Anatomy of an Era: Ben Rutz, Part 2
Excerpted from Chapter 59, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 2 by Paul Koch
Anatomy of an Era: Ben Rutz, Part 2
Q: So then you become a Kansas Jayhawk after your JUCO year. Your first day on campus there, was there anything that stood out to you? Any difference between the Kansas program and Nebraska?
BR: You know, I chose Kansas for a number of reasons. One of them was because the coach was Glenn Mason. Great coach. And at that time they had some talent there, too, pretty salty. The one thing that helped me feel more comfortable when I got there, too, was Dave Gillespie, he was on the staff there. He had, for whatever reason, his job got let go and I ended up at NEO and Dave goes to KU, so it was in that recruiting from NEO to Kansas where I am again going someplace that I’m comfortable. And sure enough, when it came time for someone to show me around the campus I had Jim Steibel, too.
Q: He transferred down there? I forgot about that!
BR: Yeah, he was there, too. Absolutely. He ended up being a pretty darn good player, too.
Q: Any idea what made him want to leave Nebraska?
BR: I don’t know, that’s a pretty good question. I guess some people just don’t feel comfortable in certain situations. Of course, I had a pretty good reason. But I’m not sure what his reason was.
Ben Rutz of Kansas rolls out of the pocket during a 1996 game. (Getty Images photo)
Q: So I’ve got to ask you, evidently you became a starter at Kansas, right?
BR: I did, then that was another knee. Before my senior year in spring ball I was starting and everything looked good. And then I was starting in ’95 and, once again, toward the end of spring ball I was cutting and then blew my other knee. So then, of course, I end up rehabbing my knee all summer again and trying my darnedest and wasn’t really ready by the beginning of the year, and another guy started for a number of games. Then I ended up starting when I was healthy, and that’s kind of the history behind that.
Q: Did you start versus Nebraska that year?
BR: I didn’t start. I came in the first quarter and played the rest of the game.
Q: So I’ve got to know: what was it like going up against many of the same guys you’d gone up against years earlier in practice, old buddies and teammates? Any odd recollections there? Was it kind of surreal?
BR: It was interesting. Of course, you’ve got some guys in your recruiting class, and I know half the guys out there I’m playing against on the other side of the ball. And of course, we were playing at Nebraska.
Q: Any special tackles or chatter from some old teammates?
BR: Oh, some of my old, good buds that were playing on the other side of the ball from: Ryan Terwilliger was one of my old roommates. Old Twig and Phil Ellis were playing. A lot of my good buddies were not only on the defensive side of the ball: Vrzal and Jon Vedral and Aaron Taylor, Aaron Graham.
Q: Any recollections the week leading up to it? Did you feel like you had some special insights in preparing for the Blackshirts? Did you feel confident about things?
BR: Well, not really any special insights for those guys. At that time, defensively, there wasn’t a whole lot of weak spots. They had enough talent at the time that you just kind of went out and played as flawless as you can, because they were definitely going to take advantage of it if you screwed up. That was the deal with those teams there, they were so big and strong and fast.
Q: And that’s peculiar about you coming back from the knee injury and playing in ’95, because that was the same year Mike Minter came back from his knee injury from the previous year, too.
BR: That’s right. As a matter of fact, that was actually my junior year, and then ’96 was that game at Nebraska. Grant Wistrom was all over the place that game.
Q: And let me ask, I’m not asking that you to talk down about your Kansas teammates and all, but was there any difference in the mindset of Nebraska football at the time you were there compared to the Kansas teams? Could you differentiate?
BR: You know what, it’s hard. I can’t belittle Kansas at all, but I think one of the differences with Nebraska at that time, if you go through their recruiting year by year, it was pretty impressive. There was a lot of talent on the squad, the one thing that was different about those years at KU, and Glenn Mason was a heck of a leader and heck of a motivator. Being at KU we sure as heck never went in there at Nebraska scared at all. There was a lot of talent on the KU team.
But there was one difference -and I’m kind of off the beaten track here and I don’t know if they still do this- but when I got to Nebraska -and I didn’t figure this out, really, to this extent until later- but remember how at Nebraska they had all these bodies? They had full blown scout teams on both sides of the ball! Then you figured out they had the biggest freaking walk-on program you’d ever seen! I didn’t realize to that extent -joining another program- the difference. That was the awesome thing at Nebraska. You had guys growing up and living and breathing Nebraska Football, and that’s where you were gonna go. Some guys had a full-ride scholarship to three other Big 8 schools, but by God they were still gonna walk on. I didn’t figure that out until later, the difference between Nebraska and the other teams. It was pretty impressive.
Q: You looked around the practice field at KU and probably said to yourself, “Where is everybody? Shouldn’t there be more guys out here?” (laughs)
BR: Exactly. And it wasn’t just KU, because everybody else had the same amount of scholarships to give out. It was just the walk-ons. Nebraska just had such a big draw of talent there.
Q: Do you ever get back for any games at either school?
BR: I get back to at least one at KU every year.
Q: And where did you meet your wife, then?
BR: I met her when I first moved back to Oklahoma.
Q: I saw your kids on your Facebook page. Good looking kids, Ben.
BR: Yeah, you too.
Q: It’s funny. I remember you guys as squirrelly college kids and now when I reconnect you’ve got kids of your own and everything. Makes a guy feel old, man.
BR: Yeah, it’s beautiful.
Q: So do you have any other memorable occasions or personalities who stick out to you from the Nebraska days?
