Anatomy of an Era: Brett Popplewell, Part 2
Excerpted from Chapter 28, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 1 by Paul Koch
Brett Popplewell, Part 2
Q: What about Coach Osborne?
BP: Everybody respected him and wanted to play for him. He was such a revered person in terms of his influence, his talent about his business, what he stood for. With him it was always “You got what you saw and what you saw, you got.” He was always playing it straight, up front, very honest with me. Fantastic, a great coach, such an honor to say you played for someone like that. You’ve got Bear Bryant, Joe Paterno, Bobby Bowden. With the greats. I played for one of the great coaches. At the time it doesn’t mean that much to you, but as you ask me now and you get to reflect on it now, there’s no doubt it was a big honor to say I played for him.
Now, it doesn’t mean as much here as it does in the States, because here in Australia nobody really knows much about him. But some of the people around here I’ve shown my ring to or shown some of the games to, they have some appreciation for it. They’re blown away by the magnitude of it all. But for the most part, there’s no doubt that they only really ‘get it’ when they see the size of the crowds.
Remember that photo of Memorial Stadium with the sunset? Well, I had all the guys sign it. When people see that, they’re amazed at all the guys who were part of those teams. And if you walked into my house you’d have no idea that I played for the University of Nebraska. But my father has all my stuff from those days: the jerseys, the rings, the poster, the game tapes, all that stuff. Obviously, as a father he’s obviously very proud. The only thing, to me, that I’ve really cherished, are the names of those guys and all the relationships, the guys from that ’93 team.
Q: Any other coaches stand out?
BP: I got along really well with Coach Solich, Tony Samuel. Charlie McBride, I thought was a real character. Funny guy. Kevin Steele, I got along with real well. Even George Darlington. You know I returned punts and kickoffs, I can roll through those guys, I haven’t forgotten any of them. All the coaches and the positions they coached, Milt Tenopir, all those guys. Just great relationships.
And who knows, maybe I was a novelty for them, too, to teach football to a guy from the other side of the world, you know? Everybody’s got a view and a different way of looking at things. And that’s part of the experience. And once you start winning that makes it all that much more fun. I remember my first year, when we were 14th or 15th in the country to where we became dominant. Those last two seasons where we shanked a bloody field goal, in all honesty, from 43 yards. Byron would probably make that kick 8 out of 10 times. And Darin Erstad, he was clutch. (laughs) One time when he was playing -and I actually saw the Houston Astros in San Francisco and wanted to say hello to him- but I know how focused he was pregame in batting practice and all that.
Q: Do you recall the first game you played in?
BP: Cripes, I want to say it was North Texas or something like that. One of those taxi games. The fondest, specific games, I remember are the two big ones when Kansas was really good (the year we lost to Florida State), where be beat them something like 52-10. And then Colorado and Westbrook and Rashaan Salaam and we beat them, as well. I have really fond memories -even though we lost- of the Florida State game. Just because we were given no chance, and I remember the whole buildup to that week, with Charlie Ward and those guys. I think we were 17½ point underdogs, there had never been a spread, a point spread like that, and here we lost 18-16 by a missed field goal. And they had a couple of lucky penalties: Corey Dixon’s punt return is not allowed, they called a cheap penalty call, and William Floyd’s fumble for Florida State and they called it a touchdown.
And then, obviously, that national championship game we won versus Miami, I remember we just knew it in the huddle that we were gonna stick that ball down their throat. And Tommie was such a leader, no-nonsense and getting everyone pulled together. Phenomenal from that standpoint. There’s a game you remember.
That ’93 season was the greatest season, even though we didn’t win. And then the next year we were so convinced we were going to win, the mindset was so different from the year before. In the end we’d gotten a little bit of luck, I feel. I remember they had Trumane Bell on one side and Reggie and Abdul running down the other side. And Tommie hit Trumane and got him going down the middle. If there were 30 more seconds in the game we probably would have won it, but unfortunately there are only 60 minutes in the game, and not 60 minutes and thirty seconds! (laughs)
Q: Florida State or Miami, in which game did you play the most?
BP: I played more in the Florida State one. The Miami one, my finger was broken. The Florida State game we lost, that was a hard one, it was pretty special for those guys who were seniors that year. Those blokes were great.
Q: What position did you play that game?
BP: I played split end and wingback. I played on one punt, too, I believe. We went to shotgun a lot, and it depended on personnel, and I went to slot to read the defense and run the hot route. The Florida State game was the one where Abdul cracked his ribs, too, I guess. So I ended up playing something like 40 odd plays in that game. And to sit down an hour like this and think about those games, and it comes back to you how it was so much fun and you remember all those guys you played with. Those were great times.
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Q: Do you have a favorite play that stands out to you?
BP: No, it wasn’t about that. Though, the ’93 year we did play Kansas on the road, and they were going for two points, and they’d driven down the field, and Lorenzo Brinkley and Ed Stewart both lined up on the same side, and they were both meant to be on the opposite side and they ran the tight end away from them. And I can’t remember what the final score was, but to this day I recall standing on the sideline and Abdul Muhammed jumping on my back and just screaming. The elation, the relief, little things like that, you know?
I saw a lot of great plays and some of the runs Lawrence used to make were spectacular, some of the stuff Tommie used to do. But to me, I look at it more than the plays, it’s the people and what I got out of it. That was what I took away from it. To be honest with you, the games, all they did was facilitate the relationships you ended up making. Those guys, if I didn’t play football they probably wouldn’t speak to me. They’re no different than anybody else in the world, but they did have superior athletic ability and were in the right place at the right time, because I really do believe it’s such a game of opportunity.
