Anatomy of an Era: Brett Popplewell
Excerpted from Chapter 28, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 1 by Paul Koch
“Football is the ballet of the masses.”
― Dmitri Shostakovich
Starting from 1682 to 1763 and again from 1800 to 1803, France owned the Louisiana Territory. In the process of traversing the great, watery divide to the New World that country’s great sailing ships carried within them a horse named the Camargue, an animal native to their harshly climatic southern marshes. The gardiens (French for cowboy) eventually headed westward, taming wild horses (originally carried from Spain) on the southern American plains. So, in a sense, the first American cowboys were actually Frenchmen.
Why the strange lead-in, you might ask? Well, the world is full of interesting, odd and often surprising turns. Which brings us to Brett Popplewell, Nebraska’s wide receiver who hailed from half the world away in Australia. How did that come about and what role did this addition from south of the equator play in that era of 60 & 3 greatness? Read on, mate…
Notable quote #1:
“They just got the people in the right positions at the right time. The people were wonderful, and that’s what makes it.”
Scholarship recruit, Split End, Melbourne, Australia
Where are they now? Melbourne, Australia, Management
Question: So I hear you’re pretty busy these days?
Brett Popplewell: (heavy Australian accent…you don’t hear most of the r’s pronounced) Work’s been pretty crazy. I’m living in Melbourne now, and I’ve been spending a lot of time in Sydney lately. I got back last night about 10:30 p.m. and then I’ll go back tomorrow night on a late flight for two more weeks. A lot of up and back at the present, but I won’t complain. The travel wears you out, but it’s good to keep moving and have a job in this present economy. (laughs) I spend time going from Japan to heaven knows where half the time. By the way, I was actually back to the states, in Nebraska for two days last Memorial Day weekend and I got to stay with Jon Bostick. I spoke to Nate Turner, who’s in Chicago, and we keep in touch, too. He came over here to play rugby one time in Australia. I think he struggled for a time getting used to the game without shoulder pads and all. (laughs) I turned on the TV one morning and he’s on Australian TV hosting a big rugby tournament out of Sydney. And we ended up meeting up again, and it was also the same time the Super Bowl was on. That was the year Calvin Jones was playing for Green Bay. We keep in touch a lot over the miles through Facebook.
Q: That’s how I found you!
BP: Oh yes, trainer Bob Hammonds and all sorts of guys. It’s amazing how easy it is to keep in touch with people now.
Q: You’ve got that right, and now I’m here spanning the globe and talking to Australian Brett Popplewell about Nebraska football. Go figure…
BP: It’s hysterical. I tell you what happened to me: one day I was just walking along the beach about few years ago and this guy walks up to me. It was a hot day, January, with my dog and this guy says, “That’s a good looking dog. Do you mind if I pet him?” And I say ‘Sure,’ and I noticed he has an American accent. And he’s wearing a t-shirt that says ‘Omaha, Nebraska.’ And I say, ‘Are you from Omaha?’ And he says, “Yes, I am.“ I said, ‘That’s funny, I went to school there and played football there back in Nebraska in the early ’90’s.’ And he goes, “Your name’s Brett isn’t it?” (laughs) ‘Yeah,’ I said. And anyhow, his name is Jim Meier, and he says, “I’ve met you before.” (I was Calvin Jones’ roommate back then.) And it turns out I met him through Calvin and his family. And he gave me his business card. So I get home and I end up showing it to my old man, and it turns out my father sat next to this guy on a flight back in ’92 or ’93 as he was going there to watch one of my games. And he pulled out this business card that the man had given him, and it’s the exact same business card of 11-12 years before! They’d sat next to each other on a flight from Sydney to Los Angeles. And talk about how bizarre, how small is the world, for something like that to happen? It’s insane. A very small world. Halfway across the world you still bump into people who have that connection to Nebraska football.
Q: Let me ask you, Brett, how did you end up playing football at Nebraska?
BP: I’d played in a local league here in Australia. It was then the VFL in Australia, the Victorian Football League, and then it became the Australian Football League, the AFL. And one of the teams was the Victoria Lions. Anyhow, I signed with them. From there I played American football in a local league, which was 16 years of age here. It was like your average high school team. And then some people suggested, “Why don’t you go to the States?” I was in my last year of high school and I took recruiting trips to Nebraska, Tennessee, and NC State, too.
I was at Nebraska for 4½ years there, and I ended up signing with the Scotland Claymores in the NFL Europe at the time and then I’d had a fractured skull. I was actually doing quite well, and I had a non-contact drill and fractured my skull. So I wasn’t able to play for three months, and that was about it. I had a great time. I absolutely loved it.
For me, coming from Australia, my expectations were a little different. Because you don’t grow up there, with high school sports and seeing it in the newspaper, that just didn’t happen in Australia. Over there in the U.S., you’ve even got TV shows and movies about high school football, but here you just never heard of it much. To me, I was just going to play and see how that went. And I was fortunate enough to do that, but I never had any expectations that I was going to be a superstar or anything like that, like so many American high school guys come in thinking. The memories you look back on and the people are what make it special, though.
