in a couple of fights here and there, and I remember one time getting into fights with the linemen, it was my freshman or sophomore year -I still considered that first year my redshirt freshman year- and we were running scout team and I remember I was running with a bunch of freshman, new guys, and I’d gotten in a fight with one of the linemen, and I was the only one willing to fight -and the freshmen were kind of standing around- and I think Matt wound up saying, “Hey, you guys have got to help him out,” you know?
I remember another time I’d gotten into a fight and Coach Osborne had me running stadium stairs, and then one time we were down in drills, and there were like three people who screwed up this specific drill and Coach Steele was, “You had to do everything perfect. Everything right.” And he was like, “The next guy that messes up the drill is going to be running the stadium stairs.” And lo and behold, I was the next guy and I end up messing it up. And if you talk to some of the other linebackers they’ll tell you this story -but he forgot about me up there.
And I’m running up and down these stadium stairs and each time I’m getting madder and madder each time, coming up and down. And I’ve got tears running down my eyes, I’m so mad. And so, he finally sees me up there and gives me the head nod to come on down and he says, “What are you doing running up there?” I said, ‘Because you hadn’t told me to come down yet.’
And I’m coming back to the huddle where we’re getting ready to break and go to a different station and stuff like that, and all the other linebackers see me just seething and they think I’m going to get Steele, to just kill him. So everybody grabs me about the same time Steele walks away from the huddle, and they swear up and down I would have killed Steele that day unless they hadn’t restrained me. I was trying to get ’em off me, and they think I’m going to go after him. (laughs)
Q: Phil Ellis told me that story. I was just waiting for you to confirm it, Aaron. (laughs) So the real story is that you had things in check and weren’t actually going to kill him?
AP: Yeah, they swear I was going to kill him. That’s how the story‘s told.
Q: Any special bonding experiences within the team?
AP: I remember going hunting with guys: Aaron Graham and Phil and Brook Berringer, quail hunting and pheasant hunting and stuff like that.
Q: Was that something you’d done before or was it new to you?
AP: Well, I hadn’t done any pheasant hunting prior to coming to Nebraska. But we’d done some at Fletcher’s farm when I got there, and then Matt had gotten an English Setter, so we had that dog. And once he had graduated he’d moved back home and I was in Nebraska all by myself, so he left his hunting dog with me, so we used to go hunting with Graham and Brook and Phil. One memorable thing was, my dog’s name was Chance, and they always would say it was “Chase.” I would always be hollering ‘Chance!’ and Brook’s dog was named Juke or something like that, and we’d always give each other a hard time about each other’s dog.
I’ve got a good story for you about Aaron Graham: he had this dog named Husker, and I can’t remember, but right before this bowl game we’d just gotten these new sweat suits. And Graham had gotten this hamburger meat from the training table, where they got rid of some old meat or something like that, and he brought these patties home, and somehow the dog got in there and ate all the patties (laughs) and then just like barfed them all over the place.
And then the dog just ruined the sweat suit or ripped it up or something to that effect, and he just went off on this dog. I remember him telling the story, it was hilarious, this dog barfing all over the room and eating his sweat suit up. If you talk to him ask him about that.
Q: So much for the High-Pro Glow, huh? (laughs) That’s good stuff, Aaron. So what do you think led to the domination and the excellence during your years there? Any intangibles?
AP: Well, when we lost to Florida State, that had some implications for us working hard all year. Getting to that point and then we lose down there to Florida State and missed that field goal? We’d really beat that team on the field. Some of that is motivation, I guess. We were determined to come back and finish unfinished business; the thing was the Unfinished Business. We said we were going to work our hardest over the winter conditioning and summer conditioning to come back and never let that happen again, you know? It was having that drive, the tenacity to be the best, as far as intangibles go.
Q: What was the motivating factor to winning the national championship for the whole sum of the team? Is it the ring? Is it notoriety? Is it to prove something to yourself? Could you condense it to one or two things?
AP: I think it’s all that stuff. I don’t think you can pinpoint just one or two things; we all came from different backgrounds and we all came there to do our best. For me, it was just trying to get on the field and make an impact. I was just going to go as hard as I could most times.
A lot of times I’d get accused of going too hard at some point, especially on scout team and stuff like that. I’d be accused of being a ‘Practice Squad All-American’, but I was just trying to do my best. Colossians 3:23 says that, “Whatever you do, do it heartily to the Lord.” So I think that whether you’re on the scout team or on the first team or second team, that’s the verse that you can use in all of your life, Colossians 3:23.
Q: I’m sure a lot of people, from a theological standpoint, would find it paradoxical or maybe oxymoronic that you were trying to live out your Christianity through the manner of football, and that knocking the snot out of someone is a way of glorifying the Lord. But that’s an example of living out your faith in a sinful and fallen world, huh?
Q: What about other coaches?
AP: They all stand out to me. I remember Coach Milt Tenopir, Coach Dan Young. As a freshman on scout team you spend time going against those lineman, and I think everybody was on their game as far as teaching guys and knowing what to do. I don’t think anyone was lacking in ability, as far as the depth of the position or ‘coaching up’ their guys to be better players.
Q: Anything about Coach Osborne stands out to you? Memorable interactions with him?
AP: Other than telling me, “No more fisticuffs at practice.” (laughs) You probably heard about his pregame speech and stuff like that, as far as letting everybody know how we needed to approach the game and the things we needed to get done. He was always a pretty cool-headed guy.
Q: If one were to create an outline of a pregame speech by Coach Osborne, how would you describe it?
AP: I’d say it was pretty standard. Each game was unique, but he just kind of explained the things we’d needed to accomplish and what he expected that we could do. I wish I could remember the specifics, but it’s hard to remember those things from those times. Too much water under the bridge, I guess.