Certainly, the offense was a great matching of ability of those guys with what they ran, and that is certainly one thing that Coach Osborne was born to do. He could really swap people in there and did such a good job. With the exception of 2, maybe 3 games per year, we knew we were going to win because we had more talent. It really always came down to Colorado, because Oklahoma was really terrible when I was there, and a bowl game or the UCLA or Washington every year. Those type of things there, ultimately I think it facilitated relationships and that’s what I’ve gotten out of it. Good people and good times, very fortunate, no doubt about it. What an opportunity I had.
And the first football game I saw was Dwight Clark making that catch against the Cowboys. My brother decided the 49ers would be his favorite team and he wanted a red jersey like those guys, and then he noticed that Nebraska had red in their uniforms, too, so he decided that was the football team he was going to support, something like 7 years before I even went there to University. (laughs) Who would’ve known? And then 10 years later, it’s ironic that I ended up playing at Nebraska and winning a national title as a part of the team.
Q: Is there anyone that stands out to you as someone who meant a lot to you?
BP: I was lucky to have great relationships with a bunch of those guys: Bryan Bailey, Jerry Weber. I was very fortunate to be around those people. And for me, the biggest thing was my parents. On three weeks notice they were willing to send me half the way around the world. That was a big call for them to do. They had to fund all that, so I was very fortunate to be given the opportunity to go and do it.
It was one of those things where everyone just does their thing. It wasn’t just one individual. Of course you had Tommie Frazier in there and he took that thing to the next level, but the reason we were so successful was because it was such a team environment and everyone was playing for each other. Look, the superstars the fans will remember, but every guy had a part in it. You have some of the guys on the offensive line who some of the fans probably won’t remember, but that’s where it all starts. And the defense? Some of those guys did such a good job at stopping people. Overall, it was such a team environment, a team concept And the type of offense we ran to be successful -the option at the time?- when the West Coast Offense was really taking off. They just got the people in the right positions at the right time. The people were wonderful, and that’s what makes it.
Q: Last question, Brett. Do you ever wear your national championship ring?
BP: No, if I wore that thing out here they’d look at me like I was lunatic. They’d think I was Liberace. (laughs) My God. Those things are at home in mom and dad’s safe. I‘ve pulled them out a couple of times, I reckon, in the past ten years. More just to make sure they were still in existence, that the old man hadn’t pawned them off on eBay. (laughs) He’s got a complete set of championship rings through the years. All that stuff, the rings and clothes, once it was done, now it’s just memories. Like I said, pretty much the only thing I have around the house is that picture that all my teammates signed. That’s what is most important to me. It was all good. It was a good time.
Holy crikeys, every team should contain at least one Australian, if you ask me. Jokes aside, Brett was a very lovely bloke in his own right, and I nearly dropped the phone when he mentioned the ‘Australian Nigger’ moniker. Now, I typically cringe at every mention of the N-word, though in this particular case I couldn’t help but laugh and embrace it due to the fact that it served as a sign of acceptance and affection, a unique bond of brotherhood, just as he did. (Later on we’ll hear from Sonya Varnell, Coordinator of Multi-Cultural Programs, on how she attempted to enrich the black athlete experience on the Lincoln campus), but you can see here that the student/athletes themselves had no problems breaking down barriers that only years earlier had cast a dark pall over the team. Chalk one up for unity among diversity: university.
Now, in keeping things really real and not trying to make this some rose-colored, nostalgic walk down memory lane, did you also, as I did, happen to hone in on Brett’s mention of Ron Brown’s “Well, I’ve prayed about it and this is what the Lord’s told me…” as a response about a player’s demotion on the depth chart? Such a statement presupposes extra-biblical revelation and should hold no place in our churches, much less our locker rooms. I know it’s somewhat popular to be a Christian-basher these days but there is a fine line to walk in properly living out the Christian life. That line seems to me to have been crossed, and in truth sends a bad message, a bad witness, of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (In full disclosure, I hold an extremely high view God, of scripture, and the message of the bloody cross, but imputing the Almighty’s nod in matters relating to judgment of an athlete’s performance capabilities seems a far stretch.) God bless his heart, for Ron Brown and Turner Gill both helped lead me to Christ through shared meals together at the training table, but I can see how this type of witness can turn to be both a blessing and a curse, depending on the situation. (I’ll withdraw from my bully-pulpit now.)
Lastly, the story of another fight -this one in Tokyo, Japan- caught my ear. I want to find out more about this, because if it’s anything like the earlier brouhaha we heard of, it too may hold a special key to the bonds of the Scarlet Brotherhood. Be it the Lincolnite punks in the dormitory parking lot or some professional wrestlers outside a Japanese bar, boys would be boys. And if their manhood or sense of dignity were ever called into question they had no qualms about letting their fists do the talking. If you are one of those who automatically defer to the ‘caveman as footballer’ camp, you might be nodding your head and thinking, “Aha, the truth finally comes out! They were really all just a bunch of dumb, rapaciously thuggish jocks!” But if you look at it from a ‘team’ viewpoint, these kids had the backs of each and every one of their own, and it was a cold day in hell if they’d ever turned theirs away from another in straits. We’ll continue to let the facts roll in how they may. In the meantime, let’s continue to roll with the punches.
Notable quote #2:
Brett Popplewell on the team concept: “Everyone was playing for each other…. Look, the superstars the fans will remember, but every guy had a part in it.”
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