And a funny thing about Nebraska Football, we get a lot of the games on TV here in Australia. A good friend of mine from high school, she’s now working at SportsCenter for Asia-Pacific ESPN, who does programming for Australia, and she said, “If you want certain games on, just send me an e-mail of who you want to put on.” So I did, and she’s put a good number of Nebraska games on ESPN Australia. (laughs) So it’s been fantastic.
So I see those games on TV, which is awesome. And for the first time in awhile I watched the National Championship game, and I thought about the National Championship games against Florida State and Miami the year where we won. And playing in those two games, it’s amazing thinking back at the jump that we made to end up playing in those two games, you know? The memories are really, reflecting back on, to sit back and say ‘Wow, to think of those guys we played with and what they did and as successful as we became..,’ it’s pretty amazing to look back on that. Personally, what I did -and looking back as a team, what we did- it’s quite a thing to achieve. I’d like to get back and see a game, which I’m sure I’ll do in the next couple of years.
Q: So you went to a high school in the United States for your senior year?
BP: I was in year twelve here in Australia. I left halfway through year twelve in Australia and entered year twelve in the United States. And high school was a lot more rigorous in Australia compared to the United States, so the transition was pretty easy. It wasn’t like going from high school to college and all the changes one goes through, so it was pretty effortless to make that change. It was dumb luck, and when we checked into the dorms for the first time, I was living with Tony Veland and Charles Green, a safety from Louisiana, who I think ended up going back home to play for Louisiana Tech. And I remember sitting there in the bloody dorm room making up names, stupid names for the plays we would run, just laughing our butts off. And to think that we’re here 17 years later, you think ‘Holy cow, where did the time go?’ It’s nuts when you think of how long it’s been.
Anyhow, they’d seen some film on me and decided to take a chance. And it was the summer before my freshman year in passing league, and Nate Turner was really good to me, Bostick was really good to me. Some of the chaps that we used to get along with and how well they accepted me, especially the African-American athletes, was absolutely fantastic. At the time, Clinton Childs, he used to call me “The Australian Nigger.” (laughs) That was the biggest level of acceptance, where they accepted you for what you did on the field by bestowing a nickname on you, and the small things ended up meaning something to you. Here I was in a different country and playing a sport I wasn’t that experienced with (at that time I’d essentially played 11 games of American football by the time I got to the University). I was able to travel pretty much when I was there and start a few games. You look back on it and it kind of means something to you, all the people you met. And we remain friends to this day. That nickname, it was the ultimate level of acceptance and funny to look back on. We got a lot of laughs over that one.
And the internet is so great, because I keep up with a lot of the guys now. I keep track of Lawrence, what’s happening with that, and I guess they locked him up last fall? There was someone – when he was with you – he was the loveliest person in the world when he was playing football, and when he got away from football was when he got involved in all that other stuff. It’s a shame, it was such a waste of talent. And some of the crap I’ve been reading, it’s a shame. That guy had the world at his feet, and the alcohol and his personal demons – it’s funny when you’re with these people and they go on to a the level of stardom and celebrity – when you’re with them they’re not any different than anybody else. Whether you win the national championship or a Super Bowl or local football or tennis competition or something like that, the feeling of winning is the same for us. The only thing that’s different is how everybody else reacts to it. We win the national championship, and there’s something like 10,000 people in the hotel lobby, you know? But the feeling of success and achievement is no different. I’ve been around some of the guys who had trouble with that and how others react to them. And for Lawrence, he ran into some of that.
Q: What year was you first join Nebraska?
BP: It was ’91. ’91 through ’94, when we beat Miami for the national championship. I remember going down to do passing league that first summer, there were some really lovely blokes. So that was my first real memory doing that, coming down and sort of floating around with some of the guys like Keithen McCant, Mike Grant, Mickey Joseph. Those guys were all really good to me. I think they just liked to poke fun at me because I was from Australia.
And I remember Calvin -Calvin Jones- he had that dog he named Heisman, that Viszla. Anyhow, I remember one day we were living in the townhouse out there in Lincoln and we came home, and the dog had gotten a jar of my vegemite (and vegemite is really salty), and the dog had sat there and eaten this bloody jar of vegemite and had gotten itself sick! (laughs) It’s those little things that you look back on now, those silly things. And all those relationships that came out of it. Unfortunately, I haven’t spoken to Calvin in ten years. I know he’s in Lincoln, I’ve heard. Have him give me a call if you get in touch with him, will you?
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Q: Absolutely. And let me ask you, when you first moved to Nebraska was there anything about the people that stood out to you?
BP: They were all lovely. It was a much slower pace considering where I‘m from, because Melbourne is essentially 3.5 million people. And to move to a town that had 250,000 people, that was a bit of a shock I must admit, getting used to it. I found the people really lovely. People were really lovely in terms of being very welcoming, taking me in. I remember Calvin took us back to his grandmother’s place for Easter one year, and I tell you what, it was one of the best experiences I ever had. There were about 45 people there, and I was the only white person. And the chitlins I can’t quite get over -I didn’t find those good- but it was one of those moments where they were so welcoming to me. In a time when there were so many racial troubles going on – to experience something like that?- there was nothing to do with the color of your skin, the people were just really open and lovely. Now, I don’t know if it was because I was from Australia, but they were especially nice to me. Black, white, everyone was so lovely to me going over there. They always wanted to help out. I was really fortunate from that point of view.
