Anatomy of an Era: Final Chapter/IN-STATE PLAYERS & THE WALK-ON TRADITION

Categories: Football No Place
Iowa State's No. 14 gets pulled by Nebraska's John Parrella during the second quarter of a November 14, 1992 game against Iowa State at Ames. Nebraska lost 19-10. JAMES R. BURNETT/THE WORLD-HERALD

Excerpted from Chapter 104, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 2 by Paul Koch

Continued….

 

Anatomy of an Era: Final Chapter/IN-STATE PLAYERS & THE WALK-ON TRADITION

 

IN-STATE PLAYERS/THE WALK-ON TRADITION

Anyone familiar with college football has surely heard of the famed Nebraska Walk-on Program. If one were lucky he received a scholarship offer, but for others the road was a more challenging one. Many were up for that challenge.

Nebraska boys were far and few from turning down a chance to wear the scarlet and cream, the block ‘N’, the title of “Blackshirt” or “Pipeline” member. From the oft-incorrect rumor that every county in the state provided a ‘scholarship’ for a player to the many and numerous examples of stars who’d risen from original walk-on obscurity, the institution was on the tongues of fans and broadcasters alike, including visiting staffs as they marveled at the multitude of red jersey’s across the field on the Husker sideline. The In-State players and Walk-on program served a number of crucial purposes.

 

 

For some it was merely the dream of playing a part in the pageantry…

…it was unbelievable running out of the tunnel into Memorial Stadium with 76,000 people and you just heard that roar. (imitates roar) I grew up playing in my backyard on Saturday afternoons when I was a kid and hearing that roar since we only lived three miles from the stadium. – Aaron Davis

…to sum it up: I got to live a dream. Growing up in Omaha, Nebraska watching Nebraska football, never thinking I’d ever have the opportunity to play for the Huskers. It’s gone now, but I really did play for the Huskers. And I went from being a fan to being a player, and now I’m back to being a fan. – Calvin Jones

… the walk-on program was so huge… I was just intrigued how many guys would actually pass up opportunities to go elsewhere just to walk-on there.  – John Reece

 

Damon Schmadeke
Front) Fullbacks Clinton Childs, Jeff Makovicka & Chris Norris. Back) Frank Solich, D. Schmadeke & Chad Stanley

They knew their role, yet always pushed for advancement…

…I just tried to make sure they understood their role on the football team. You’re only gonna have five starters, but everybody else had to play an integral part in preparing for the next game. So they understood their role and that was the big thing that helped them accomplish what they did. – Milt Tenopir

…Matt (Turman) was a good guy. I remember he got hurt, he was just easy to get along with. And you had no expectation when he got here. Undersized kid from a small town in Nebraska. Good athlete. Not a great athlete, but a smart kid. And especially when Brook and Tommie got hurt, that Kansas State game, he really did a great job.               – Jerry Weber

I understood my role. And I’d try to get over there and make a play, and then Will (Shields) would come over and take me out. The point was that I always thought Will was good, but when Will won the Outland Trophy I was like, “Oh, okay, I was going against the best.” It made it all worth my time…   – Phil Ellis

…you’re on scout team and you’re supposed to get your butt handed to you to a certain extent… It’s –I don’t want to say it’s a great experience, because scout team stinks- but for most guys it’s a necessary evil.  – Troy Branch

 

Darren Schmadeke

…you grow up in a town where you’re part of a Husker generation, it’s a way of life there. You lived and breathed football, and when football’s playing the whole state is for you. You grow up wanting to be a part of that, especially when the coaches are calling… Think about it: 100 people came into that school and 18 or 20 of us made it through that. Everyone had their role. When Coach Osborne wrote his book about us every player had their role, their position. My role as an offensive lineman was to keep being motivated and be in the weightroom… We all made each other step up our game, and there were different things we all did to help each other. – Brian Nunns

Of making family, friends and a state proud…

…the Nebraska walk-on program… These kids represented entire towns and worked their way in there, ran through walls for the opportunity to be there… much less play. And just being there man. The joke was, a couple guys had the joke where they’d say, “He’s just happy to have the Converse.” …it was pretty obvious that they probably shouldn’t have been there with their skills and their talents, but they were the hardest workers in practice and they were just happy to have the Converse (shoes). They would wear the shoes to class and people would know they were a football player, you know? And they were proud of it… there were some guys you could tell right away, ‘This guy’s too small and too slow. He doesn’t even have the intangibles so he’s never going to play.’ Yet there they were. Every… single… day.     – Mark Gilman

