Anatomy of an Era: Chris Norris, Part 3
Excerpted from Chapter 12, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 1 by Paul Koch
Chris Norris, Part 3
Walk-on, Fullback, Papillion, Nebraska (Papillion-LaVista)
Q: Any good stories about the athletic trainers?
CN: Probably a hundred of them. Sully being that stereotypical gruff, old, grumpy, ‘you-can-play, rub-some-dirt-on-it’ kind of guy, and Doak was the guy who would get you on the field by hook or crook. Those guys always got you ready for practice and really took care of you.
Q: Any examples of what made them special?
CN: It was just the jolly demeanor. Like I said, Sully was the guy that you couldn’t bullshit him. He’d heard it all and you couldn’t fool him. He could tell by the way you were looking at him if you had anything wrong or if you were trying to pull something on him. Doak just always had a way to get you out there.
Another guy, strength coach Bryan Bailey, a lot of people don’t realize what he did. There was no one like Bryan. He was just a little, mean bastard, that’s for sure. (laughs) Greatest guy, but as small as he was and everybody kind of looking at him and kind of, “Are you really a strength coach?” He’s actually one that helped me out quite a bit. I ended up weighing upward from 260 lbs. and I was just getting too big and too thick for my own good until he finally started stretching me along with the lifting and running, and stretching out and getting more flexible and getting my time down to where I was able to get to play at the 250, 255 mark.
Q: Oh my gosh, you let Bryan stretch you?! You were a glutton for punishment…
CN: Oh Jesus, he beat the shit out of me. And he kept calling me ‘fatty’ because I kept doing that ab workout. If you could only catch that quick little bastard! And him and Doak would find ways to push your buttons, where you sometimes felt like you wanted to take a swing at them. (laughs)
Q: What was your experience with some of your fellow running backs?
CN: Well, everyone wants to know about Lawrence. Honestly, I liked Lawrence. He was misunderstood on a lot of things he did. I definitely can’t speak for his mindset later on with the incident out in L.A. and whatnot, but he just, he never really thought too far ahead as to what consequences were gonna be. But as far as working with him, playing with him and being around him, it was always ‘friends first, teammates first ahead of me’, he would always take care of others instead of thinking about himself. He just never thought ahead, it’s a shame he never thought of the consequences.
And I tell you, he is one of the best running backs I’ve ever been around. Oh, he was a freak! The fact that he came into that national championship game after the long layoff he had, when he was suspended, and then did what he had to do. Got that all cleared up, and then on the biggest stage in college football he brought it. His timing should have been off, he shouldn’t have been in game shape, but he was monster. Oh god, he was a freak, his work ethic.
He took the game part serious, did not hold back emotions on the field. If he was pissed off at you, you were gonna know about it. I think that later got him into trouble in the NFL: speaking his mind, not shutting up when he had the chance. He just said what he felt and what was on his mind came out and he got into some trouble. But as far as my personal feeling, I thought he was good guy. What you saw was what you got, on a good day or bad day. And he didn’t apologize for anything, either.
Q: What about Coach Osborne?
CN: He was perhaps the most honest person in this profession. He talked to you straight, he didn’t lie to you. If he said he cared about you, you would believe that. He cared about the players. He cared about them. It was not all about football. We went there for football, but you got a lot more from him than just football. He did a lot for the community. Just the kind of role model he was, you learned a whole bunch about football from him, too, but you learned a lot about being a man than from just about anybody I can think of.
Q: What about the goals you guys would set?
CN: He started at the bottom and we’d work our way up to the top. Definitely National Champions was always one of our goals. We set that to attain that. And each game we’d set the goals to have that win. We were always setting goals to make them attainable. He expected the best out of us and he gave us tools to be successful.
In the end, I think him and his staff did a real good job of giving each man a role on that team. And if that role meant you did your part, it meant you were going to win. If that meant you were just on scout team that week, if you did your job and each guy did his, that pretty much meant you were going to win. Part of my freshman year and part of my redshirt year, you know, our scout team probably could have beaten some of the Big 8 teams of that time. (laughs) It was a ball-buster practice. We went after it. We went after those guys more than they went after us. We gave them a good look, and they knew they were gonna get it from us.
And I never ever heard Coach Osborne cuss. He had that type of personality where you wouldn’t ever want to let the man down. If you let him down he could make you feel so small… with a look or with a few soft-spoken words to you, he’d let you know if you let him down, if you let the team down. That’s a feeling that most people did not want to go through again.
Q: What about other coaches on staff?
CN: I would say every coach on that staff was genuine in his own way. Coach Darlington was definitely fired up and opinionated, didn’t care what he said around anybody and wasn’t going to apologize for anything he said. Anytime he got on guys nothing was ever said with malice or anything that might come off that way. It was an honest staff. You had some guys who would get fired up and definitely get a kick, Coach Tenopir getting fired up, Coach McBride.
Charlie was definitely a character. I was scared to death of that man my whole first year. I didn’t want to go anywhere near him. You didn’t even want to have any conversations with him. (Or at least I’ll call them conversations.) (laughs) One year I was on the scout team, freshman year, we were up at the stadium and Kevin Raemakers kept getting extra shots at you as you walked back to the huddle, on the back of your helmet. And we finally had enough of taking that stuff, and I ended up taking a swing and ended up punching (John) Parrella!
And he snatched me up and started running me toward the sideline fence. It was just a matter of which seating row I was going to land on, and then the whistle blew… he just stopped, put me down, and walked away. And that’s just an example of how disciplined it was. When the whistle blew it was over and nothing else was thought of it. You either handled it before the whistle blew or it was over. It was never a fact that guys were going to hunt you down after the practice, fights in the locker room, none of that stuff ever got past the field. There was going to be some disagreements and hard feelings, but in the end we were still a team. In my mind, we were still teammates and it wouldn’t have a lingering effect.
