Anatomy of an Era: Chris Norris, Part 2
Excerpted from Chapter 12, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 1 by Paul Koch
Chris Norris, Part 2
Walk-on, Fullback, Papillion, Nebraska (Papillion-LaVista)
Q: Going from being a player and then to the Coaches’ meeting room, anything stand out to you when you joined that side?
CN: A lot more things made sense to me. I could see where I had maybe screwed up a couple times and what I could have done better. You get a better sense of when the coach is right and what he’s looking for.
Now, most players are not lacking in confidence; most are really confident, but sometimes don’t see the big picture and the small things that coaches see, especially in college. You have a lot riding on a bunch of 18 to 23 year olds, and when you find yourself on the other side of that door a lot more things make sense and a lot more details stand out that most players don’t see. You get a better feel for what’s really happening and what goes on.
Q: Little things like what?
CN: Just the fact that showing up on time for meetings, on time for classes, that little things in life all add up. Now, if a guy’s not showing up for class, doing the simple things you ask them to do, how can you count on the guy when the game is on the line? It’s the small things about being where he needs to be, their life transferring to the game.
And you can also see where the game transfers in life, into your personal life. Again, I got to see that first hand at Nebraska as far as, “Hey, we’re trying to raise young men into adults so they have a life after football.” I think that was unique, that they didn’t put football above everything else. It was definitely an important aspect of it… that they actually cared about you outside of football.
Q: How would you know this?
CN: Like I said, I was a walk-on, wasn’t a household name, and never started at fullback, but I knew I could call Coach Osborne to this day if I need some help with something or I just want to say Hi. He’s always there for you. My first full-time job at Tennessee State, he helped me get that. He ended up calling the head coach for me and said, “I think he can do a real good job there for you.” He knew my sister’s and my mom’s name, and when he was in town he’d stop and say Hi to her. It was pretty awesome, the little things.
Q: So you were playing for what may be known as the greatest college football team of all time and then you’re forced over to the coaching side of it. Was there a grieving period of sorts?
CN: Pretty much the next day they made me do it. I pretty much blew them off and went to my locker to get the pads and everything for practice and I saw my helmet was gone, and there was a note telling me where the staff meeting was and what was expected of me up in the office. It was a deal that they wanted me to be a part of. And being there for four years, I decided I wanted to finish the thing off.
Q: Do you recall the first game after that?
CN: No, not really. It was just the work of trying to get some things straightened out: from getting the tapes ready to getting things ready for the rest of the running backs and scout teams, drawing up scout cards, watching the starters and scout team do drills, all of that. Clayton Carlin and Mike Grant were the actual GA’s, the three of us were helping out with the cards and scouting and breakdown, and also a few other guys who got hurt. Another was Darren -or Damon- Schmadeke and someone else, I can’t remember their name.
Q: What was it like being a student assistant?
CN: Coach Solich let you cut your teeth. He’d give you stuff to get done, put a lot of faith in us at that time, giving us quite a bit of responsibility. He expected something to get done and he just took it for granted that we’d get it done, and I made sure to meet the occasion. And I used to help review a lot of recruiting tapes and do administrative stuff, so I was the first line of defense in recruiting. He somehow believed I could tell a bum from a ballplayer. (laughs)
Q: Tell me more about Coach Solich?
CN: He wanted tough, hard-nosed running backs. He treated running backs and fullbacks the same. He wasn’t going to give you a break at all. We’d be in practice and have a few backs on the first team, a few on the second team and a few on the third team, and he expected the fullbacks to know the tailback role so we could always fill in in practice. And I spent a lot of time splitting time with the ones and twos, especially my redshirt year. When tailbacks went down he expected you to jump into the tailback spot and run that option and not say anything about it. He definitely didn’t coddle us, but he taught us to be really physical, tough, hard-nosed running backs.
Q: Being a Nebraska fullback carried with it some history. What would you say most distinguished Nebraska fullbacks?
CN: It was an attitude. Pardon my French, but we had to believe we were the baddest mother%$#rs on that team. We knew we were gonna get hit on every play, we were expected to look for shots on every single play. It didn’t matter what play it was; you went in and got that job done because someone was willing to take your place if you couldn’t get it done. That job was never safe.
So you went in there and it was an attitude, and I don’t think there was a lot of ego. That’s something that shows, too. In the end, the guys who are playing are the guys who are supposed to be playing, and you’ll get your snaps. And anybody could get called up on any given day, so the expectation was the same for the starter, for every guy (and I think there were 14 fullbacks). The expectations never wavered, it wasn’t, “You are just a freshman or just a sophomore,” it didn’t matter. You were expected to ‘bring it’ no matter who you were.
You learned to play with pain and sometimes you’d get injured, but you had to know the difference between injury and pain. Everybody gets a little banged up and sore, and it was kind of a badge of honor to make it through a practice that most people in the country couldn’t make it through. I mean, every day in practice we were playing against the best defense in the country! (laughs) That’s definitely something worth hanging your hat on, too: how many All-Americans you went against. And on game days you knew you had already faced better rush ends, better linebackers, better safeties than any guys in the country.
Q: Any names stick out from those practices?