 

I’d say, ‘Look at the people. Look what it’s done for these people. Look outside yourself and just think about it: This is Nebraska, this is important to the people… at the end of the day we hang our hat on a few things, and one is Nebraska football.’ And I think a lot of the Nebraska guys had the same mentality, just that sense of pride: ‘We’re winning, people feel pretty good about themselves.’ Sometimes you’d have 40,000 people at an away game, like at Kansas one time. 80% of the people were Nebraska people. That was part of the reason we were able to win so many games, that pride factor it brought to the people.   – Matt Vrzal

 

…we would take three or four kids on scholarship and then about twenty-five kids who walked-on …and I’d tell them to continue to work hard, because that’s the way they got to be where they were at, to be a part of the university, that they had to work hard just to be able to have the opportunity to walk-on, just continue to work at it. They’d go home and everybody would know who they were and would encourage them and the whole community was behind them, and it was just a situation that made kids aspire to be a lot better than some of these kids who came in from out-of-state, because of the push that hometown community gave players when they went back and forth from Lincoln to their hometown. – Dan Young

For some it was the following the fantasy and living out a destiny…

…just like a lot of kids who grew up in Nebraska, it was a dream… I decided to go down to the summer camp at Nebraska and made as good of an impression as I could… They liked enough of what they saw and asked me to walk on… I was (recruited), but they were smaller colleges like Wayne State and colleges of that caliber at that time. I recall the coach of Wayne State -I don’t remember his name from that time- he more or less told me that I wouldn’t be playing at Nebraska, and if I came to Wayne State I’d be playing right away. He really didn’t smolder my dream, but instead he kind of threw gas on the fire, I guess. (laughs)… I went to Nebraska to get an education, of course, but it was so intertwined with the fiber of my being that there wasn’t really an ‘out’. I was just going to do it.    – Gerald Armstrong

 

 

It really taught me a lot of things about life: the fact that you never give up. I was on the scout team for two years and that second year it was kind of wearing on me. I had thoughts of quitting the team, but I was the kind of person who could not live with myself if I quit the team, and in my mind that just wasn’t an option.- Darren Schmadeke

Jared Tomich
Jared Tomich

…they were, “Jacques, you’re going to have to sit out a few plays so we can work on your helmet.” And I was like, “I don’t need no helmet!” And so I went out there full-contact, we’re in full pads, and I’m still scoring touchdowns (in practice) with no helmet on… this just goes to show you how serious I took being out there. It’s funny, it could have really gotten torn up out there… But I just loved being out on that field.                – Jacques Allen

So you’re redshirting and getting your butt kicked on scout team and you’re a little homesick, but the bottom line was that you’re playing at arguably the best program in America, so you had to make the best of it and fight through it, and it made you stronger. – Ryan Held

 

 

For others, it was simply an opportunity to serve under Tom Osborne and staff…

(Charlie) pushed them to be better players all the way from the bottom of the depth chart on up. – Bryan Carpenter

…I took (the list) to my Dad and we’re talking, and he looked through it. And I said, ‘I really can’t decide.’ And he said, ”What does your heart say?” And I said, ‘My heart bleeds Nebraska red.’ And he was like, “Alright.” …going back home during the summer I had to try and make enough money to pay for the next year’s tuition.                – David Alderman

Kevin Raemakers, Bobby Bowden & Lance Lundberg

It didn’t make a difference if you were scholarship or walk-on, they just knew that if they worked their butt off hard enough and long enough that they’d eventually get some playing time… And you were working with a lot of numbers, and we’d have 32 or 33 linemen because of the fact that we were in 4 different team work stations every night at practice. And we needed bodies, you know. So our job was to impress the importance to those kids that had to run the scout team against the defense, and they bought into it. And, of course, every opportunity we got, if they had a chance to get in -an opportunity to clean up a game and play a few downs- that was gravy for them. And they lived and died Nebraska football their whole lives, whether they were scholarship or not. They were just tickled to death. And we took care of them, we didn’t put them down or make the starters ride the bus and the other kids walk. They were treated the same and they all knew that we loved them as well as we did the scholarship guys, whether they were starters or non-starters. – Milt Tenopir