Q: Your position coach was Ron Brown?
BP: Yes, I know he’s back to coaching again. It was a great experience that I really enjoyed and felt very fortunate, with all those guys: Reggie Baul, Corey Dixon, Trumane Bell. I was pretty lucky to have relationships with those guys.
Q: What would you say about Coach Brown’s methods? What about the man?
BP: Look, he and I didn’t always see eye to eye. I think in terms of respect and the coaching side of things, he was fantastic. We didn’t always see eye to eye on a personal nature. But there was always a level of respect there, I think. If I saw him tomorrow I’d shake his hand and give him a hug.
I remember one guy who always stuck out was Mike Vedral. I remember one time he dropped from first string tight end to third string tight end, just like that. And I recall Vedral saying,“Coach Brown said to me, “Well, I’ve prayed about it and this is what the Lord’s told me…”, and I remember Mike saying, “Yeah, but I’ve prayed I’ll be a first round draft pick,” as a way of being a little bit sarcastic. Now, that’s not the message you want to send to a player when you move him down a depth chart, you know?
I must admit, I did get a little bit frustrated at times, when some of the players -and I realize and think it’s great that there was a forum to express their religious beliefs- but sometimes found it a little bit self-serving when they said “I’d like to thank God to allow me to win this football game.” Because I’d like to think God has more to worry about than a football game, with all that’s going on in the world right now, and I just found it a little self-serving, you know? I appreciated the message, but society’s going into the crapper at the moment. The moral culture of people now is awful, so I just get a little bit taken at times when it becomes, “God helped us with this game.” I just think to myself, ‘What about the poor sap on the other side of the line? Did God tell him, “Well, just tough luck, guys?” ‘ But that’s just me. There are many ways to go about it.
Q: What did you not see eye to eye about?
BP: Just some of the ways decisions were being made. A lot of it came down to player relationships. All the guys think they should be playing, you know? Some guys get the chance, and some guys do and they don’t. My biggest mistake, from a personal standpoint, was that Nebraska probably wasn’t the best place to develop as a wide receiver. I remember playing with a guy from UCLA who held a lot of their records, he was down in Atlanta in a training camp and then he went to play for Scotland. Before I got hurt we spent six weeks in Atlanta for a training camp, and three days before we flew to Scotland I fractured my skull and they didn’t take me. But just being there in the pro style offense, there were some things I’d learned from Coach Brown that flew directly in the face of what I’d learned.
But everybody’s different. And you have to be careful when you talk about stuff like this, because it’s such a small part of the entire experience. It’s such a small thing, but it’s one of those things that makes for a talking point. Like I said, if I walked up to him today I’d give him a hug. Because there’s no doubt he cared for his players and took the time, it’s just whether you always agreed or not.
And there are so many different personalities. Let’s be honest, coaching is no longer what it was like 40 years ago, where it was one message. Now it’s pretty much a, ‘me, me, me’ thing where everyone‘s about themselves. It’s such a selfish society, where everybody gets a time-out instead of a good crack on the ass, you know? (laughs) It’s those hard times, that’s where you learn the lessons, not being told to go sit in the corner for a timeout. (laughs) Anyhow, that’s just a personal thing. You’re still gonna have those good and bad experiences, they develop you. Otherwise you get a bunch of spoiled brats. It’s not always, “Your fantastic, you’re fantastic.” The real world doesn’t work that way. And I think it’s a good way to learn how to handle rejection. Life isn’t always a bed of roses, you know? And from a coaching standpoint, it’s very difficult, because there are so many different personalities. Coach Brown’s intentions were always about finding the best way that he could improve you and make a difference. I look back very fondly, though, on the experience. I’m very proud of it. I’m grateful to say I played at a school that was so successful, but more importantly it was the people I met, the relationships. Like playing that game in Japan my sophomore year; going over there and sharing it with those guys, it was a great experience. And then we get in the fight with the wrestlers in the bloody stairwell the night after the game. (laughs)
Q: With the wrestlers?
BP: I believe it was David White, an outside linebacker from Louisiana. There were the Wrestling World Championship Tag Teams competition going on there in Tokyo and we were in this bar (and it was funny because there were these three bartenders. Two of them, I’d played against them while playing Australian Rules Football in Australia), so we went there. But what happened was there were these guys running down into the stairwell. I guess somebody had said something, and then all this commotion was happening, but it was funny. It was these two Wrestling Federation champions. Remember when we all came back to Lincoln, T.O. locked us in a room in the auditorium, because they said some of the boosters had paid for this bar for all these guys to go to and they were trying to figure out who it was for and who it was? But it was the last night in Japan, and the game was on at twelve o’clock Tokyo time so it was on primetime here, and we didn’t have a lot of time to go out. And we ended up getting to bed at 3 o’clock in the morning and having to get up and get our bags ready at 5 o’clock for the flight out. It was a rough night.
To be continued….
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