BR: There are a lot. Old Christian sticks out. He was hilarious. He was ornery as can be. And I tell you what, that was some good entertainment, that defensive line crew that they had the couple years I was there. They were full-blown entertainment and a funny crew: Christian and then Jason Pesterfield, Ramaekers. That was part of that eye-opener, getting there as a freshman, deciding what guys to walk around. That was an eye-opener.
Q: Any off-field experiences stick out to you?
BR: Probably some things you wouldn’t want to hear. (laughs) We knew how to have a good time, at least.
Q: So as for your whole football career, is there any one thing you would do over?
BR: You know what? No. Under all the circumstances with all the knee issues -which you’ve got to think are unavoidable- I never thought I would want it to be any different. Because I still think if you’re gonna blow your knee you’re gonna do it… but I blew both my knees running and cutting on that old turf they used to have. And neither one of them were due to actual contact. So of course, then you start going, ‘What if I would have gone somewhere where they played on real grass, like the WAC?’ But that’s hard to say.
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Q: In the time you spent in Lincoln, was there a real important person to you who made a huge difference in your experience?
BR: There’s a couple guys. Of course, Coach Osborne and all those coaches kept that place together and kept it going. But you had a few guys there who weren’t coaches who made a difference. You had the Bryan Baileys and the Doak Ostergards there that I think were key to the whole program. From my perspective, Nebraska has always been known for years as being innovative, and did some things different for strength and such. From that side of things, being there for that short period, I thought Bailey was pretty darn sharp, he had a lot of knowledge and pretty innovative ideas. And then, again, the coaching staff, that was key, obviously. But the other guys, off the radar, were helping you when you were away from home or with relationships or homesick or what have you. There were personalities around there that were able to help you and be there, like Doak and ol’ Jack Nickolite on the training staff and those guys. They kept it a family atmosphere, you know?
Q: So just summing up your experience being a Division 1 quarterback at both schools, what do you think you’ve taken away from your playing days that is a great benefit to you today?
BR: You know, I think it helps getting in the real world when you finally get away from football. With Division 1 sports, it does turn into a business of sorts, you go to class and then you go to the “office”, almost like going to the office and reviewing film and stuff. It’s more or less a job. So that side of things? It sure adds to getting out in the real world. You’ve kind of already been doing that stuff for the past four or five years of your life, being disciplined and stuff, going to “the office” every day.
Q: And it’s actually probably easier, wouldn’t you say, because now it’s not as physically demanding?
BR: Exactly. Oh yeah, that’s what I tell my wife. (laughs)
Q: So I’m guessing the ability to persevere was one of the great lessons ingrained in you from your playing days, also, from the many obstacles you encountered?
BR: I think so. I guess that’s probably from growing up, too. I think -at least I hope– you hope you have a little bit of that competitive side to you that you want to get back out there and do what you like. That’s the important thing.
My thanks go out to Ben for sharing the memories because, quite honestly, he didn’t have to. That being said, you know how time often passes and all the moves a person makes throughout a lifetime sometimes allows the names and the faces to fade ever so gently into the deep, oftentimes inevitable and unsearchable recesses of the mind? Well, I was interested to find what Ben would bring to the fore, because what he touched on would surely have been the enduring and most impressionable from his time in Lincoln. Think about that: in a matter of six years he had been a part of one high school team and coaching staff and then three (count them: three!) groupings of college teammates and staffs. That’s a lot of people! What I gathered from our time with Ben Rutz was his regard for the difference-makers behind the scenes: Athletic Trainer Doak Ostergard and Strength Coach Bryan Bailey. Their names keep coming up again and again, so we can’t deny what influence they had on innumerable kids. With Doak’s teasing & words of wisdom and Bryan’s taunting & ear of understanding, they were the perfect, dare I say, one-two punch off the field, which led to a team of knockouts on it. I recall once overhearing a conversation that had Bryan cautioning against getting into bar fights with other college students, “You guys have to remember, you’ve got to be careful when you think about hitting some guy out there, because with your size and speed you could literally kill someone. Sometimes you can forget that, because you’re not normal human beings like they are.” On another note, Doak once had to walk a fine line that required unique privacy and trust, because just days before fall practice was to begin a player of note actually burned his reproductive organ after first placing a sex toy in a microwave oven. Now that’s a tender subject! But Doak had it handled.
Then there was the duality of Tom Osborne/Turner Gill as quarterback coaches: “I think they were a lot alike in a way, but of course Turner being the young buck had a little more fire. Of course, most people had a little more fire than Coach Osborne.” Another one-two punch if there ever was one, coaching them up through youthful spark & passionate fire along with wise ease & cool confidence.
And finally, the walk-on program: “..remember how at Nebraska they had all these bodies? They had full-blown scout teams on both sides of the ball! Then you figured out they had the biggest freaking walk-on program you’d ever seen…That was the awesome thing at Nebraska.” I have to laugh just thinking about how sparsely attended all those practices later on in his career in Oklahoma and at Kansas must have felt. There was no place like Nebraska.
It was sad to see Ben transfer out, as if there was a disturbance in ‘the force’. A sense of the unity was lost for a bit, but his teammates recovered unscathed. And his leaving was not just the case of some kid who couldn’t cut the mustard, it was that Tommie Frazier was just that good. Makes me wonder: if Ben had stayed, how would he and Brook Berringer have stacked up on taking the reins during Tommie’s lost ’94 season due to blood clots? And then, what of the Turmanator? It’s fun to speculate…
Notable quote #2:
Ben Rutz on Husker football fans: “I always thought Nebraska fans were always on a different level. I always joked about it. I used to say, ‘You lose a game at Nebraska, and the people take off the next Monday because they’re just sick.’”
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