It’s unbelievable the people you meet, and Coach Osborne was just a bonus out of all the bonuses. Actually, the Big 8’s and the championships were the bonus, because it was all about being around Coach Osborne and just the legend that he is, just unbelievable…   – Phil Ellis

 

Vershan Jackson
Vershan Jackson

 

They provided bodies for the scout teams and gave the starters all they could handle during the week…

I was recruited heavily by K-State along with other schools around the country… It was set up for me to go to K-State, but Nebraska had contacted me and said they had a good walk-on program, so I passed up a scholarship to K-State to come to Nebraska… You wanted all aspects of our team to be ready for our opponent, and there were times I’d be worried because we tore the defense up all week.”So what’s going to happen when the real team comes in and runs these same plays?”… I always believed in giving a full effort. That’s what I was going to give. It’s funny, because Michael (Booker) was a Blackshirt at the time and I was tearing his ass up all week in practice, (laughs) and they took his Blackshirt from him. (laughs) He was like, “Dude, you need to slow the hell up!” And I was, ‘No, we’ll lose if I do that.’  – Jacques Allen

 


Jacques Allen

It’s not easy, especially for those guys who walk on and never get above the scout team. They really paid a price. They’re getting teed off on. Do you remember Todd Heyne? Geez, that poor dude, he was just getting worked. And he just kept on coming out. God bless him. He had a dream and he stuck with it. That’s Nebraska. – Tom Seiler

Football is a game of repetition and you have to run those plays over and over again to get proficient. And I think that’s where the walk-on program comes in.- Lee Barfknecht

Tony Veland
Tony Veland

…the walk-on program was very fundamental to the success that we had, because other than a McDonald’s All-American type, just about everybody generally knew that first year that they weren’t gonna play. Either you were gonna be redshirting or walking-on, whatever the case may be, and you were gonna use that year to learn about the system and develop your body (as a scout teamer). – Tony Veland

 

 

…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… 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… 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.   – Ben Rutz

The walk-ons provided competition for the top-teamers, inciting and sometimes even shaming them into greater effort…

…on scout team you were playing multiple positions, and our scout team had been kind of picked by Aaron Penland as being one of the best scout teams ever. We challenged the Blackshirts. All bets were off. The Blackshirts back then, it was like they were in gameday any time the scout team was out there. They’d take shots at you, they didn’t let up. They’d try to take your head off if they could. We took pride in that, “We are the group getting this defense ready to play and we need to play 100 miles an hour.” …being on scout team and going against guys that are Blackshirts in that era, you’d either get beat up every day in practice and washed out or you’re gonna step up to the plate and get some courage and heat in you and learn how to fight.  – Vershan Jackson

Gerald Armstrong & Cory Schlesinger

… playing for the scout team against the first team every day, the Blackshirts, they put it to you. Troy Dumas, he hit me so hard one time… I recall that it seemed like it took forever for me to land. I was in the air forever… I was on the scout team for those practices, and I remember us guys saying to each other, “We are going to bust the Blackshirts’ tail each and every day. Because Miami’s not going to give up. And they’re used to this heat and humidity while we aren’t. We have to push the envelope everyday in preparation for that matchup on their field” …I always say I played by the 30/30 rule. If we were ahead by 30 points with 30 seconds left coach would say, “Get in there.”  – Aaron Davis

 

Schmadeke twins and Tom Osborne

…guys like myself and the Makovickas and the guys that come in and just work their tails off to become a starter. I think it’s motivating in itself, because it’s going to drive and challenge those starters and the scholarship athletes, it’s going to push them to perform their best, too. Because when you have these guys fighting for their lives, living and dying and growing up Nebraska football fans, you’re going to have some talented players, and I think we had a lot of talented walk-ons that contributed to that team, gave their all to challenge the scholarship athletes. It made us a better team …those type of guys, those second and third stringers, when you need relief for the starter, man, they’d be ready to go in there and you wouldn’t even know the starter was out, sometimes.    – Damon Schmadeke