CN: Phil Ellis: probably one of the hardest hitting guys, pound for pound. In fact, I played against him in the state championship game when we played Grand Island. He beat us my junior year and we came back and whooped their ass pretty good my senior year.
Q: Was there some bragging, some smack-talking throughout your college career because of that?
CN: He won one at our expense and I won one at his. He had one ring and I had another ring, so we were even. And our championship rings? I wear them for recruiting, otherwise they’re usually in a little box I had made up. They’re usually in the box all season, but when recruiting comes around, that’s when the rings come out. (laughs)
Q: Which is your favorite ring: ’94’s or ’95’s?
CN: Both, for different reasons. I got one as a player and I got one to signify my start of my coaching career, so they have different meaning for me.
Q: What was it like on the sidelines for those games?
CN: That Florida State game was a heartbreaker. Everybody who loses a tight one, there’s always gonna be a reason why you got robbed. A lot of us believed that one got taken away from us; the ‘phantom clip’, not crossing the goal line.
Now, as a coach, you see that anything’s gonna happen. But that one definitely stings. In fact, I had the chance when I was down in Jacksonville…Florida State was playing in a bowl game in Jacksonville and they used our facilities. And my wife is actually a big Bobby Bowden fan and she wanted to go up and meet him. So she made me walk over with her because she had something she wanted to get signed and there he was wearing this national championship ring. I joked with him, ‘Hey, you’re wearing my ring.’ (laughs) He kind of laughed about it and said, “Yeah, that’s how that goes sometimes.”
Q: He had his own fair share of missed field goals over the years, huh?
CN: That’s for sure.
Q: Do you recall when they put the Unity Council into effect?
CN: That was probably one of the neatest things I’ve ever seen, doing that. A lot of people try to do something like that after hearing about it and try to emulate it, but that’s tough to do. The coaches have to have a lot of faith in the team, trusting players to take care of it. And the coaching staff there? The continuity of that staff? I think it helped to have that kind of stability to put something like that together.
And everyone had to pay their dues, they didn’t start right away. Some will eventually play, and some guys don’t even get to play come their senior year -quite a few players who didn’t play until their senior year- and they were just happy as all get-out when they played.
Q: And then you had guys like Tommie and Grant Wistrom who played right away…
CN: If you have a great program like we did, you get those guys now and then, but nowadays most players don’t want to put their time in and wait a few years to play, they want to play now. So I have a better chance at getting some of those guys at our school now because they want to play right way.
Q: Anything stand out as far as the Miami game?
CN: Oh, that one. It was kind of weird, because we were down a little bit and things weren’t going 100% our way, but Coach Osborne was so calm and collected, you just knew that something was going to happen if we hung around that game long enough. They had all those phenomenal players -those name players who get all the press- but we just calmly went about our business and in the end we outlasted them and made some other good plays.
Q: Were you on special teams that game?
CN: I was on punt unit and backup on kickoffs and kickoff returns.
Q: What was your position there?
CN: I was one of the up-backs and personal protector on those teams, usually. We saw more consistency and balance and physicality in practice, to tell you the truth, but those guys you had to watch out for. It was fast. (laughs) There were some matchups out there, that’s for sure.
Q: In differentiating the Florida teams of those years, in what ways were the Huskers different?
CN: Those Florida teams would definitely talk a whole lot more. Truthfully, I never ever paid much attention to it, though, as I had too many other things to think about.
I think we were a disciplined team. Personal fouls, even a fight in practice? You know that went on, but it wasn’t the type of thing really celebrated when a fight got started in practice. There are some places where fights are celebrated from coaches as building a tough and aggressive team, but the coaching staff didn’t measure that as a sign of toughness. We were a disciplined team, we’re gonna keep running the plays we’re gonna run and you’re gonna stop us, but eventually the dam is gotta break.
The Florida game was different; we jumped on them pretty quick. It was kind of a foregone conclusion that we would come out on top of that one.
Q: Can you believe we were underdogs in that game?
CN: Yeah, it’s that scary speed, that athlete. They have a bunch of players, a lot of talent, thoroughbreds down there in that state and they recruit it, but a more disciplined, more physical team is definitely going to take care of an athletic team. Making a mistake at full speed is still making a mistake.
Q: If you had a chance to do anything differently, would you?
CN: Mostly little things, like spending more time on footwork. Things I see as a coach now? Little things that affected me as a player: eating better, not realizing how short that career really is, that was something. I never took that into account. One day I’m a player and one day I’m not. For me it ended in all of 5 seconds.
Q: Did that affect your psyche or concept of who you were?
CN: It screwed me up for a little while, a lot of ‘what if’s’ and wondering what I could have done differently, you know? In essence I’d already had that injury, so it was just a matter of when I was going to take the shot that ended it.
Q: Do you recall who made that last hit on you? I’m sure you remember…
CN: (laughs) It was Luther Hardin.
Q: Luther always had that killer look. Like a smiling assassin…
CN: It was actually just a run up the middle, a little shot. And I had to let him know it wasn’t anything he did. It was going to happen eventually, and he just happened to do it.
Q: Anybody behind the scenes who meant a lot?
CN: Probably, between Doak (Ostergard) and Sully (George Sullivan), those guys did an amazing job keeping us on the field.
To be continued…
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