Q: Any comments about Jack Stark or Dave Ellis?
CN: Jack Stark, he was great guy, really approachable guy. He knew when to keep things to himself, and other times he acted as a conduit with position coaches or Coach Osborne. He could let the coaches know if something was going on in a player’s life, their playing, their studying. But he definitely was a help.
I went through a small patch there where I was actually shot in Lincoln my junior year at a party. (We had a birthday party for a buddy and it was one of those deals where a couple guys came over and started some trouble and pulled a gun out and fired some shots.) And that same weekend my cousin had killed himself, so all in all that was kind of a shitty weekend. My mom got a hold of me and told me my cousin killed himself, and then I had to tell her what happened to me. Jack was a great conduit between the coaches and helped get things settled and figured out.
Q: Did they ever catch the guy who shot you?
CN: Yeah, they did. I got shot in the arm. It was a little .22 caliber. I have a little scar on both sides.
Q: And the team mottos. Did those mean a lot?
CN: I think we bought right into it, the ‘We Refuse To Lose,’ that stuck with most of us. It was so explanatory. We just weren’t going to lose that year, and we just made up our minds that we weren’t going to lose. Especially that Florida State game. That was something we all felt.
Q: Chris, in my mind, we never lost that game. We simply ran out of time…
CN: (laughs) Exactly! Good way of looking at it.
Q: Any last things that you feel we haven’t touched upon?
CN: I think part of it was -as you talk about the parallels between successful teams and whatnot- the countdown to those years was the consistency. The kind of players Nebraska got in those days were hard-nosed, tough players at that time; the fact that guys were turning down scholarships to walk on at Nebraska, walking away from money. A lot of guys had the opportunity to play for the Kansas’s and the Iowa States, but I wanted to play for that National Championship, I wanted to play for those coaches, to be part of that program. It was kind of a no-brainer that I’d come down there and do that, and find a way to get it done.
Q: Ever talk to Coach Solich?
CN: Yeah, I see him at the conventions. My wife and I always send out Christmas cards and stay in touch. Sometimes it’s hard to just call up and shoot the crap because as a head coach there’s always a lot of things going on. It’s kind of that same ol’, Once a Husker, Always a Husker. Coach Samuel preaches keeping it in the family. That’s why he hired some of us. And that definitely breeds success. Most of the time you have the Nebraska influence, the Nebraska connection when you do your hiring. When you run our program, it’s how Coach Osborne did it, without all the flair, without the attitude and all of that. You do it right, take your time, take the calmer approach to ballgames, and you get it done. That’s how it was back there and it was a business-like approach. You just went out and did your job. We were just better prepared, had better strength, better toughness, were better conditioned, and as a consequence, the athleticism against the Florida teams, we felt like we could play them.
Q: Do you think it was ever a hurdle in some guys’ minds that we would always have to play those Florida teams down there in Florida instead of some other team for the big ones?
CN: No, not really. I think it was a point of pride to try to go down there and kick their ass. (laughs) To this day, as a coach, I enjoy away games as much as I enjoy home games. In some respects it’s good to try to ruin some guy’s party. (laughs)
Q: Last question, Chris: Let’s say I’m a brand new running back on the team and it’s my first day of practice, what are you going to preach to me?
CN: Oh, it’s going to be ‘high and tight, rolling forward.’ High and tight, rolling forward. Hold that ball tight over your breastplate. If you fumble that ball, don’t look at me, just head over to the sideline and stay about a good 15 feet way from me for the next two or three plays, because the next guy is already on his way in. (laughs) High and tight, rolling forward until you get out in the open field, then you can swing that thing down tight.
And if Coach Solich ever saw a football photograph of us backs with bad ball-technique -holding it out and away from the body, with daylight showing between the ball and the body- you owed a dozen donuts if he found a picture with bad ball-technique.
Q: What kind of doughnuts did Coach Solich like you to bring?
CN: You know, I think it was just player’s choice. Whatever you got. I don’t think he even ate any. He just left them in the staff room.
Q: He let Coach Darlington and Coach Young eat them, huh?
CN: (laughs) Exactly! And I do it the same way. If you fumble in practice you owe me 20 up-downs right away. And when you get done with that and the ball’s on the ground one more time, the next guy’s automatically going in. I don’t have to say anything. The next guy on the depth chart automatically goes in, whether it’s a game or practice. There ain’t no running back worth two fumbles. So if you fumble twice, just have a seat.
Listening to this direct disciple of Nebraska Running Backs Coach Frank Solich brought me back to a level of focused, white-hot intensity that a person saw in all of the running backs of the day. A unique mix of personalities and dispositions off the field, there was no hemming or hawing on it because these guys were tough as concrete jawbreakers and put the hurt on many a defender looking to score highlight-reel hits. Starting spots were tenuous, carries were precious, and daily competition was fierce. Like Chris said, “There ain’t no running back worth two fumbles.”
The coaching style on the offensive side of the ball was very much a study in styles. Notice how Chris made the distinction between attacking a student/athlete’s actions rather than the person himself? Think about it: these young men were at an institution of higher learning to challenge themselves, to engage, to grow, to expand their horizons and mature both mentally and physically by way of classrooms both indoors and out. Mistakes were expected but soon corrected, and healthy coach/athlete relationships resulted.
I’ve always held highest regard for Tom Osborne’s Nebraska Football program because of the promulgated vision that education was the key -the main gist of the grand student/athlete experience- and that poor player performances were more often to be blamed on the coach (not the student) for failing to properly convey a point and more effectively instruct. Fortunately, poor performances were a rarity during that era, so finger pointing was kept to a minimum.
Notable quote #2:
Chris Norris on discipline and football/life transferability: “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?”
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