It would have to be our team comedian: Jacques Allen. He made guys work when they went against him on scout team. First team defense? He’s gonna make you work. He’s gonna run the plays like it’s a game. To him, it’s work…   – Riley Washington

It’s the walk-on program, I think, is the mainstay of Nebraska football. And whether or not the walk-ons ever see the field, they’re contributing to the ones they’re pushing, the scholarship guys, to do well, because they know if they stumble that walk-on has a heart bigger than his bicep and he’ll step in there.  – David Max

 

 

They provided motivation to more glorified recruits…

You’d get kids in here from the east coast, from the South, from California and Texas, great athletes who worked hard, but they’d never worked that hard. And they’d get here and there’d be some little kid from Mullen, Nebraska trying to kick your ass every day in practice. And they would go, ”Wait a minute, don’t you understand? I’m so-and-so from some place or other.” And those kids would go, “F*&# you! I want your job. I’m gonna make you better!” And they did, because it was for Nebraska. At that time most of the guys were playing for Nebraska, they weren’t playing at Nebraska. This was the ultimate. This was the best. And whatever came after that was the cherry on top of the sundae.   – Jerry Weber

(Bryan Pruitt) was a tough son of a gun, that guy… was a wedgebuster on kickoffs. He had no fear…  – Adam Treu

…a guy who really made the team what it was. Bryan Pruitt on your team is invaluable, because he’s the guy that brings it a thousand miles per hour every day. He’s gonna make you better. He’s the guy you have to have. Here was a core. Those guys who were the walk-ons, the guys who are fighting to get one snap out there? You know, those are the guys who make the team what it is. John Parrella hit on it the other day. He said, ”With those guys, you had to strap it on every day or they’d make you look foolish.”      – Brenden Stai

 

Pruitt, Wilks, Caskey
Pruitt, Wilks & Caskey celebrate victory

Even the walk-ons… the way that those guys come down and the way they approach their business, what it means for them to put on the red and white jersey. I remember seeing guys get Blackshirts for the first time, it’s an emotional thing. It all starts with the in-state people, whether you’re talking about the fans or the in-state walk-on kids. These are people who have an immense amount of love and appreciation for the program, and for some it’s a dream to be able to go down there and be part of that program… You’d never know (Brian Nunns) wasn’t a starter by the way he went about his business. There were a ton of guys like him every single year and they all went about it the same way, and that’s an infectious thing for an out-of-state guy to see the in-state guys and see them going about their business like that, and for a scholarship kid who seems to have the red carpet just laid out, to give anything less would be a sin.   – Jason Peter

One of the reasons I think that we worked as hard as we did was because of so many of the walk-ons that we had and as hard as they would bust their tails, knowing that they weren’t going to get much, if any, playing time in the game. That was a very motivating factor. And you’d sometimes find yourself in practice looking at some of these guys and wondering why they’re pushing themselves as hard as they were. And it really kept you on your toes and made you push yourself even harder…   – Ed Stewart

 

 

…as you go on you learn things from Coach Osborne, some of the intangible things. One of the things was patience. I probably learned that more in my career at Nebraska than anywhere, because we had a walk-on program. And a lot of the kids, you’d think, ‘Gosh, this guy’s not going to play.’ And then as time went on you’d think, ‘This kid’s gonna play some day. He has good work habits.’…I think the tradition at Nebraska was -if you talked to some of the guys who came from out of state who didn’t know a whole lot about it- scholarship guys would see how hard walk-on kids were working to be good and to make the team or they would think, “Man, I better get to work or these guys are gonna beat me out.”  – Charlie McBride

Just as importantly, they served as inspiration to fellow teammates…

I started looking at these guys coming into Nebraska -especially the kids who gave up scholarships to go to Kansas State and Iowa State and Kansas just to walk-on at Nebraska – and I figured, ‘They gave up so much to come out here.’ And it starts to kind of wear on your heart a little bit and I kind of, you know, felt myself feeling like, ‘Hey, there’s something bigger than me here.’            – Doug Colman

 