Q: So if you were to put your finger on a few things from those years, what would they be? Lawrence Phillips said the thing that stood out most to him was that there weren’t any cliques and that just about everyone got along pretty well. Would you agree?
AP: Yeah, I would.
Q: And was it about winning the championship for the whole state? Winning it for Coach Osborne? Winning it to shut a lot of the national media up?
AP: Yeah, absolutely. I don’t think there were any real cliques as far as one group over another. I think we all bonded as a team, and I’m trying to remember if there was a set offensive bus and a defensive bus. If I remember right, I think we kind of all just mixed it up. I know some of these different schools down in the SEC have almost like a hierarchy and you have the walk-ons and the scholarship players as separate groups. As far as that goes, the coaching staff treated everybody as equals, I think.
Q: So down south they still have busing and segregation?! Just joking. (laughs)
AP: (laughs) Yeah, I’ve talked to a number of guys who’ve played at Florida teams and they treat them a little bit different as far as who they let interact, I guess.
Q: And since you live in Florida, do you ever happen to run into any of the guys from those Florida teams who we played in those years?
AP: No. I did have an old high school teammate from those years who played for Florida in that game we beat them, but I haven’t run into him at all. I don’t run into anybody that I can think of, but that’s the good thing about my experience at Nebraska, we pretty much dominated Florida. Any time I get lip from a Gator fan I can say that when I was at Nebraska, ‘We thumped you all!’ (laughs)
Funny thing, Matt flew back here just the other day. He was down in Orlando for the Coaches Convention and we were walking into a Wal-Mart and some crazy guy hollers out, “Go Gators!,” because Matt had this Nebraska shirt on. And I hollered out, “Sixty-two to twenty-four!” (laughs)
Q: Any retort from him?
AP: No. No retort at all. I don’t know what he was thinking.
Q: And is there anyone behind the scenes who meant something special to you during your time there?
AP: I’d have to say the trainers: Jerry Weber and Doak, for sure. Those two guys are guys who contributed to the mix. They were just good guys down to the heart, I guess. They looked out for the guys and took care of them as far as getting injuries healed up and stuff like that. I had some knee issues my freshman year and they took care of me to where I was feeling good. Anytime you’ve got guys who are looking out for the players, you develop some bonds.
And Al Papik, too. He was a guy for my cause, who did a really good job of getting my year of eligibility back, because he spent a lot of time appealing to the NCAA. So he could be a guy who meant something special to me, because he got my year back. And it was a really unique ruling, because when he got it back he said, “They usually don’t do this.” They normally didn’t do that, so I was very happy.
Q: You wouldn’t have been able to holler out that ‘sixty-two to twenty-four’ with as much gusto, eh?
AP: No, without him getting me back that year I never would have been on that team.
Q: So from your time playing there up to present day, are there any special lessons you’ve taken with you?
AP: I’d say it comes back to being persistent. And I thought you might ask me a question like that, so I wanted to share a quote from Calvin Coolidge. He had a great quote about being persistent: “Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.” There’s a little nugget for you.
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Q: How long have you known that quote?
AP: That’s something my dad had given me and my brothers. “The cream always rises to the top,” is what he would say, too. If you press on and do what’s right and work hard, God’s gonna bless you and you’ll succeed.
“…we all came there to do our best. For me, it was just trying to get on the field and make an impact.” We’ve heard it put different ways by different people, but Aaron cemented two points for me here:
Number one was each players’ undying, unquenchable thirst to get out on that field and make something, anything happen, to play a part in the game as it unfolded. There was a burning desire to be one of the select eleven, and if that meant playing a part in what some would consider a demeaning special teams spot, well, so be it. The point was not to neglect what talent you had, making the best of every shred of athleticism. But that, too, had its limits, because when it all boiled down to making it happen, it was for the team’s sake and not for personal glory. Oh, sure, they all wanted to have something to write home to mom about or even on rare occasion make a splash with an ESPN SportsCenter highlight, but it was always about team first, position group second, and individuals third. That’s hard to find.
Number two was that desire to right wrongs, the belief that they had within them the inherent power to erase any false perceptions brought on by the acute sting of that ’94 Orange Bowl loss. Remember in the opening chapters where I spoke of belief and its power? That wasn’t some hokey blathering, but a real, live, tangible force that drove them to drive themselves, to drive each other. Many times this drive brought them to points unknown, especially throughout their training regimens. It’s a scary thing to come up against a physical wall and then find the will to push oneself over it, for not only was bodily punishment and performance being elevated to new levels, but the mental ones were catapulted even higher so. Dogged perseverance in the weightroom showed many of them that they had another gear over and above that of their wildest dreams. And getting over those barriers -more mental than anything- opened up a whole new world of potential. I would like to think the realization of this fact, the dawning of new possibilities, placed them in an orbit far and above that of their competition during 1994’s arduous offseason, propelling them to not only one but two undefeated seasons and national championships. Have you ever purposefully worked your body so hard that it absolutely refused to normally function for hours afterward? Your legs unable to balance themselves in a normal walking gait? Your head dizzy with lack of oxygen because all the blood in your cardiovascular system was engorging your involuntary musculature, all ramped up with lactic acid? Have you ever tried so hard to simply hold a fork or a toothbrush, lather your hair with shampoo while showering, and found it a physical impossibility at the moment? Has it ever troubled you so badly that it required your full concentration to dial a telephone number, your arms heavy as telephone poles? Well, then you might have a taste of where these guys pushed their limits, for “Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
Notable quote #2:
Aaron Penland on being a wedgebuster: “…it’s gonna turn the momentum of the game. When you come right out of the hat rack and hit them in the mouth, that’s going to put them on their heels.”
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Author assumes no responsibility for interviewee errors or misstatements of fact.