…I was also a walk-on and had to do some things to stay above water. My college experience wasn’t a big party or anything: it was going to school and playing football, and those are the two things I had time to give 100% toward. For me, I envisioned myself having to give everything I possibly could to make it happen to play football. There were times where I had chemistry lab and would be in class, and instead of eating at the training table I would work out longer and get a sack lunch and eat it at chemistry lab, just so I could feel like I was working out like I should be and get more time in, just doing the extra things on our day off, those kinds of things …I had to always outwork the guys below me. I was always motivated by that, to never let anybody jump over me on the depth chart. I always thought I had to outwork them to keep the next guy from doing that, guys that were a little more athletically gifted and talented. I just tried to do everything I could…. It wasn’t work to me, because I loved every bit of it. I wouldn’t change anything. – Matt Shaw

 

Matt Shaw, Joel Wilks & Aaron Penland
Matt Shaw, Joel Wilks & Aaron Penland

For me, it was just trying to get on the field and make an impact. I was just going to go as hard as I could most times. A lot of times I’d get accused of going too hard at some point, especially on scout team and stuff like that. I’d be accused of being a ‘Practice Squad All–American’, but I was just trying to do my best. Colossians 3:23 says that, “Whatever you do, do it heartily to the Lord.” So I think that whether you’re on the scout team or on the first team or second team, that’s the verse that you can use in all of your life…     – Aaron Penland

Biff: Autograph Day ’94

… Turman paid his dues just like everybody else… Guys would get heated… (Mike) Biff Roberts was like 6 foot and 170 lbs., just a stick. But he was tough! And Biff would come up and try to lay the wood on guys, and he won some battles and he lost some battles. He always brought it. That was for sure, he always brought it. I can remember him. He was a walk-on and I know him and remember him just for that reason… You could make a case that he didn’t belong out there, but he would give it 110%.

– Eric Stokes

I have to make it clear, and crystal clear: this was a Nebraska team. There are no outsiders who make that team what it is. You have two options: you either fall in line with the guys who grew up there and really know what Nebraska football is like or you don’t make it. That’s what I first saw when I came out there, the in-state guys, “This is what the program’s about…”

– Christian Peter

 


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And were glaring examples of the power of persistence…

It just takes hard work and dedication. For you to walk-on at Nebraska or on the scout team over there being who you’re supposed to be, developing us into the people we’re supposed to be playing on Saturday, and all of a sudden it’s two years later and I’m watching Nebraska on TV and they’re starters. I remember one guy I know who honored his assignment and that was Lance. Lance Gray was known to be the wedge-buster. For him to go down on the kickoff and bust a wedge like he would, that’s amazing. Because those guys would literally get up and fall back down dizzy, probably from a concussion.   – Corey Dixon

Eric Stokes

 

Coach McBride calls me and says, “We’d like to bring you out and meet you because we’ve seen some of your film,” and you know how Coach McBride is, “..and we’ll see if there’s something there.” So I fly out, meet coach and everything else and he just says, “If you were to come to school here next year and be a Prop 48 and get your grades up and just work really hard at that? If you walk-on the next year you might make the team.” (laughs) At that point I’m thinking, ‘We don’t have much money to send me to school. At least my folks don’t.’

But we made the decision with the help of my grandma, and they got me into school that first year. And I just kind of started plugging away and was able to work out in the gym with the guys, and that was real cool. But that was it. So after that first year, then I came out and walked-on my second year, made the team and kind of started my career from there...  – Jared Tomich

Without the walk-on program and the profuse, assorted benefits the organization derived from these scrappy boot-strappers with chips on their shoulders, much of the Nebraska program would not have functioned as it did, nor been anywhere near as successful. For all intents and purposes, they were the backbone of the roster, with a soul, a moxie, and a spirit unmatched. In a business where recruiting on a limited number of scholarships is an inexact science, these young men made the misses far less painful and the hits all the more challenged. Gritty, gutty, relentless and persevering, they were a perfect illustration of determined individualism, self-reliance, and a fixed belief in free competition and the promise of tomorrow’s reward.

 

Copyright @ 2013 Thermopylae Press. All Rights Reserved.

Photo Credits : Unknown Original Sources/Updates Welcomed

Author assumes no responsibility for interviewee errors or misstatements of fact.

 

Summary Chapter to be continued…..